40 basic music theory terms you need to know

Word perfect.
Word perfect. (Image credit: PhotoAlto/REX/Shutterstock)

Learning music theory but finding yourself befuddled by all the technical terms involved? Our glossary has you covered, busting every bit of chord- and scale-related jargon from 'ascending' to 'unison'.

Rising in pitch, or going up the piano keyboard from left to right.

A short sequence of notes or chords at the end of a musical phrase.

More than two notes played at the same time.

Circle of fifths
A diagram charting the relationship between the 12 notes/keys in the chromatic scale.

Falling in pitch, or going down the piano keyboard from right to left.

Diminished fifth
An interval of a perfect fifth flattened by one semitone - eg, C-Gb or A-Eb.

The fifth note of a scale, an interval of a perfect fifth above the tonic. Also, a chord built on this fifth note.

Extended chords contain extra notes added from further up the keyboard. A major ninth chord, for instance, contains root, third, fifth, seventh and ninth.

Determines that a note should be one semitone lower in pitch.

Harmonic interval
Notes of different pitches played together at the same time, as opposed to one after the other.

A tune that complements a melody when played at the same time. Also refers to the relationship between a series of chords.

The difference between two note pitches. Intervals are named according to the number of letter names they span, eg from C to D is a second, C to F is a fourth, etc.

The order of notes in a chord is changed. A first inversion would see the root shifted up an octaveto the top of a chord.

The scale on which a piece of music is based. The key takes its name from the tonic, or first note of this scale.

Major scale
The most common scale in Western music. A series of eight notes with a set pattern of intervals: 2-2-1-2-2-2-1.

Major second
An interval of two semitones between two different notes. For example, C to D is a major second interval.

Major seventh
The interval between the root note and the seventh note (or 'degree') of a major scale. Equivalent to 11 semitones.

Major sixth
An interval of nine semitones between two different notes. C to A, for example.

Major third
An interval of four semitones between two different notes. Examples include C to E, G to B, D to F#.

Melodic interval
When two notes of different pitches are played one after the other - in other words, atwo-note melody.

A sequence of notes played one after the other to produce a tune.

Minor scale
The sad-sounding sequence of notes you get when you play a major scale from the sixth note upwards.

Minor second
An interval of one semitone between two notes. For example, C to Db is a minor second interval.

Minor third
An interval of three semitones between two different notes. For example, C to Eb is a minor third interval, as is G to Bb.

Minor seventh
The interval between the root note and the flattened seventh note (or 'degree') of a major scale. Equivalent to ten semitones.

Minor sixth
An interval of eight semitones between two different notes. For example, C to Ab is a minor sixth interval.

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

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

The lowest note of a chord or scale. C is the root note of a C major chord and of the C major scale.

Rootless voicing
When an extended chord is played with the root note missing. Used a lot in jazz and gospel music.

A sequence of notes going up or down the keyboard with a particular pattern of intervals between them.

Secondary dominant
The name given to a chord based on the fifth, or dominant, note of any key or scale other than the tonic key.

The smallest interval in a chromatic scale, or the distance between any two notes on the piano keyboard.

A four-note chord formed by adding the seventh note of the scale to a triad that already contains a root, third and fifth.

Raised in pitch by one semitone.

Short for 'whole tone', an interval of two semitones.

The first note, or 'root' note, of a scale.

To shift a piece of music, note or chord up or down in pitch by a certain number of semitones.

A chord made up of three notes. A major triad contains a root, a major third and a perfect fifth.

An interval that's not an interval - in other words, the interval of zero semitones, the same note played twice.

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