Three Vital Musical Concepts

Three easy to understand core musical concepts that will help you evolve from tab-guitarist to full-fledged musician.

Pop-up instructional video to the left.

I started playing guitar by ear and later used tabs. While they are both great ways to learn how to play the guitar, they don’t teach you about what you’re playing. I’ve come up with three core musical concepts that will help you understand music a little more.

These concepts deal with intervals and how music can be interchangable between keys. Don’t worry, its actually quite simple if you know how to count. The basic idea is to boil all 12 keys down to one generic key. This skill can be used to compose and communicate your ideas more effectively without letting keys get in the way.

While these concepts won’t make you a better player overnight, they will make you a better musician over time.

Concept One: the major scale as a foundation

The major scale is the foundation of the common chord notation. We’ll start with a simple C major scale:

C major:
This pattern is easy to move anywhere around the fret board. For example, if you want a D major scale, just move the C major scale up two frets. Being able to transpose the scale to any key is vital.

That was concept one, pretty easy huh?

Concept Two: building chords with a scale

The basis for chord construction is the major scale. Using the major scale you can put together any chord. Anything from simple minor chords to complicated 13b9#11 chords can be understood through this method.

Its easy. You take the intervals of the scale to find the notes that make up a chord. Below is my handy interval guide for C major. Notice that the interval numbering scheme continues on up the scale past the first octave.

For example, let’s say I want to build a plain C minor chord. The intervals that make up a minor chord are the root (or 1st), flatted third, and fifth. For a Cm chord you would use C, Eb, and G for the intervals 1, b3, and 5 (refer to the handy interval guide above).

Below is a list of common chords and their intervals:

  • Major: 1, 3, 5
  • Minor (m): 1, b3, 5
  • Major 7th (maj7): 1, 3, 5, 7
  • Dominant 7th (7): 1, 3, 5, b7
  • Minor 7th (m7): 1, b3, 5, b7
  • Suspended 2nd (sus2): 1, 2, 5
  • Suspended 4th (sus4): 1, 4, 5
  • Sixth (6): 1, 3, 5, 6

What about a more complicated chord? Let’s use the famous “Purple Haze” chord: the dominant 7#9 chord. The intervals would be 1, 3, (5), b7, and #9. After the root and the 3rd (the 5th is commonly left out of more complicated chords) you would start stacking the extensions (7#9). When a lone 7 is shown, the dominant seven or flat seven is implied. The sharp ninth comes in on top. For a C7#9 chord built with the C major scale you would have a C, E, (G), Bb, and D#.

Hopefully that wasn’t too difficult. Just count the numbers and assign the notes.


Just paying the bills:


Concept three: defining chord progressions

Another easy way to improve your music prowess is by thinking about chord progressions in a relative manner instead of an absolute manner.

Lets say we’re in the key of C and our chords are D minor dominant 7th, G major dominant 7th, C major 7th, and A minor dominant 7th.

If you viewed the above progression as an absolute chord progression in the key of C you would see:

  • | Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 | Am7 |

However, if you viewed the above progression as a relative chord progression in the key of C you would see:

  • | IIm7 | V7 | Imaj7 | VIm7 |

For example: the Dm7 is the second interval in the key of C (refer to the handy interval guide) and is signified by the roman numeral II.

Each method results in the same end-product but the relative method enables easy transposition of the chords from one key to another.

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