Understanding Music For Beginner Guitarists
This guide is NOT full of jargon and fancy terms for music.
This is designed for you if you are learning guitar for the first time and would like help on understanding music and the terms associated.
And you would like help and clarity on what it all means.
Getting notes and chords confused? We’ve got you covered.
I hope as you go through this that you will pick up your guitar to go through the exercises to help you pick it all up even faster.
Note: With this guide, you are also going to get our amazing quick reference music theory terms guide. Read to the end of references of these.
Why Understand Music?
What is music?
Music is anything that’s combined together to create it’s own artform, and a great way for you express yourself.
This guide is going to help to understand some of the ingredients that’s used to create music.
Is this related to Music Thoery?
You may have heard of the term “Music Theory”, that’s just terms that people have invented to explain music and the general principles and guides in music.
Why is it useful to understand music?
It’s kind of like when you go to make a pizza. If you don’t know what the ingredients are to make a pizza, and you don’t have the recipe. It becomes hard to do it from scratch. You would be stabbing in the dark.
Now if someone gave you the base, and a few options for the toppings and how to cook it. Then you can start creating your own pizza.
If you understand the actual ingredients, then you can create more than just pizza, but calzones, and even doughnuts with the same ingredients!
How is it going to help me?
With music, once you understand the foundations and what you can do with it. You can do way more things with music than before.
1) Be able to be original, and not a copy cat when it comes to playing music.
2) Create your own original music
3) Be able to use your instruments fully rather than just "paint by numbers"
4. Be able to express yourself
5) Feel like a musician and be able to be creative
6) Being able to play and communicate with other musicians
Can’t I just download chords and tab and play them without understand what’s going on?
And of course you can do that. This is what happens for 90% of musicians.
You can play a lot of very popular songs and sound great without understanding what’s really going on.
But as you improve on guitar or any other instrument, you may find yourself trapped.
When you lack knowledge in some key areas, it makes it difficult to put your own stamp on the music you play.
With many students when we first meet them, are both frustrated and bored of copying and repeating the same things. Without being able to expand on anything.
If you ever want to play with other people too. It’s a great idea to have understanding of music, because it becomes a musical language you can use to communicate with other musicians.
Often students come to us with confusion about certain terms or are missing understanding on things that make it much more difficult to understand more complex music theory too. So we are going to go through some main foundations of music that will help you.
The components of music are all linked together.
They all work together interlinked with each other, so let’s start with the most simple component – Notes.
You may hear a lot of people confuse learning “notes” with learning ”chords” on the guitar.
A note is a singular pitch.
If you sing out loud one pitch and don’t change it. That’s a “note” that you are singing.
On the guitar, if you pick one string only for on one fret, you will be playing one note.
So how many notes are there?
There are almost infinite notes because notes are refined by the pitch of a sound. In musical terms, we like to name them using letters. A to G to help us identify them.
Notes On A Fretboard Of The Guitar
Between A-G, there are notes in between the letters as well.
Here are all the notes in order and what you can call them. Don’t worry about the notes in between yet.
Sorry if it's a little small on mobile, but the note order is:
F | F#/G♭| G | G#/A♭| A | A#/B♭
| B | C | C#/D♭| D | D#/E♭| E | F
The reason why I’ve started on F is because for your first and sixth string on the guitar. When you press your finger down on the first fret, that’s F.
Try counting up the frets to find the notes:
F, G, A, B, C, D, E
on the first and sixth string on the guitar*.
*The first and sixth string is the top and bottom string on your guitar.
Notes With No Strings Pressed Down on Guitar
If you play the string “open”, with no fingers on any frets. Then you get a “E” note.
This is what you use to tune your guitar with a tuner.
Can you work out what the other notes are on the other frets of strings 2, 3, 4, 5 given the names of each strings? *
Download our full guide for a copy of an empty fretboard diagram and one with the answer.
Tip: Use the same order of letters and gaps in between from previous page and repeat for the other string but start on the name of the string.
Reading Notes in Music
When you read guitar music, you will either be reading tablature or score.
This is how each note is shown in both occasion:
For score, the notes are shown on each line, which tells you what notes are but not where to play them.
With tab, the fret number and lines help tell you which specific note to play.
Finding Notes in Music on Your Fretboard
If you see a A note on score or in passing. It can be played in multiple different places on the guitar's fretboard.
Try finding all the As on the guitar and playing them!
This is why guitarists use tab for music most of the time because it’s easy for them to understand where exactly they have to play each note on the guitar.
Octaves and Notes
When you tried playing all the different A notes, can you tell some are higher than others?
When you get a higher or lower A to each other. That’s called an Octave.
On guitar, even the same pitch A note gives a slightly different sounding A note tonally.
Try playing your different A notes again on the guitar, and this time try to listen to the difference between each A note and see which are an octave away from each other.
Will you tell me what ♭♮♯ mean?
♭♮♯are called "accidentals" on score music.
♯ is pronounced “Sharp” and it means one note higher than before.
♭is pronounced “flat” and it means one note lower than before.
♮means “Neutral” and the note goes back to what it was before.
G♯ = A ♭ which is the fret in between G and A.
You will notice that some notes don’t have a fret in between them:
Between B and C and also E and F.
If you ever see B♯, it just means C.
And if you see F♭, it means……?
What about semi-tones, tones, intervals,
These are all different ways of measuring the distance between two notes. And Note function is more special because it’s used to measure specific relation.
What do we do with these Notes now?
Notes is used for nearly everything in music. They are like the letters used in languages. Used in phrases, sentences, paragraphs.
But a lot easier because there’s only 13 notes instead of 26 letters! It’s just a new language that we are learning.
Using these 13 notes, we can create music with it.
Knowing your notes on the fretboard is going to make the whole process of learning to play guitar a lot easier.
Melody ties nicely into notes because:
A melody is a sequence of notes that is pleasing to the ear.
If you sing out loud going from one note to another, creates a melody.
On the guitar, if you play a sequence of notes that sound pleasing to the ear, you’ve just played a melody.
What makes a great melody?
This is really down to the listener, as your ear develops, you may appreciate different melodies than you do now. While there are principles that can work as guides, there are always exceptions for melodies.
Can I play any notes to create a melody?
Technically, yes you can. But it may not sound very appealing.
There are specific notes you can use to help.
Certain notes following each other make melodies sound more attractive and create a sense of entity.
Rhythm is also very important when it comes to creating melodies.
When you first start playing guitar, the main focus is chords and melodies are often either provided separately by a singer or a lead guitar player.
Playing through fingerpicking songs and some other genres, you will find a melody being played at the same time as the rhythm part, which is pretty cool!
As we go through this article, I’m going to try and explain the fundamentals in as linear order as possible.
Because we are working through paper rather than with your instrument in person. But there will be little references jumping back and forth a little.
What’s a scale?
A scale is a collection of notes
Why are these useful?
People always want to learn more scales but what do they mean for music?
Besides scales being a good dexterity exercise when you play through. Scales are used as the basis of understanding music.
Understanding how you scales are created, you can then use it to understand the fretboard, how to build chords, where the notes in melodies come from. So even if you aren’t interested in playing “lead”, it’s still important to understand.
How do scales work on guitar?
We are going to focus on the most common scales here.
A standard scale has 7 notes, and includes one of each letter.
Remember the A, B, C, D, E, F, G?
That’s where we will start from.
What's in a scale?
C Major Scale
You have the naming note of a scale, which is also called the tonic note. (Some people call this the "root" note)
In this case, the tonic note is C.
The main two types of scales are major and minor.
And the most popular scales have 7 notes in. – Great news is that there are 7 letters available for you to use!
Major or Minor
Major Scale on Guitar
Building a major scale. All Major scales follow this specific pattern.
On mobile, you might find it easier to see these diagrams on landscape view
Next thing we do is number the position of each note in relation to the scale.
We like doing this with C Major Scale first, because all the numbers land on the letters without any accidentals.
So the notes in a C Major scale is:
C D E F G A B C
No matter where you play the scale on the guitar, no matter what note you start on, every major scale follows the same pattern of tones and semi tones.
Try doing it yourself, start on any note on the guitar, and see if you can follow the same pattern to play a scale along a single string.
If it’s confusing, go back to C major scale and follow the fretboard diagram to find the right notes.
Major scales are also known as “happy” scale, because it sounds cheery as you play through it.
Minor Scale on Guitar
A minor scale is built differently because the distances between each note is different.
Numbering the positions, the 3rd, 6th and 7th note is “flattened”.
The notes in a C Minor scale is then:
C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C
Now try playing through the minor scale starting at any note, following this pattern.
You might notice that when you play through a minor scale, it sounds sad.
The other common minor scale you will see is A major scale:
A B C D E F G
This is because the A minor scale is in an easy positions to play, and uses all the letters without any accidentals too.
Playing through all the scales, you can see why it’s important to know your notes on the neck.
Nearly all songs have melodies and chords.
What is a chord?
A chord is two or more notes played at the same time.
There are lots of names of different chords, and a lot of different versions of the same chord because you can have same notes on different places on instruments.
What is a chord progression?
Chord Progressions is a series of chords played one after another. They often repeat throughout a song.
Can I put any notes together to make a chord?
Kind of – but like melodies, it might not sound very good. So let’s start with the basic foundation of chords first and go from there. J
The most popular chord you will come across is chord with 3 notes consisting of the 1st, 3rd and 5th Note.
Using your knowledge of a major scale, we can build some chords!
5th Note of Chord
3rd Note of Chord
Naming Note of Chord
Remember how we named each position of the scale with a number? This comes in really handy now.
To build your first chord, C major. We are going to use the 1st, 3rd and 5th note starting from C: C, E, G.
The most important note is the root note – which is C for this chord. And like scales, the main type of chords are major and minor.
But when I play a C chord, I play through 6 strings? Why is there only 3 notes in a chord?
That’s true, but have you ever worked out what you are playing on the 6 strings?
Go through each string and figure out what the notes you are playing are.
What’s the next chord in this scale? If we start from D, and take the 1st note as D, and the 3rd and 5th note in relation to D (which is the 2nd, 4th and 6th note on the scale), we get D, F, A.
Notice how the 3rd note is in a different relationship to the root note: D.
This 3rd note is “flattened”. And it is 3 frets away from the root note.
This creates a “minor” chord. And starting from D, we have D minor chord.
Comparing Major and Minor Chords
We call the two different relationship between the root note and the 3rd as either “Major 3rd” or a “Minor 3rd”. And this is the main thing that distinguishes between a major chord and minor chord.
Eg. C major chord = C E G
Whereas C Minor chord would have a flattened 3rd, so it becomes:
C, E♭, G.
All 7 chords built on the C Major Scale
This is the start of writing chord progressions.
When you know what type of chords are used, major or minor. You can write songs based on those chords.
Using any major scale, the chords always come out in this order:
Type of Chord
All chords built on the same scale are called diatonic chords.
In music, we like to write to write the chord numbers in Roman Numerals.
Major - Capital Letters
Minor – lowercase letters
The Most Common Chord Progression
Now that you can see where chords come from, just like melodies, you can randomly pick chords to play one after another, they may not sound great at random.
Let’s look at what some of the most common chord progressions are.
I V vi IV
Sounds like this:
Used by thousands of songwriters, it creates a hopeful, cheery sounding song.
80% of top pop songs only use 4 chords that repeats throughout. Let’s see what popular songs use exactly this chord progression.
Songs that use Chord Progression: I V vi IV
Girls Like You
When I come around
Don’t stop believe
Hey Soul Sister
It’s all about you
Letter to Elise
Walks Like Rihanna
Under the bridge
Red Hot Chilli Peppers
For more songs, go to downloadable to get the more songs with this common chord progress.
This means that you technically only need to learn 4 chords and you can play an endless amount of songs!
It’s the melody, the rhythm, timing, instruments that makes each song unique.
Second Most Common Chord Progression:
Vi IV I V
The other common progression is:
Vi IV I V
Which uses exactly the same chords, but the feeling it creates is slightly more sad.
This is because of the relationship between each chord changes to create a different feeling.
It’s interesting how the relationship of different notes make a chord sound different. And the relationship between chords make music sound different too.
Perfect, so all I have to do is learn 4 chords?
Fortunately there’s a lot more to playing guitar than learning 4 chords! Otherwise it would be quite boring and you would be done in a week.
In lessons with us, you will understand how to best use these chords to create your own music. And understand why the relationships have an impact on the feeling you get from the song.
On top of that, it’s the execution of these chords, and the confidence in playing them. And the creative flare you provide, that makes the song unique to you and your guitar playing. (Even if you did just play those 4 chords. ) That’s the type of things we can really help you with in person.
Of course, there is so much more you can learn for your guitar playing besides playing 4 chords really well. Which makes learning guitar really fun! And a wonderful journey to embark on.
Major & Minor
What does major and minor mean?
Major and Minor is a way of describing happier and sad sounding music components.
The reason why something sounds happy and sad is because of relationships of the notes away from each other.
So far, we’ve explored major and minor chords & scales.
Let’s do a little bit of ear training to see if you can recognise if something is major or minor!
What type of scales are there?
Can you tell by listening to the following scales if they are major or minor? (Does it sound happy or sad?)
Answers at right at the bottom of this guide. So no cheating.
What type of chords are there?
Can you tell by listening to the following chords if they are major or minor? (Does it sound happy or sad?)
Again, answers are at the bottom if you need to check.
How did you find it? This exercise can be really hard or really easy for you depending on your level of ear training. And it's definitely something you can improve at.
This "feeling" you get some major and minor chords and scales carry over into the Key of music.
Let's have a look at this in the next chapter.
What’s a key?
A collection of chords built from a scale.
When people talk about a “key” of a song. This is the naming note of the scales, and chords used in the song.
A song in the key of C Major:
Has the notes from C Major Scale in it – and these notes can be used for the melody.
And the chords used in the song come from the chords built from those notes. As discussed earlier in the chord progressions.
The Key of C Major
Where C is the tonic note and C Major is tonic chord.
Notes in a C Major Scale
You can work out what the notes are from starting at C and following the tone and semi tone relationship.
Chords in C Major
Following the pattern for major scale:
Major – Minor – Minor – Major – Major – Minor - Diminished
The Key of C Minor
Where C is the tonic note and C minor is tonic chord.
Notes in a C Minor Scale
You can work out what the notes are from starting at C and following the tone and semi tone relationship.
Chords in C Minor
Following the pattern for minor scale:
Minor – Diminished - Major – Minor – Minor – Major - Major
You can see here how the notes relate to the chords from the previous chapters. And how the key is made up altogether.
Applying Different Chord Progression
to Different Keys
Thinking about the I V vi IV progression before. We can move the chord progression in different keys:
If you play a song that has the chord progression: C, G, Am, F,
You know it’s the same relationship as chord progression: D, A, B, G
This is called transposing, when you move all the notes/chords to a different key but keep the same relationships. The feeling you get from the song is the same!
Understanding keys and chord progressions:
A lot of guitar players don’t understand about keys and chord progressions because it’s not necessary. On a lot of guitar tab or chord sheets.
The chords are there and it’s not easy to see how they are linked together.
Once you understand, it can open options for you in personalizing songs, writing leads, trying different chords, being creative with your own songs.
If you are with other musicians and they request for you to transpose a song to a different key, you can do that too!
Go to the bonus tips section for a full list of notes and chords in each key.
A placement of sounds in time with music.
Rhythmic patterns tends to follow the beats of a song.
Beats is like when you tap your foot along to a song and is liked to the pulse of the song.
If you had nothing else going on in a song, no melody, no chords. Having interesting rhythm is something you can still express a lot of emotion and have a lot of fun with!
And without rhythm, a note – is a pitch and is not music. Even a chord by itself with no rhythm is just a chord. This is why rhythm is so important.
The two things that create rhythm is the presence of a sound and the absence of one.
These sounds can be created by notes or chords played on your guitar, or even using your guitar as a percussion instrument.
Different duration of notes
And when there are no notes and chords being played. That’s a rest.
Different duration of rests
There’s a complete system for rhythms to make it easy to read for musicians and guitar players.
This is also why for if your piece of music has lots of different rhythm in, instead of a straight-forward strumming pattern. It’s much easier to read the score music than tab or chord sheet.
Different Durations of Sounds/Notes & Rests
Through score notation, you can see the duration of each sound/note and also rests last for. These are some of the common notations:
In 4/4 Time
How do all the different notes and rest durations relate to each other?
Scroll across to see table on mobile:
Duration of Note
1 x 1
2 x 1/2
4 x 1/4
8 x 1/8
1/8 notes and 1/16 notes are written like this to save space:
How do we group these rhythms symbols?
Bars are what we use to organise beats, notes and rests.
90% of popular songs has 4 beats in a bar and each beat is ¼ note: Q
This is called
The top 4 is the number of beats and the bottom is the duration of each beat.
¼ = ♩
So 4 x ♩ = 1 bar
Here is 4 bars as an example of how all the durations of beats and rests fits together:
Count of beats in a bar:
Each bar adds up to 4 beats.
The third line is the duration length of each symbol. I’ve represented rests in brackets ( ) so you can see clearly.
When you count out loud, you would say:
1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4
Try counting out 1 louder when you first start
How does this apply to guitar?
This might seem scary, and rhythms can get even more complex.
When you first learning the guitar, the most important things you need to focus on is what this means for your strumming patterns.
You may see this type of strumming pattern written out:
The top line shows this to be 4 beats in 1 bar
If we wrote this rhythm out in score, it would be:
A muted percussion sound/note is shown with X at the bottom of the symbol.
What does it mean?
The symbols represent whether your hand is strumming up or down, or if it’s a muted strum. If it’s blank, then there is no strumming.
= Down Strum
= Up Strum
= Muted Strum
Tip: In most popular guitar music, a chord is held for the whole bar and a 4 chord progression repeats through 4 bars.
A few more rhythm keywords to mention:
A few other things that are related rhythm I will quickly mention includes:
How fast the music is going
Normally you count this as the number of beats per minute.
The most popular songs are often around 80-110 BPM.
How you make the note sound.
The note could be played louder, or softer, so making it sound shorter and pointy or having a note held for longer.
In a 4 bar beat bar as we’ve been going through, the first and third beat are commonly played louder than the other beats.
This all still seems very confusing...
Rhythms can seem very confusing, and it’s one of the things that a lot of guitar players ask us for help with.
Especially when it’s not applied to music that you are working on.
In lessons, we would be able to show you how this all applies to your favourite music, and you understand it and is able to use it.
We will help you not only know all the facts, but actually be able to apply it to music so you can become a great guitar player.
Any questions, contact us on 02031434809 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org today if you want to ask how we can help you in our lessons.
Oh wait! You’ve still got bonus tips in the chapter below waiting for you!
Bonus Tips For You
Well done for getting this far!
I tried to make everything as easy to understand as possible. But if there is anything that is confusing or you think could have been explained easier. Drop us an email:
email@example.com so we can help you. J
In this bonus section, you can download the following:
Fretboard Diagram – important for learning your notes
All notes in all keys – useful reference guide for melody writing
All chords in all keys – useful in chord writing and working out keys of songs.
Fuller list of songs built on the idea of the most common chord progression: I V VI vi
I've also got the answers to Ear Training exercises from earlier.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this article/workbook. It took some time to put together, so if you appreciate it, share it with anyone you know that you think would benefit from it!
This content is too difficult to upload online and will be much easier for you to access to help your musical understanding for your guitar playing as a beginner:
Click on the link below to download this whole guide which includes your bonus content. 🙂
If you choose to download the guide, you may get other guitar learning email advice from us in the future. 🙂 To opt out, just unsubscribe from the email you get from us.
Oh I nearly forgot!
The answers to your ear training exercise from Chapter 6 - major and minor.
Scroll down to find them:
What type of scales are there? - Answers
What type of chords are there? - Answers
at Guitar Tuition East London
Handmade and crafted by me 🙂
I hope you've enjoyed this guide
“Understanding Music for beginner guitar players.”
Any questions, contact us on 02031434809 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org today if you want to ask how we can help you in guitar lessons at our school. J