Not a theory buff?  Forget what a particular term meant?  A self-taught musician who doesn't know music theory from a hole in the wall?  That's okay!

Truthfully, you probably know a lot more about theory than you think you do.  Music Theory is not math, as many teachers sometimes suggest (unless you're talking about set theory or other post-tonal studies) but more akin to grammar.  It's a set of rules that generally govern and/or explain how music functions, seeing as it functions like any other language, with patterns and restrictions.  I realized this in my first semester of sophomore theory, having been taught to never double the thirds in a chord and then analyzing a Mozart piano piece littered with doubled thirds.  I felt the same way in my senior AP English Lit class, when we read Wuthering Heights* and I realized that Emily Bronte broke every single rule of constructing a sentence I'd ever learned -- and I adored it.   

I'll break down some of these terms so that they're more accessible to anyone who wishes to access them.

We'll break things down into four areas: harmony, rhythm, and melody (the three basic elements of music) with the fourth area being general terms.

*unrelated, but Wuthering Heights is still one of my favorite books of all time, and the song of the same name by Kate Bush can be used to teach changing meter.  <--- nerd alert!!

Harmonic Terms

  • Triad: a chord composed of three notes.  The four most common types of triad chords are major, minor, diminished and augmented.  This page from Rice University gives a pretty decent explanation of how triads are built.  
  • Roman Numeral Chord Symbols: refer to the chord that corresponds to the scale degree.  In a diatonic major scale, the scale degree-based chord breakdown looks like this: I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii(dim)-I.  For a more fully explained breakdown, look here.   
  • Chord Progression: the pattern of chords that tend to repeat in a song.  In popular music, chord progressions tend to be a little bit more repetitive, and they can range from the most simplistic to much more complicated.  The Roman Numeral "Toolkit", as my grad school theory teacher referred to it, can be used to describe a chord progression.  For example, an extremely basic and often cited chord progression is found my favorite song to play on ukulele -- The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" -- with the progression notated as I-V-IV-I-V-I (although I play it as I-V-Vdom7-IV-I-V-I).
  • Cadencethe harmonic movement between two chords indicating the end of a phrase.  Most cadences follow the pattern of V-I or IV-I, especially in popular music, but of course, not all.  (On a related note: do we think that voice-leading matters at all in popular music analysis?  I don't really think it does.)
  • Modulationa fancy word for changing keys, or using new notes to sing/play a melody that has already been played.  Think Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer".  Different types of modulations are explained in a theory-heavy but easy to use chart found here (thanks UTEP!).
  • Modes:  essentially, modes describe the form that a scale takes.  A vast majority of Western music is composed in Ionian Mode, which describes a typical diatonic scale.  Think of an Ionian Mode scale as "do re mi fa sol la ti do".  As mentioned, most Western music operates in Ionian Mode and the harmonic functions thereof.  However, in this blog, you'll find investigation of popular songs that do not operate in Ionian Mode.  
    • Dorian Mode begins on the second scale degree; "re mi fa so la ti do re".
    • Phrygian Mode begins on the third scale degree; "mi fa sol la ti do re mi".
    • Lydian Mode begins on the fourth scale degree; "fa sol la ti do re mi fa".
    • Mixolydian Mode begins on the fifth scale degree; "sol la ti do re mi fa sol".
    • Aeolian Mode (aka natural minor) begins on the sixth scale degree; "la ti do re mi fa sol la"
    • Locrian Mode begins on the seventh scale degree; "ti do re mi fa sol la ti".

Rhythmic Terms

  • Meterwhat dictates the rhythmic feel of a piece of music.  Meter is the indication of how many beats are in a measure, how the beats in a measure can be grouped, and how the beats can be subdivided.  This is also related to time signatures.  Meters referenced here are divided into several categories:
    • Symmetrical meter refers to meters in which the number of beats in a measure can be divided into two symmetrical parts (time signatures include 4/4, 2/4, 6/8).
    • Asymmetrical meter refers to meters in which the number of beats cannot be divided equally in half (incl. 3/4, 5/4, 7/8 time).
    • Simple meter refers to meters in which a single beat can be divided into two subdivisions (incl. 4/4, 3/4, 5/4 time).
    • Compound meter refers to meters in which a single beat can be divided into three or more subdivisions (incl. 6/8, 7/8, 5/8 time).
  • Cross-rhythm (aka poly-rhythm): a rhythmic figure that finds itself at odds with the previously indicated meter; e.g. a triplet (compound) eighth note figure in a symmetrical simple meter.
  • Changing meterany instance in which the meter or even simply the time signature, better known as the grouping of beats, changes, either once (e.g. Blondie's "Heart of Glass") or consistently (e.g. Neko Case's "Middle Cyclone").  

Melodic Terms

  • Intervalthe space between two different pitches.  The smallest interval is a minor second and the largest interval (within a scale) is an octave, although you could go further than that.  To first determine the number behind an interval, count how many notes the second note is away from the first note (make sure your count includes the first note).  Interval qualities are most often referred to as major, minor, or perfect.  To determine what an interval is just from hearing it, you have to train your ear.
  • Tritone: an interval that is intended to challenge the ear.  Sandwiched between a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth, the tritone was once considered the "Devil's Interval".  Now, you can hear it as the opening interval in the theme song for The Simpsons.
  • Tessitura: the general range of the majority of the notes in a piece or melodic section.  Example: in Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U", the minor seventh on the second repetition of "no-thing" in the chorus is generally outside of the tessitura of the rest of the song, forcing O'Connor to use her head voice and making the interval stand out.  

General Terms

  • Genre: a type of music.  Songs within a genre are typically connected to each other because of musical stylistic traits, instrumentation, and/or historical period.