The Ultimate Guide to Grade 1 Music Theory is a free guide that we've put together to help you pass your music theory exam.
It's also available as a PDF if you want a copy to print out or have available offline. It's £7 and you can read more and download it here.
A few things to mention before we get started:
It's written to be read in order from the beginning to the end but feel free to jump around as you need
It's best read on a laptop as the images are coming up quite small on mobile at the moment but will try and get that fixed asap
Our Grade 1 Worksheets are designed to be used alongside this guide so we'd recommend working through them at the same time
If you have any questions you can contact us and we'll be happy to help. Anyway, let's get to it.
10. Key Signatures
13. Tonic Triads
16. Performance Directions (coming soon)
1. Notes and Note Values
Note Names and Values
When playing music we have to tell musicians how long a note should last for. We do this by using different notes. There are four types that we’ll look at now.
Semibreve (Whole Note)
The first note is called a semibreve or in the US they’d call it a ‘whole note’.
It’s like a small oval shaped zero or letter O which is a good way to think of it when you first begin writing music. This part of the note is called the note head.
A semibreve has a value of four beats. That means when we play a semibreve we count to four whilst holding the note.
Minim (Half Note)
The second note is called a minim or ‘half note’. It’s similar to a semibreve but has a line coming out of the right-hand side of the note head. This line is called a stem.
The stem halves the value of the note and so a minim has a value of two beats. That means that we count to two when playing a minim.
Crotchet (Quarter Note)
Next, we have a crotchet or ‘quarter note'.
It’s almost like a minim but, it has its note head filled in. This halves the value of the note again and so a crotchet has a value of one beat.
Quaver (Eighth Note)
This note is a quaver or ‘eighth note.’
It's like a crotchet but, it also has a tail coming out of the side of its stem. The tail can also be called a flag or a hook.
The tail halves the value of the note again and so a quaver has a value of half a beat.
Semiquaver (Sixteenth Note)
This is a semiquaver or ‘sixteenth note.'
It’s like a quaver but has two tails coming out of its stem. This means that it’s half the value of quaver and so is worth ¼ the value of a crotchet.
When a semiquaver stem points down its tail behaves the same way as a quaver and always comes out of the right hand of the stem.
As well as the stems of notes being able to point upwards they can also point downwards but there are some rules you need to know.
When a note’s stem points upwards, it comes out of the right-hand side of the note head.
But, when a note’s stem points downwards, it comes out of the left-hand side of the note head.
There are a few rules that we’ll cover in chapter 3 about notes on the stave but for now, you just have to remember that they must always come out of the correct side of the note head.
As you hopefully spotted above it’s not the same with the tails of the quavers and semiquavers.
The note tails always come out of the right-hand side of the stem, no matter whether the stem is pointing up or down.
When we have two or more quavers next to each other, we join their tails together with a beam between the top of the stems.
It works the same with semiquavers but instead of having one beam between the stems we use two beams. This is because they have two tails.
We can also have combinations of quavers and semiquavers.
There are some rules about how to beam and group notes in different time signatures that we’ll cover those a bit later on.
For now, you should aim to always beam notes in crotchet beats and we’ll cover the exceptions and rules shortly.
2. Bars and Time Signatures
Bars and Bar Lines
To make the notes easier for musicians to read we put them into groups. The most common way is to group them in twos, threes and fours.
Let’s start by looking at the twelve crotchets below.
Here they are not grouped at all. But, if we wanted to put them into groups of two, three or four, we draw a vertical line separating them as shown below.
We call these groups of notes separated by vertical lines bars. In the US they’re also referred to as measures.
The vertical lines separating the notes are called bar lines.
When playing music we always emphasise the first beat of each bar. That means we play the note after a bar line a little stronger than the other notes in the bar.
We indicate how many beats there are per bar and what kind of beat using a time signature at the beginning of a piece of music.
A time signature is made up of two numbers, one on top of the other. The three time signatures that you need to know for grade 1 are:
The top number represents how many beats there are per bar.
So if the top number is two, then there must be two beats in a bar. If the top number is three, there must be three beats in a bar, and so on.
The bottom number tells us what kind of beats there are in a bar.
For example, we might be counting crotchet beats, or minim beats or quaver beats etc.
If we look at the time signature 2/4. This time signature means there are two crotchet beats in each bar. We group them like this:
But why does the number four mean that the beats are crotchets?
The number four is used because four crotchet beats are equal to one semibreve. For grade 1 you only need to know about time signatures with the bottom number four.
Side note: It’s worth knowing that in further grades you can have numbers other than four as the bottom number in a time signature. If it’s the number two then this represents minim beats (because two minims go into one semibreve), and if it’s the number eight then it represents quaver beats (because eight quavers go into one semibreve). We’ll cover those in Grade 2 though so don’t worry for now.
If we have the time signature 3/4 it means there are three crotchet beats in a bar.
If we have the time signature 4/4 it means there are four crotchet beats in a bar.
The time signature 4/4 is sometimes called common time. So you might see the time signature C. This is exactly the same as 4/4 and so has four crotchet beats per bar.
But we don’t only have to use only crotchets. We can use longer or shorter notes too.
The only rule is that they equal the number of beats shown in the time signature. See the examples below.
3. The Stave Or Staff
The Five Lines Of The Stave
Now that we’ve learnt a bit about how to write down rhythm in music with bar lines, time signatures and the time values of notes, we’re going to look at how to notate the pitch of the notes.
Music is written on a stave or staff. A stave is made up of five horizontal lines on top of each other.
We can place notes on the stave in two places: on the lines or in the spaces.
Each note in a space or on a line represents a different letter note. (We’ll cover these in the next chapter).
Notice how each note sits exactly in the middle of the space and exactly on the centre of the line. This is really important and you should take care when writing notes to make sure it’s clear.
When it comes to notes with a stem (minims, crotchets, quavers and semiquavers) there are a few rules about whether their stem should point up or down.
When a note sits above the middle line of the stave its stem always points down, and when a note sits below the middle line of the stave its stem always points up.
If the note is on the middle line you can choose whether to have the note’s stem point up or down.
Side note: There are some exceptions that occur when we start beaming notes but we’ll cover that in a later chapter.
Notice how long the stems are.
You don’t want to have really long stems and equally, you don’t want to have really short stems.
You want to aim for about the length of three spaces.
Notes can also be placed above and below the stave.
When we want a note to go above or below the stave we draw in a short new line of the stave just for that note.
It’s only short though and goes right through the middle of the note-head. These short lines through the note head are called ledger lines.
Side note: We can also keep going up and up and down and down adding more and more ledger lines but for Grade 1 you only need to go as far as one ledger line.
The Treble Clef
Here we have the treble clef which is also known as the G clef. This is because it loops and wraps itself around the note G.
Instruments that have a higher register use this clef like trumpets, flutes and the right hand of the piano.
In music, the notes are called by different letters of the alphabet from A to G.
We call this the musical alphabet.
Now that we know that the note that the treble clef wraps itself around is a G, we can then work out what all the different notes are on the stave.
Going up we have all these notes,
And going down we have these notes,
To help you memorise and learn these notes it’s common to learn them by remembering the notes on the lines and in the spaces separately.
For the notes on the lines I use the phrase:
There are lots of other phrases you can use too like:
Every Green Bus Drives Fast
Elephants Go Bouncing Down Freeways
It makes it a little easier to remember it but you can come up with your own words if you like.
Next, we have the notes in the spaces:
Thankfully these notes spell out a very easy to remember word so you shouldn't have too much difficulty memorising these ones.
The Bass Clef
Here we have the bass clef which is also known as the F clef. This is because it loops and wraps itself around the note F.
Instruments that have a lower register use this clef like double basses, tubas bassoons and the left hand of the piano.
Now we know the first note we can use the musical alphabet to work out the rest of the notes.
Going up from F we have the following notes:
And going down from F we have these notes:
To help you memorise and learn these notes we can split them up into the lines and the spaces like we did with the treble clef.
For the notes on the lines we can use the phrase:
Or if you prefer you could use,
Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always
Great Big Dogs Fight Animals
For the notes in the spaces,
I recommend making or buying some flashcards to help you learn and test yourself on the names of the notes.
I've also made some flashcards you can use for free on the app Quizlet if you want to test your self.
5. Dotted and Tied Notes
Sometimes we want to make a note last longer or for a note to be held over a bar line. For these situations, we use a tie.
A tie joins together two notes that are next to each other and have the same pitch.
This means that the time values of the notes are added together to create a longer note.
When we write a tie we always write it from the note head of the first note to the note head of the second at the opposite end to the stem.
We can tie together any number of notes and they can also go across bar lines.
The other type of note that you will see is a dotted note. This dot after the note head makes the note longer by half its value.
One difference between dotted notes and tied notes is that a dotted note can’t go across bar lines.
You should always use a tied note if you want it to last longer then one bar.
When we dot a note that is sitting in a space, we place the dot in the same space as the note head.
When we dot a note that is on a line, we place the dot in the space above.
Rest Names and Time Values
In music, we often will have moments of silence where we want to tell a musician not to play.
For this, we use signs called rests.
Every note like minims and crotchets has a corresponding rest sign which we’ll take a look at now.
Semibreve Rest (Whole Note Rest)
A semibreve rest is a small rectangle that hangs off the 2nd line from the top of the stave. It has a value of four beats.
Minim Rest (Half Note Rest)
The minim rest is very similar to the semibreve rest but it sits on the middle line of the stave. It has a value of two beats.
Crotchet Rest (Quarter Note Rest)
The crotchet rest is quite complicated to draw. It kind of looks like a skewed letter Z with a small letter C on the bottom. It has a value of one beat.
Quaver Rest (Eighth Note Rest)
The quaver rest looks like a small number 7 with a little blob on the end. It sits in the middle of the stave and isn’t too big. It has a value of ½ of a beat.
Semiquaver Rest (Sixteenth Note Rest)
Lastly, we have the semiquaver rest which is very similar to the quaver rest but slightly taller and has two flicks. It has a value of ¼ of a beat.
Just as you can have dotted notes you can also have dotted rests.
It works exactly the same and adds on half of the rest’s value.
As you can see the dot always sits in the third space of the stave.
7. Sharps Flats And Natural Signs
In the chapter on clefs, we learnt the letter names of the white notes on the keyboard. Now we’ll look at the black notes and their letter names.
A sharp sign in music looks like the hashtag on a computer keyboard. It’s two straight lines down with two slightly sloped horizontal lines going across.
A black note to the right of a white note has the same letter name but with sharp added to it.
For example, the black note to the right of C is C sharp (C#).
This is the case for all of the black notes too not just C sharp (C#).
Another way to name the black notes is by using flat signs. A flat sign in music is like a lowercase letter B but at a slight angle.
A black note to the left of a white note has the same letter name but with flat added to it.
For example, a black note to the left of A is A flat (Ab).
This is the case for all of the black notes too not just A.
So from this, we can see that black notes can be called two different names, depending on which way you’re looking at them.
For example, the black note between C and D could be called either C sharp (C#) or D flat (Db).
There are certain rules that tell us which one is correct and whether we should call them a sharp or flat but I’ll cover that shortly.
The last sign we have is called a natural sign. A note is ‘natural’ when it is neither a sharp or a flat.
For example, we call white notes by their letter names, i.e C or G, but their full name would actually be C natural and G natural.
We also use a natural sign when we want to cancel a previous flat or sharp.
When White Notes are Sharps and Flats
It’s not just the black notes that can be sharps or flats. Some of the white notes can be too.
If you look at a piano keyboard you’ll notice that there isn’t a black note between the notes B and C and also between E and F.
When thinking about sharps, we know that a black note to the right of a white note has the same letter name but with sharp added to it.
But this counts for the white notes too. So the immediate note to the right of E is F which means that F could also be called E sharp (E#).
We can do the same with B and C. The immediate note to the right of B is C which means that C could also be called B sharp (B#).
We can apply this logic when thinking about flats too.
A black note to the left of a white note has the same letter name but with flat added to it.
The immediate note to the left of F is E which means that it could also be called F flat (Fb).
The same with B and C, the immediate note to the left of C is B which means that B could also be called C flat (Cb).
This will make a little more sense after we’ve spoken about semitones and tones in the next chapter.
8. Semitones and Tones
In music, we talk a lot about intervals which is the distance in pitch of one note to another.
The smallest possible interval (in western music anyway) is a semitone which is the very next higher or lower note.
For example, from E to F or from C to C sharp (C#) on a piano keyboard.
The word semi means half so we could think of the word semitone as half a tone. A tone, therefore, is two semitones.
For example, from C to D or from E to F sharp (F#).
A scale is a group of notes that are arranged by ascending or descending order of pitch.
In an ascending scale, each note is higher than the last one and in a descending scale, each note is lower in pitch than the last one.
C Major Scale
For example, if we play all the white notes starting on C until we reach the next C we would have played C major scale.
The major scale is constructed by using a certain combination of semitones and tones.
Tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone but in this guide I’ll be abbreviating it to T T S T T T S for short.
You can use this combination of semitones and tones to make a major scale starting on any note but C major is the only major scale that doesn’t use any black notes.
G Major Scale
If we wanted to play a major scale starting on the note G we have to put an F sharp (F#) in to keep the order of tones and semitones as T T S T T T S.
We use F sharp (F#) rather than G flat (Gb) because in a scale we have to have one note on every line or space of the stave.
The word scale used to mean ladder so think of it as the rungs of the ladder and you need to have a note on every single one.
This is how we determine whether a major scale has sharps or flats. If we used G flat we wouldn’t have a note on every rung.
You can see here that there is no note on F, sharp, flat or natural and so this would be wrong.
A major scale will only use either sharps or flats.
D Major Scale
The scale D major has two sharps (F# and C#) to maintain the T T S T T T S series.
F Major Scale
Lastly, the scale F major has one flat (Bb) to maintain the T T S T T T S series.
Major Scales for Grade One
These four scales, C major, G major, D major and F major are the only scales that you need to know for grade one music theory.
For grade 1 you just need to remember:
Between the first note and last notes of a scale, there is a note in every space and on every line of the stave
A major scale always follows the T T S T T T S pattern
There is a semitone between the 3rd and 4th notes and the 7th and 8th notes with all of the other intervals being tones
These are what makes a scale major as opposed to minor, but we don’t need to know about minor scales in grade one, we’ll cover those in grade two.
10. Key Signatures
What is a Key Signature?
As we covered in the last chapter, the four scales, C major, G major, D major and F major are the only scales that you need to know for grade one music theory.
If a piece of music uses notes from one of these scales then we’d say it is in that ‘key’.
For example, if a piece of music uses only notes in G major scale then it would be in the key of G major.
The first note of the scale would be the keynote, G in the case of G major.
The example below is in the key of G major as it uses the notes from that scale.
However, to save us from having to add all the sharps or flats each time when we’re playing in a given key, we use a key signature at the beginning of the music to make it easier to read.
The same melody would look like this with a key signature,
The sharp sign on the F after the clef but before the time signature tells us that we should play every single F in the music as an F sharp (F#).
Even the F that is in the first space of the stave.
If the piece was in D major it would have an F sharp (F#) and a C sharp (C#) as its key signature because D major has two sharps.
With a key signature becomes,
Lastly a piece in F major,
With a key signature becomes,
The B flat (Bb) sits on the very middle line of the stave.
A piece in C major obviously doesn’t have any sharps or flats in its key signature as there aren’t any black notes in C major scale.
The Order and Positions of the Key Signatures
It’s important to always put the key signature in the right place.
For example in the treble clef, F sharp (F#) is always on the 5th line of the stave but in the bass clef, it’s on the 4th line.
Here are the three key signatures in both clefs.
How to use Accidentals
Sometimes in a piece of music, you might come across sharps and flats that aren’t in the key signature.
You might also see sharps or flats in the key signature cancelled by using a natural sign.
Sharp, flat and natural signs used like this are called accidentals.
When we have an accidental on a note in a bar, it applies to every instance of that note in that bar.
In the example below, every B in bar two should be played as a B flat (Bb).
We don’t need to write it like this,
Unlike key signatures, however, accidentals only last until the end of the bar that they are in.
They don’t carry on throughout the entire piece.
If we want the accidental to continue into the next bar, then we need to write in another accidental.
The exception to this rule is if a note with an accidental is tied over a bar line.
When this happens we don’t need to have a second sharp on the tied note.
But, as you can see if there is another C sharp (C#) in that bar we would need to add another accidental.
Even though an accidental only lasts for one bar, it is customary in the following bar, to remind the musician that it is no longer necessary by adding a natural sign to it too.
You can see here we add a natural sign to the C in the second bar so that we know it definitely isn’t to be played as a C sharp (C#).
If a note that’s in the key signature has been made natural we do the same and remind the musician that it’s no longer natural.
You don’t have to do this but it makes it a lot easier for the musician to read.
Another way in that accidentals are different from key signatures is that they only apply to the note that they’re written in front of and not the different octaves.
For example, here we would need to add a second sharp to the F an octave higher,
12. The Degrees of a Scale
What Are the Degrees of a Scale?
When we describe a particular note in a scale, we refer to it as a certain degree of the scale.
The first note of the scale is the ‘first degree’, the next ‘second degree’ etc.
For example C major:
Now whilst the last note, (the top C) is the 8th degree, it is also the same letter name as the 1st degree.
They are both the note C but, one octave apart.
For that reason when naming the degrees of the scale you should always call it the 1st degree.
In fact, you can keep going up (or down) and the numbers start again after the 7th degree and carry on going.
13. Tonic Triads
What is a Tonic Triad?
When we play more than one note at the same time it’s called a chord. A chord can be made up of any three or more notes.
A tonic triad is a type of chord made up of three particular notes:
The 1st degree of the scale (or tonic)
The 3rd degree of the scale
The 5th degree of the scale
When we play these three notes together at the same time and in that order it’s called a tonic triad.
For example, a tonic triad in C major would look like this.
Tonic Triads for Grade 1 Music Theory
For grade 1 you’ll be required to know the tonic triads in C major, G major, D major and F major.
What is an interval in music?
An interval is the distance in pitch between any two notes.
In Chapter 8. Semitones and Tones, we had a look at the very smallest interval between two notes - a semitone, but we can have much larger intervals too.
We describe these larger intervals using numbers depending on how many letter names there are between the two notes.
For example, C to D is two letter notes and so is an interval of a 2nd.
C to E is three letter notes and so would be a 3rd.
C to F is four notes and so would be a 4th.
And so on, C to G would be a 5th, C to A would be 6th, and C to B a 7th and C to C an 8th which is called an octave (8ve).
The Two Types of Intervals
There are two types of intervals, harmonic intervals and melodic intervals.
A harmonic interval is two notes that are played at the same time.
For example, C and G played together is a harmonic interval of a 5th.
A melodic interval is two notes that are played one after the other as part of a melody.
For example, C followed by G is a melodic interval of a 5th.
For Grade 1, you’ll only be asked to work out different intervals starting on the keynote of the four scales, C major, G major, D major and F major.
You won’t have to work out intervals larger than an octave (8ve) at grade 1.
Here are all the intervals you’ll need to know written as harmonic intervals and starting on the keynote.
15. Grouping Notes and Rests
There are some rules to follow when it comes to grouping notes in a bar. These rules make the music easier and clearer for the musician to read.
The main objective is to show where the beat is and we do that in three ways:
By avoiding tied notes whenever possible
By beaming quavers and semiquavers in an easy to read way
By using rests in an easy to read way
Avoid Ties Where Possible
We always want to avoid using a tie if there is an alternate way of writing something.
This is often achieved by using dotted notes or just a longer note.
Here some examples in 2/4,
In the above examples, you can see we always opt for using a dotted or longer note rather than using a tied note.
Here are some more examples in 3/4 and 4/4,
There are lots of other variations but hopefully, you get the idea from the above examples.
Beaming Quavers and Semiquavers
When it comes to beaming quavers and semiquavers there are a few guidelines to follow.
These guidelines depend on which time signature you’re in and whether you’re beaming only quavers, or semiquavers and quavers.
How to Beam Notes in 2/4 Time
In the time signature 2/4, we usually beam notes together to make up the value of one crotchet beat.
For example, all of these are acceptable:
If you have a whole bar of quavers in the time signature 2/4 you should beam them all together.
Only if there aren’t any semiquavers.
How to Beam Notes in 3/4 Time
In the time signature 3/4, we follow a lot of the same rules as in 2/4 beaming notes in crotchet beats.
We can also beam four quavers together so any of these would be acceptable:
In 3/4 if you have a whole bar of quavers you can beam them all together in one long line but never in two groups of three as this implies a different time signature (6/8 which we’ll cover in a different grade).
One other thing that you shouldn’t do is to have two dotted crotchets in one bar of 3/4 as this also implies a different time signature.
Instead, you should have one dotted crotchet followed by a tied quaver and crotchet.
How to Beam Notes in 4/4 Time
Lastly, let’s take a look at beaming notes in 4/4 time.
All the previous rules apply about grouping notes in crotchet beats if the group of notes contains any semiquavers and minim beats if it's quavers only.
But, not if the group of quavers starts on beat two. When this is the case we should group them in two crotchet beats.
If you have a whole bar of quavers we beam them in two groups of four adding up to a minim each.
The general rule about rests is that every beat should have its own rest (with the exception of 4/4).
When we’re in 4/4, however, we can group minim rests as long as they are not across the middle of the bar.
For example, these two bars are correct,
But, in the same way that we wouldn’t beam quavers across the middle of the bar, we don’t have a minim rest in the middle either.
Last updated 21st August 2018
More coming soon