Exploring Music's Complexities

Music Theory Defined

Music Theory

Music Theory provides a practical  discipline to study the methods and concepts used to create music.

Uses of the Term

The Oxford Companion to Music describes three interrelated uses of the term. The first is the “rudiments”, that are needed to understand music notation (key signatures, time signatures, and rhythmic notation); the second is learning scholars’ views on music from antiquity to the present; the third is a sub-topic musicology that seeks to define processes and general principles in music.

As would be expected the field contains a large number of terms of which most individuals recognize   Below are samples of such terms.

Music Theory Terms

Ascending – Going up the keyboard from left to right to raise the pitch

Cadence – A short sequence of notes or chords placed at the end of a musical phrase

Chord – more than two notes played at the same time

  Descending – Going down the keyboard from right to left to lower the pitch

Dominant – The fifth note of a scale or a chord built on the fifth note

 Extended Chords – Chords are termed extended when they have extra notes added from further up the keyboard

 Flat – The note is to be one semitone lower in pitch

Harmonic internal – Notes of different pitches played simultaneously

Inversion – The difference between two note pitches

 Key – The scale used to create the piece of music.  The key takes its name from the first note of this scale

 Major scale – Eight notes with a set pattern of intervals:  2-2-1-2-2-2-1

Mode – A type of scale built by starting another scale from a note other than its root

Octave – An interval of 12 semitones, at which the two notes have the same quality, just one higher and one lower

 Root – The lowest note of a chord or scale

 Rootless chord – an extended chord played with the root note missing Frequently used in jazz and gospel music

Triad – A chord consisting of three notes

Unison – An interval that is not an interval


Most musicologists work as instructors, lecturers or professors in colleges, universities or conservatories. The job market for tenure track professor positions is very competitive. Entry-level applicants must hold a completed PhD or the equivalent degree and applicants to more senior professor positions must have a strong record of publishing in peer-reviewed journals








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