top of page

Music Composition 101 - Intro to Theory and Notation

Theory is the backbone to all music so it helps to start with a firm foundation.

If you want to be a successful composer or musician in general it is highly beneficial to have a tight grasp on music theory. A college degree is not required, however being able to understand the basic terms and concepts will elevate your musical language and allow you to be taken more seriously.

Music theory developed as a way for musicians to communicate with one another. It has gone through many changes and adaptations throughout history to get us where we are today. It is the same as how written language became a way for people to share stories outside of their immediate circles. If everyone was able to agree on different symbols and associate them with different pitches, then you could hand the same piece of sheet music to players in Australia and Zimbabwe and they both would be able to read it. Ultimately, that is what happened over the centuries until we arrived at the current system.

Before we get into the deeper concepts of music theory, let's take a look at the basics of how everything fits together and why these ideas are important.


The amazing thing about music is that it can all be filtered down to just 12 different units. These units are referred to as "notes." All of music is rooted in these 12 fundamental tones.

From a scientific standpoint, notes are specific frequencies of sound waves that we arbitrarily assign to letter names. The reason that there are only 12 is because as you continue to increase or decrease the frequencies, you will eventually reach a multiple of where you started giving you the same note. The only difference is you will now be in a different octave. We will get more into octaves, frequencies and overtones at a later time.

Notes can sometimes be amphibious depending on how they are used in the context of the piece. So to avoid confusion, some notes have 2 possible names. Generally, when moving up a note is called by its sharp (#) name and going down its called by its flat (♭) name.

The notes to choose from are A - A#/B♭- B - C - C#/D♭- D , D#/E♭, E , F , F#/G♭, G, G#/A♭. This is illustrated below:

(Scale starting on C showing alternate note symbols)

Staff (or Staves for plural)

The notes are then arranged on what is essentially a graph for easy visualizing. It is a set of 5 lines known as a "staff." You can see the staff in the above photo. Staves are moveable depending on the range of the instrument so, in order to differentiate between the general range of the instruments, the staff is marked with a "clef."


A clef sits at the beginning of the staff to show the musician what range of the instrument they will be using. Generally, instruments play within one clef, however depending on the difficulty of the music, several clefs may be used throughout the duration of the piece.

Clefs are used as a way to optimize the visual layout of an instrument's range. If all of the instruments played on the same clef, picture how difficult it would be to read. Just think of a tuba and a piccolo! Therefore, the clef and staff are moved to accommodate the specific instrument for easier reading.

For an analogy, imagine if all of the runners at a track meet had to run the race starting at the same place. The person on the inside would have a significant advantage because they are running less distance. The person on the outside would be running several times farther. So to compensate, the starting lines for runners are staggered and movable. It is the same idea when applied to clefs. You move the staff closer to the instruments starting and ending point so they can do less work visually.

The same note (middle C) shown in different clefs


The notes are then divided into small segments called "measures" or "bars". These are determined by the time signature. Measures are a way to divide the music visually based on the beat of the piece. Often, a song is divided into 4-beat measures, however you can also have 2,3,4,5,6,7,9, or 12.

To avoid having an entire melody or song written out with no breaks, we chop it up into small, digestible segments. Not only is it easier to read, it makes for a convenient way to unify musicians during a rehearsal. You can say, "let's all start at measure 45."

Four measures, or bars

Rhythms and note lengths

You can now chop the music down even further to individual beats. If you have 4 beats per measure, there is a lot you can do in that space. You can essentially keep chopping the beat up into smaller and smaller pieces. However, the common note lengths are whole (1), 1/2 note, 1/4 note, 1/8 note, 1/16 note, and 1/32 note.

What this means is, for every 1 of your measures there is up to 32 micro beats possible. Depending on how you choose to chop those up determines your rhythm for the music.

1 measure broken up into different amounts of beats

Scales and Key

Now that you know there are 12 notes to choose from, the next step would be to decide what key you want to be in. The "key" is the chosen arrangement of notes in a piece which is determined by the "scale."

A scale is a smaller 8-note arrangement of the 12 notes you can choose. Think of a crayon box with 12 crayons in it. You are only allowed to use 8 at a time. You have:

Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Purple Pink Brown Black Grey Teal Magenta

For the first project you pick:

Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Purple Pink Brown

Let's call that Color Pack 1

Then you pick:

Black Grey Teal Magenta Red Orange Yellow Green

Color Pack 2

And for your third project you pick:

Red Yellow Blue Pink Brown Black Teal Magenta

Color Pack 3

We can continue this way until we have exhausted all possible combinations ot the colors. It works the same way with notes (we'll call them "Note Packs"). We can keep using different sets of 8 notes until all of the options have been exhausted.

Over time, humans have come to decide that particular "Note Packs" are more pleasing to the ear than others. This will vary depending on where you live in the world, however in North America, we generally like major and minor scales. Though these are very common, these are just 2 of the multiple "Note Packs" we can make.

Here is a visual of a C major scale and below it, the minor version. Notice how a few of the notes are changed. Even though the notes don't exist in the first scale, they are still options to pull from in our "box of notes." By changing the notes in your "Note Pack," you are changing the scale.

C Major and Minor scale. Note alternates are highlighted

Once we have decided which "Note Pack" or scale we want to use, we can indicate that on our music with a "key signature." This is a collection of symbols at the beginning of a piece to tell your musician what scale you are using. It tells you which of the notes to sharp or flat to create the desired scale.

Some examples of key signatures

To put it all together...

Here is what a typical piece of music will start with. Shown below is the clef, time signature, and key signature, with the notes all written on a staff.

Knowing what all of these symbols represent mean that you are one step closer towards being fluent in music theory. Identifying these symbols and their usage will help you become a better musician as well as more easily communicate with the players and singers performing your work.

All the best,

To learn more about theory and composition be sure to check out some of my other blogs.

New to music composition and want a quick intro? Be sure to read this beginner's article.

If you are stuck and need help with starting your melody, click here.



bottom of page