Notes on Fundamentals of Music Theory (1)


Last December (2019), I received an email about a survey from Coursera. After filling it out, I was given the chance to take a course from Coursera for free. The options were limited to entry level lessons from a variety of fields, from which I picked The Fundamentals of Music Theory offered by The University of Edinburgh.

Notes for Week 1

Musical Notes

  • Early in the history, there was not a universal form for representing musical notes, nor was there audio recorder, so keeping record of a piece of melody became problematic, especially when the aim was to pass it on. The stave (staff) with musical notes was hence eventually formed to represent melodies in a standardized way.

  • The lines on a stave are called ledger lines.

  • There are seven alphabetical note names in ascending (⬆️) order:

    • A (La)
    • B (Ti)
    • C (Do)
    • D (Re)
    • E (Mi)
    • F (Fa)
    • G (So)
  • Notes on a keyboard (commonly piano):

  • When necessary, additional line segments can be used to supplement (extend the range of) ledger lines so as to mark higher (lower) notes.

  • The four ascending (⬆️) notes that fall prespectively in the four spaces in the standard 5-line stave are F-A-C-E, “face”.

  • Middle C: the lower C with one ledger line segment below the stave, normally at the middle (center) of a keyboard:


  • The inteval between two alphabetically adjacent musical notes is called a second.

    • Similarly, there are third, fourth, fifth, up to seventh.
  • When the interval reaches 8, it becomes an octave

Tones and Semitones

(Refer to a keyboard)

  • Tone: the distance of a second that has a black key in the middle
  • Semitone: the distance of a second that does not have a black key in the middle
    • There are only two sets of semitones: between B and C, and between E and F


  • Diatonic mode: natual octave scales
    • “When the pattern of tones and semitones is different, the scale sounds different - formally it has a different quality.”
  • The seven diatonic modes
    • C Ionian (same as C major): TTSTTTS
    • D Dorian: TSTTTST
    • E Phrygian: STTTSTT
    • F Lydian: TTTSTTS
    • G Mixolydian: TTSTTST
    • A Aeolian (same as A natural minor): TSTTSTT
    • B Locrian
  • “Music doesn’t always start on its tonic, but it often finishes on it, … should feel like home.”

The C Major Scale

  • C is the tonic
  • Diatonic scale: a scale that has a pattern of 2 semitones and 5 tones within an octave
  • Some C major songs:
    • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
    • Frere Jacques (Brother John or Are You Sleeping)
    • Mary Had a Little Lamb


  • A chord: Music notes played simultaneously to harmonize melody

  • Triad (chords): a three-note chord consisting of 2 thirds

    • Represented as three notes stacked
  • C major triad is the tonic of the C major scale.

  • A minor triad is the tonic of the A minor scale.

  • Perfect fifth: a fifth containing 7 semitones (a tone is counted as two semitones)

  • Major third: a third containing 4 semitones

  • Minor third: a third containing 3 semitones

  • A perfect fifth is:

    • A major chord if starting with a major third
    • A minor chord if starting with a minor third
  • 7 natural triads: 3 major chords, 3 minor chords, and a diminished chord

    • Cmaj, Fmaj, and Gmaj
    • Dmin, Emin, and Amin
    • Bdim (diminished, as having an imperfect fifth)

The 3 primary chords

  • Tonic triad: triad built on the tonic (starting note) of a scale
  • Subdominant triad: triad built on the fourth note of a scale
  • Dominant triad: triad built on the fifth note of a scale
    • For C major scale: Cmaj is the tonic triad, Fmaj is the subdominant triad, and Gmaj is the dominant triad respectively
  • Harmonization using natural (primary) triad chords


  1. Reading materials from the course
  2. Example of stave