Music Theory Basics For Beginner Guitarist

Getting started with learning music theory as a beginner is life-changing. It is like learning a new language. Learning music theory takes time, but it is really rewarding and satisfying once you grasp a hold of how music works.

What Is Music Theory

Music theory is the study of music as a language. It is a practice and study of music language that musicians use to understand and communicate musical ideas.

Think of it like this, if you wish to study the English Language, you first need to understand alphabets, then grammar, build vocabulary and then sentences. Once you get a good hold of all of this, you can read, write and speak English fluently.

The same goes for music.

Think of music theory as the fundamental building block of music. You study the alphabets(notes of music), grammar(elements of music, intervals, modes etc.), vocabulary(chords, scales etc.)  and then you make sentences(phrasing music).

Once you get a grasp of all these, you have a better understanding of music, and you can also fluently communicate music.

Why Learn Music theory?

Learning music theory will help you understand and communicate music a lot better. Learning music theory offers several advantages like:

  1. Understand how music works and eventually improve your playing.
  2. Improve your ability to compose and write better music.
  3. Easily communicate your ideas with other musicians.
  4. Better analyse the work of other composers.
  5. Develop your own style.
  6. Music theory makes you more creative and helps you better express your creative ideas.
  7. Speeds up your music learning.


How Much Music Theory Do You Need To Know?

If you are a beginner, I highly recommend you at least study and understand the basics of music theory. Music theory is not essential to become an effective musician, but it helps in learning, communicating and better understanding music.

“ You do not have to know music theory to be an effective musician. Your ability to be an effective musician depends on how deep you go in your creative ideas and your imagination, and how much courage you have in expressing them with no excuses. But having said that, I probably think it is a very good idea to at least know the basics of music theory.”

~Steve Vai, Guitarist, Three-Time Grammy Award Winner


Steps To Learn Music Theory For Beginners

Elements Of Music

Music generally consists of the following elements

  1. Sounds: Different frequencies that constitute music.
  2. Melody: The main tune of a piece of music.
  3. Rhythm: A regular repeated pattern of sound or movement.
  4. Harmony: A pleasing combination of musical notes.
  5. Texture: The density (thickness or thinness) of layers of sounds.
  6. Structure: The sections or movements of a musical piece.
  7. Expressions: Expressions are the variations (dynamics, tempo, articulation) or changes that add to the feel of the music.

In music theory, we are concerned with studying and understanding these elements of music.

Notes In Western Music

Western music uses 12 notes – C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, plus five flats and equivalent sharps in between, which are: C sharp or D flat, D sharp/E flat, F sharp/G flat, G sharp/A flat and A sharp/B flat. Flats and Sharps are the same note, just named differently depending on what key signature is being used.

 Note Symbol Note Name
C# or Db C Sharp or D Flat
D# or Eb D Sharp or E Flat
F# or Gb F Sharp or G Flat
G# or Ab G Sharp or A Flat
A# or Bb A Sharp or B Flat


To make it easy to remember music notes, let us relate how these notes are laid on a piano.

Notes On A Piano

Piano Notes and Octaves explained - Image

Natural notes, i.e. C, D, E, F, G, A, B, are represented by white keys on a piano.

Sharps and Flats

The Sharps(#)/Flats(b)) i.e. C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, A#/Bb, are represented by black keys on a piano.

Sharps and flats are two groups of notes that differ from natural ones (C, D, E, F, G, A and B). They appear as suffixes to natural notes.

A sharp is one half-step above a natural note and a flat is one-half step below. Both the notes are the same but called sharps or flats according to the key.

There are exceptions to this rule, though. B to C and E to F have no sharp/flat in between.


If you look at a piano, there are 88 keys, but only 12 notes. These 12 musical notes keep on repeating, forming octaves. An octave is the distance between one pitch and another with half or double its frequency.

If you move to the left from middle-C on a piano, the pitch of the notes decreases. If you move to the right of middle-C on a piano, the pitch of the notes increases.

So if you play the first C(C1) on the piano and you also play the second C(C2), you are playing an octave.

In total, there are 7 Octaves on a piano. The octave range of the guitar is nearly four octaves.

With each octave, the frequency/pitch doubles as you keep moving up.

Octaves are denoted by numbers alongside the note name(C1, C2, C3, C4..)

 Note Reference Name Octave Number Frequency(Hz)
C1 Pedal C 1 32.70320
C2 Deep C 2 65.40639
C3 C3 or Small Octave 3 130.8128
C4 Middle C 4 261.6256
C5 Tenor C 5 523.2511
C6 Soprano C 6 1046.502
C7 Double High C 7 2093.005
C8 Eighth Octave 8 4186.009


Now that you know the notes in western music, let's understand how these notes are related to a guitar.

Notes On The Guitar Neck

In a 6-String Guitar, each string is tuned to a specific note that is picked from the 12 notes of western music.

To tune a guitar to standard tuning, we are concerned only with notes E, A, D, G, B

If you notice, there are a total of 6 strings, yet we are concerned with just 5 notes. Why is that? Well, I will answer that in just a bit. Before that, let us understand how notes are related to guitar strings.

  • 6th String is tuned to the note E (i.e. is the thickest string on the 6-string guitar)
  • 5th String is tuned to the note A
  • 4th String is tuned to the note D
  • 3rd String is tuned to the note G
  • 2nd String is tuned to the note B
  • 1st String is Tuned to the note E (i.e. is the thinnest string on the 6-string guitar)
Guitar Standard tuning Notes With Octave Numbers Image

    Why there are two E strings?

    If you look carefully, the 6th string and the 1st strings. Both are tuned to note E.

    This is because the note E on the 6th string is two octaves lower than the note E on the 1st string. To get a better understanding, look at the piano keys image below.

    Guitar Standard tuning Notes - image

    The note E on the 6th string is the same as the E note on the second octave of a piano. This note is represented as E2 (E-represents the note, 2-represents the octave)

    The note E on the 1st string is the same as the note E on the fourth octave of a piano. This note is represented as E4.

    So E4 is two octaves higher than E2, or you can also say E2 is two octaves lower than E4.

    If you add octaves next to the notes, the open string notes on a guitar in standard guitar tuning becomes

     String Number Open String Note Octave Number Standard Tuning
    6th String E 2 E2
    5th String A 3 A3
    4th String D 3 D3
    3rd String G 3 G3
    2nd String B 3 B3
    1st String E 4 E4

      So if you have a tuner that shows octave numbers next to the note, now you know the note and number to which you tune your guitar strings.

      Whole Step — Half Step

      If we increment one fret ahead on a guitar, it is called a half-step or halftone. If we increment 2 frets on a guitar, it is called a whole-step or whole-tone.

      Once we know the open string notes, we can derive all the notes on each string by moving in steps.

      Notes on 6th String Of A Guitar

      The open 6th string in standard tuning is tuned to note E. If we move half step ahead, i.e. one fret, the note becomes F. Another half step the note becomes, F#. The same pattern continues till the 12th fret. At the 12th fret 6th string, the note becomes E again, an octave higher than the open E on 6th string.

      After the 12th fret, the notes repeat but are an octave higher.


       notes on 6th string of guitar - fretboard image

      Notes On 1st String Of A Guitar

      Note names on the 1st string of the guitar in standard tuning are the same as notes on the 6th string of the guitar. The difference is that the 1st string notes are two octaves higher.

      notes on 1st string of guitar fretboard image

      Notes On 5th String Of A Guitar

      notes on 5th string guitar neck

      Notes On 4th String Of A Guitar

      notes on 4th string guitar neck

      Notes On 3rd String Of A Guitar

      notes on 3rd string guitar fretboard image

      Notes On 2nd String Of A Guitar

      Notes on 2nd string guitar neck fretboard image

      Octaves On A Guitar

      On a normal scale guitar, there are a total of 4 Octaves.

      Unlike the piano, where you can move up and down the pitch only horizontally. On a guitar, you can move up and down the pitch horizontally, vertically as well as diagonally.

      Octaves On A Guitar

      Intervals in Music

      A thorough understanding of intervals is most important in studying all types of music. Intervals are the building blocks of music. Intervals form all scales, chords/harmonies, and melodies etc.

      If you understand intervals, understanding music will become a lot easier.

      Definition of Intervals In Music

      Interval is the distance in pitch between two tones. There are twelve intervals in the space of an octave.

      Interval Name Unison m2 M2 m3 M3 P4 A4/d5 P5 m6 M6 m7 M7 P8
      1/2 steps 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12


      If you start from a particular note and play another note. The distance between these two notes is referred to as a particular interval.

      Intervals can be played together/simultaneously, or one after the other. When Intervals are played together, they are called harmonic intervals.

      When Intervals are played sequentially or one after another, they are called melodic intervals.

      Intervals In Music

      Characteristics Of Intervals

      Each interval has a vastly different sound characteristic. Interval must be committed to the memory, aurally and visually.

      Based loosely on a scale of consonance(same sounding) and dissonance(different sounding), there are two broad categories of intervals:

      • Perfect Intervals: Perfect intervals tend to sound more consonant/in agreement with each other. Unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves (along with the corresponding compound intervals) are perfect intervals.
      • Imperfect Intervals: Imperfect intervals tend to sound dissonant/fighting with each other. All of the remaining interval sizes tend to sound less consonant. Seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths (along with the corresponding compound intervals) are imperfect intervals.

      Music Intervals Charachteristics and Emotional Relevance

      Benefits Of Learning Intervals In Music

      Learning intervals as a musician is a must. Here are some advantages and reasons, as to why you should learn intervals :

      1. Building Blocks Of Music — All polyphonic music concepts can be broken down into intervals. Everything will seem related once you start breaking down music concepts into intervals.
      2. Ear Training — Intervals can be used to develop your ears and ear train.
      3. Transcribing — By learning intervals, you will easily be able to break down music and transcribe by ear.

      Scale Degree

      The notes of the major scale can also be identified by number, according to their place in the scale. Their location in the scale is called their scale degree. For example, D is the second note of the C major scale, and is called the “second scale degree,” “scale degree 2,” "II" or just “2.”

      Triads in Music

      A triad, as the name implies, is a type of chord made up of three unique pitch classes. A triad consists of Unison, Third and Fifth intervals.

      Not all three-note chords are triads, however. For a chord to be a triad, the pitches contained therein must combine to create specific intervals.

      As with intervals, triads come in different qualities/characteristics. Triads may be major, minor, diminished, or augmented.

      To determine the quality of a triad, one must consider the characteristics of the intervals contained therein.

      Triad Quality Interval Between Root and Third Interval Between Third and Fifth Interval Between Root and Fifth
      major M3 m3 P5
      minor m3 M3 P5
      diminished m3 m3 d5
      augmented M3 M3 A5


      Most beginner easy guitar chords are triads.

      Ear Training

      Ear training is a practice that is done to remember and easily recall intervals by listening to their characteristics. Using intervals and triads as basis and foundation, one can practise ear training. 

      Ear training takes time and should be done regularly.

      Watch the video to understand how to Ear Train.

      To start ear training, start with practising and recognising Octaves. After that remember Thirds and Fifths. Once you have mastered these intervals, practice all remaining intervals.

      Here are some ear training exercises.

      Ear Training Exercise 1

      Ear Training Exercise 1

      Ear Training Exercise 2

      Ear Training Exercise 2

      Ear Training Exercise 3

      Ear Training Exercise 3

      Ear Training Exercise 4

      Ear Training Exercise 4 Page 1
      Ear Training Exercise 4 Page 2
      Ear Training Exercise 4 Page 3

      What Next

      This lesson is the basic foundation of music theory for a beginner guitar player. In upcoming lessons, we will use the same concepts to derive chords, scales and melodies. So make sure you grasp the concept of intervals and ear train.


      Previous Lesson Next Lesson

      Beginner Guitar Lessons


      • udeeksh sood

        Hey Jon!
        Thanks for your feedback. I will update these. Just figuring out how to do the changes in guitar pro.
        Thanks for pointing it out.

      • jon

        Fix your guitar notation in the ear training part. The notes should all be written an octave higher. Someone already pointed this out last November, you’ve still not fixed it.

      • Kingsize

        I’m so excited about this teaching, it has helped me handle a present challenge.

      • Udeeksh Sood

        Hey Mark!
        Thanks for the input. I am actually using guitar pro to make notations. I will try to do the change. Hope guitar pro have the feature.

      • Mark Newstetter

        Interesting. Why are you not using guitar clef for your notation? Guitar music is never written in standard treble clef pitch but in ‘octave (guitar) clef’ … Middle C (C4) on guitar notation should be in the 3rd space up, and the low E (open E) is below the 3rd leger line under the staff. You’ll be doing your students a favor if you correct this.

      Leave a comment

      Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

      This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

      Udeeksh Sood Image

      Written By

      Udeeksh Sood on

      Udeeksh is an Audio Engineer. He loves to produce music, research music gear, play guitar, go on treks and road trips.