Music theory & sheet music cheat sheet

09.03.2022 Ben Maloney Sheet music

Every musician grapples with theory at some point. If you want to come to terms with how music works, it can’t be avoided. It reveals the very building blocks of music, and teaches us to communicate about it effectively. 

And that’s precisely why engaging with music theory should never seem a chore. It’s something that helps us to understand the thing we love. And understanding leads not only to proficiency, but also to a place where we can appreciate the beauty of music on a whole new level.

More than just tedious, theory has an intimidating reputation for complexity. But, again, this obscures the reality. This status stems in no small part from the persistent difficulty of finding resources that comprehensively cover the basics, which explore that info in a way that’s as detailed as it is accessible. 

Sure, there are books, and sometimes you will need a hefty tome to get your head around some of the more complicated theoretical concepts, but those kinds of texts aren’t very approachable - or portable. Questions and curiosities can arise at any time, after all, and you want to be prepared to respond to them. 

What musicians really need is something that will answer all the basic questions, quickly and reliably, anywhere and anytime, until those answers can be committed to memory.

Enter the cheat sheet.

Music theory cheat sheet poster


From the major scale to the minor 11th, presenting all the theoretical basics that you, the budding musician, need to know. Carefully curated, clearly demonstrated, and explained in - just the right amount of - detail. Downloadable, transportable and ready to assist at your convenience.

That’s the cheat sheet’s offering in a nutshell. It draws out and compiles many of the most fundamental concepts in Western classical music theory, and does its level best to make them as easy to understand as possible. 

Whether you’re learning scales or key signatures, whether you want to understand how chords are constructed or how intervals are labelled, whether you’re in need of help with revision for a theory exam or simply looking to understand music and notation in more depth, the cheat sheet will be there to help you.  

Click here to open and download it for free.
 

How to use the music theory cheat sheet


It’s great to have a general read, so you can get a first - or a fresh - dose of these musical concepts. Familiarise yourself with elementary principles such as clefs, accidentals, note values, and so on. 

Then, consult it as and when you need to. Do questions often come to you when you’re practising? Perhaps it’ll answer them. Are you learning the modes for homework? Study them here and try to memorise them, before covering the sheet up and writing them out somewhere else. Pin it on the wall and treat it as a reference. 

Whatever works best for you - it’s there to serve. Let it enhance your unique learning process and musicianship. But If you find that at times it doesn’t quite succeed at enhancing, that’s probably because you could do with the theory in question being explained in more detail. 

In that case, don’t hesitate to take the enquiry elsewhere, finding some of the countless helpful music theory videos that are on YouTube, for example. There’s a whole community of musicians out there working tirelessly to help other musicians like you understand these ideas.

You might also be confused by the use of terms on the cheat sheet that haven’t been properly explored. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued, confusions can usually be traced back to issues of language. This is why the glossary has been included below, defining theoretical terms both within and without the cheat sheet.

Glossary
 

  • Bar - A duration equivalent to the length of the beat grouping indicated by the time signature, demarcated by two bar lines. Also known as a ‘measure’.
  • Cadences - A conclusion to a musical phrase, usually consisting of two consecutive chords or harmonies.
  • Chord - A group of notes that sound simultaneously.
  • Chorus - Usually the most emphasised, energetic and memorable part of a song, which features the same lyrics in each repetition.  
  • Chromaticism - The use of tones that don’t feature in the key signature, or in the key of a piece at a given moment. 
  • Counterpoint - A musical texture featuring multiple lines or voices that are melodically and rhythmically independent, but relate harmonically.
  • Diatonic - Using only notes that appear in the key signature - or in the key that the music is in at a given moment.
  • Dynamics - The volume or intensity that music is or should be played with.
  • Form - The structure of a piece or a performance, as shaped by the arrangement and development of material. 
  • Harmony - The relationship between tones that sound simultaneously and the musical effect that they generate.
  • Key - The pitches, making up a major or a minor scale, that form the basis of a piece of music.
  • Key signature - A set of sharp, flat or natural symbols that indicate the key.
  • Melody - A succession of notes that creates the sense of a continuing line of music.
  • Metre - The recurring pattern of strong and weak beats in a piece of music, effectively dictated by the time signature.
  • Modulation - A passage of music that transitions from one key to another.
  • Motif - A brief musical gesture that is often a distinguishing feature of a piece of music.
  • Nonharmonic tone - A note that isn’t found in the chord or harmony that sounds around it. Sometimes referred to as a ‘dissonance’.
  • Ornamentation - An embellishing note or phrase added to a passage of music as a kind of gestural flourish
  • Ostinato - A continuously repeating rhythmic or melodic figure. 
  • Pedal note - A sustained or repeating note, around which other notes sound, at least one of which is dissonant. 
  • Pitch - The perceived frequency of a tone, which can be heard as higher or lower than other tones.
  • Phrase - An instance of musical material that is a relatively complete statement in its own right.
  • Rhythm - How long notes last, relative to one another and to the metre of a piece of music.
  • Semitone - The distance that separates any two neighbouring notes.
  • Sequence - A device for the elaboration of musical material, by which a motif or melodic gesture is restated at a higher or lower pitch.
  • Solfège - The method of naming the notes of a scale using syllables. In some countries, these syllables also give notes their fixed names.
  • Tempo - The real-time speed at which the music should be played, usually measured in beats per minute.
  • Texture - The vertical relationship between the constituent voices, lines, or layers of a passage or piece of music.
  • Timbre - The sound quality or colour of a musical tone.
  • Tonality - The set of relationships between notes, chords and keys that centres on the tonic.
  • Transposition - The movement of a series of notes up or down in pitch by the same interval.
  • Triad - A chord comprising three notes stacked in thirds.
  • Verse - The repeating section of a song that prepares and contrasts with the chorus. Musical material remains constant with each repetition while lyrics change.
  • Whole tone - A gap of two semitones between pitches.

Download the music theory cheat sheet


Don’t keep coming here to look at it. Download it. It’s yours - for keeps. The whole idea is that it’s your companion, right there with you when you need it most. Whether that’s in the classroom, while you’re practising your instrument, while you’re listening to your favourite tunes, or when you’re in the middle of a test, though you didn’t read that here.

You can even upload it to your nkoda account, so it’s always at hand. (If you’re unsure how, find out how to upload files here.) 

It can often feel as though you need to memorise all this theory, and be able to recall any and all information on cue. It’s a nifty trick but in truth it isn’t necessary. All that matters is that you have a grasp of these concepts, that they help you to comprehend music in a way that works for you, and that they support you in pursuit of your musical goals.

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