School of The Rock


Learn Basic Music Theory               

Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô


You would be surprised how many people who can make a guitar do anything but recite the Gettysburg address can’t write songs because they don’t understand the basic building blocks that all musicians use when they do so.  Or who get a deer-in-the-headlights look when someone tells them to take a song they’re used to playing in D down to C, or worse yet, says, “Go to E minor and follow the circle of fifths back around to C.”

Learning piano helps with this a little, but it’s no guarantee that you understand why the chords and the scales in that beautiful sonata go together the way they do.

And when it comes to songwriting, there is no replacement for knowing the basic building blocks of music.  Yes, a number of bands have come to prominence simply because their ignorance allowed them to stumble on some goofy chord progression or something that no one else has ever tried.  But then their next song sounds just the same, and their next song sounds just the same, and so on.   

This is one area where we’ve made a “dent.”  Our site includes number of easy-to-follow articles.  We hope to revisit them to provide more examples and illustrations, but they should get you started.

Other helpful free resource include:

We also provide links to other helpful resources as we come across them. 

On a personal note, I took a year of music (including theory) in my freshman year of college, back in 1970-71.  At the time, the music program at Wright State University was brand new, and all of the teachers felt that they had to be “dead serious” about “real music’ to earn their accreditation.  The jazz enthusiasts and ensembles were marginalized.  Pop and rock was ignored as not even being music. 

I was interested in pop music styles, and almost nothing I was being taught seemed to relate to what I wanted to know.  (Try asking a Theory 101 prof in 1971 why the chord progression that starts “Fire and Rain” works, even if it goes against everything your Riemenschneider text “stands for.”)  Eventually I changed majors, which was probably as good for the music department as it was for me.  I kept being a musician, though, going through a number of bands and ensembles in various genres, and eventually writing up many complex piano and even orchestral arrangements. 

A couple of years ago, I found my old music theory text and went to the back chapters - the ones our class never got to - to see if I had missed anything important way back when.  I learned that everything I had taught myself about arranging piano parts, etc., lined up exactly with the book’s content, even the chapters I hadn’t studied yet.  Not that I was a genius, but starting off “right” had given me an intrinsic understanding of the way music “works” that I never would have gotten on my own.

As in other area of my musical avocation, I know many folks who are far more talented than I whose music could go much farther if they would take the time to internalize those principles.  Yes, many of them already have better careers than I’ll ever have, but why not take every advantage?  The sad part is how many of them don’t know what they don’t know. 

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,



Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

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