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Rock Music Theory for Beginners

This is the beginning of a series that I hope to keep going, that is, where a lot of popular rock tunes come from and how they get their sound.

I'm not going into explicit music theory and I'm making the level of this "education" somewhere between "can play music and understand chords" to "want to figure out the chord progression in a Rolling Stones song".

Here's the reason I'm posting this series. I've played music since I was a kid. However, I only started playing in a rock cover band since 2009. In the past, if I had to learn songs for my previous playing, I had to go out and buy sheet music or songbooks. Nowadays, in the thick of the Internets, you can obviously find a lot of the music, either free or on paysites, or find other shortcuts such as tab sites or other resources. But as I played more rock covers, it became easier to figure out which chords go where in what song. I later discovered what I thought was difficult to figure out was a lot easier the more I listened.

I still download pages from tab sites and get sheet music from pay sites like or tools like Riffstation, but if I can figure out these on my own cheaper and faster, the better.

First things first. Hopefully y'all know what scales are and have a basic knowledge of chords. So that is, there's the typical C scale:


Ya know, "do-re-mi-fa...."?

Your C chord is playing C, E, G together, an F chord is F, A, and C, and G is G-B-D. Okay so far. Lost yet?

Well, take a simple popular tune, like Happy Birthday (hopefully no lawyers are present) and the chord "progression" is based on a simple pattern. It can be done in any key of course, but for simplicity we'll use the Key of C. Chords are above the lyric:


Happy Birthday to you,


happy birthday to you,


happy birthday dear <InsertNamehere>, happy birthday to you.

Easy, huh?

That's a good part of popular music, not just rock music, through the ages. Your basic 3-chord song is, in the key of C, a C chord, an F chord, and a G chord. Or if you played it in any key, the "main" chord or tonic is the first note of the scale, the other two chords are a "fourth" (the fourth note of the scale) and a "fifth" (the fifth note of the scale).

So if you played Happy Birthday in the key of E, you'd get:


Happy Birthday to you,


happy birthday to you,


happy birthday dear <InsertNamehere>, happy birthday to you.

Easy peasy, eh?

The other common naming of these chords is also by number, the tonic or main chord is (roman numeral) "I", the fourth is "IV" and the fifth is "V" of course. To jump ahead a little bit, the fifth is usually played a the straight chord of with the minor seventh note (of the fifth) added in. That is, a G or G7 by the specific chord or V or V7.

In the key of E, of course, "I" would be E, "IV" is A, and "V" is B. (V7 is the B7 chord...)

I will be mostly trying to use I, IV, V, and other notations, like "iv" for Minor Sixth, "iii" for minor third and so on.

This is just a quick simplification. If we do (ONE MORE TIME) the Happy Birthday example, it becomes, in ANY key:


Happy Birthday to you,


happy birthday to you,


happy birthday dear <InsertNamehere>, happy birthday to you.

Still easy?

We'll go into some REAL tunes and explain them. For now, just think of Bill Haley and The Comet's "Rock Around the Clock" and you can probably "hear" the I-IV-V progression.

More later!

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