Most of the Music Theory You’ll Ever Need to Know!

The title of this post might be a little grandiose, but it’s (somewhat) true. Last post, I made reference to a cheat sheet that I had dreamed up for yall and I neglected to explain how to use it!

What a jerk I am.

So, I thought I’d clue you in about how to use this nifty resource. The cheat sheet consists of three different sections: Keys, Chords and Chord Construction.



Click to Biggify

The columns of this section correspond to different notes of the scale, the rows correspond to different keys. All the black boxes represents notes that sound good in that key. So, if you’ve got a song in the key of D, you find D in the leftmost column and you check that row to see what notes will go well together. This series of notes that sound good together is called a scale.

F#? Yes. A#? Hell no. Pretty nifty, right?

Of course, you can do the opposite, as I’ve done in the last post, and figure out what key a melodic phrase is in by finding what key contains those notes. I like to do this when I just have a few notes in an idea.

Example: I hum a simple melody into my iPhone while in the car, let’s say A, G and F#. When I get home, I see which key contains those notes. Turns out it’s a few. From there I can get ideas about which key to use and which chords to use and, finally, where to put my Grammy when I write my next song for Travis Tritt (just kidding [the cheat sheet can’t give interior decorating advice]).

BONUS POINTS: Pick a row and play the notes corresponding to the black boxes, left to right. Make sure to start on the box/note that corresponds to the key. So, if you’re playing the notes of the D row, start with D (duh?). Now, play the same notes, but start 2 black boxes to the left. In the key of D, start with B. You should get a B minor scale. Thank me later.


Click to Biggify

As go the notes, so go the chords. Every key has a set of chords that goes with it whose roots correspond with the notes of the chords. A root is the note that a chord is named after and, usually, is the lowest note in the chord (D major’s root is, you guessed it, D [you’re so smart, I should tell you that more]).

The root is the easy part. The hard part is knowing whether each chord is a major or a minor chord or a diminished chord. The chart includes not only the root notes, but also whether each chord is a Major (M, Green), Minor (m, Red) or Diminished (dim, Blue). It should be said that, in a pinch, a minor chord can take the place of a diminished chord. We’re learning so much!

Chord Construction

Click to Biggify

Now, you know what notes and chords to use with each key, but how on God’s green earth do you make a C# minor chord in Ableton?

No problemo, compadre.

The EZ Chord Construction area of the cheat sheet shows you how to make the three major chord types: Major, Minor and Diminished. Each row corresponds to the rows of Ableton’s piano roll. Now, all you have to do, is find the right root and then do a little counting. How to count will be covered in a different cheat sheet.

And if you are interested in learning more about music theory, why not sign up for the Ableton Cookbook Live Course? There’s a module just about music theory and its application in Ableton Live!

I hope that this comes in handy! Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions.

13 Responses to “Most of the Music Theory You’ll Ever Need to Know!”

  1. Maykit January 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    The title should read “Most of the major scales you’ll ever need to know”.

    • Anthony January 18, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

      What other scales are you curious about?

  2. Josh Spoon January 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    I’m confused about the chord chart I don’t see how it’s telling me to make chords, especially the EZ part. Maybe I’ll understand if you do a video. No pressure 😉

    • Anthony January 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

      Chords are just intervals. So, basically, if you put red blocks on Ableton’s piano roll at these intervals, it will make the indicated chords. Much easier than memorizing the notes for every chord, IMHO.

  3. Harry January 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    What about the modes minor/major? How to tell them from this cheat sheet.

    • Anthony January 18, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

      Just edited to include the modes. Start any scale on the indicated number and it will be different mode.

      Ionian is major and Aeolian is minor.

      • Alan January 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

        So for example, if I want to write in A minor, according to the chart i’ll have to “pseudo-write” in F# major, so i’ll have to look at the chords in the key of F# right?

        Isn’t this called the relative minor?

        • Anthony January 19, 2012 at 12:59 am #

          Sort of! All minor keys are the relative minor of a major key. So, for example, “A” minor is the relative minor to “C.” This is because “A” is the sixth note of the “C” scale (C D E F G A). Therefore, if you want to write a song in A minor, you use the same chords, etc., as you would in C major.

          • justin February 23, 2012 at 2:12 am #

            i’m new to all of this, so please excuse my question if its phrased incorrectly, but it would be helpful if the left column on the key and chord charts also indicated the relative minors, so that i could work out what the correct harmonic chords for all the minor scales were…is this possible?

            brilliant work though…great ‘site, great videos, very clear!

  4. Ronan Fox January 21, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    hey mate, just want to say i love you tutorials, just after getting to grips with the cheatsheet, looking forward to the video where you make chords for the accapella,

    • Anthony January 24, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

      It’s coming up next!

  5. kc August 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    This is quite old. But I stumbled across your site and your tutorials are great. Most of because you got an entertaining writing. So it doesn’t get boring that fast.
    Well I came across a failure I guess or I dont get the systematic behind your chord table.
    If I pic a Fmaj Chord in the scale of C for exsample, then the notes would be F A C. But in your Excel table the lowest note of the chord would be an C in a Fmaj chord. This would be an inversion. For those who don’t get the music theorty I think it more confusing than helping.

  6. Razzlesnaz November 14, 2012 at 3:07 am #

    Way awesome. Thank you,Thank you, Thank you. So easy to follow. This looks like one of the new modes from ableton lives new Push controller. I use excel all the time to know what my notes are in a scale “I ii iii IV V vi vii” . This article is exactly what this music theory noob needed.

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