Teach Yourself Music Theory – 8.) General Guide to Understanding Tempo Markings

Before, we have only talked about how a written piece of music indicates to the performer the pitch frequencies to play, and at what rhythmic patterns to play them at. However, we have not discussed how composers indicate at what speed to play the piece at.

That is why composers include (most of the time – unless they want it to remain ambiguous) tempo, speed, markings at the top of the page.

The general format is that a composer would indicate a unit of rhythmic value (i.e. quarter-note, dotted eighth-note, half-note, etc.) and set it equal to a specific Beats Per Minute ratio amount. In other words, “quarter-note equals 120” mean that the piece will be played at a tempo where 120 quarter-note pulses will occur over a minute’s duration of time.

By default, usually the quarter-note is the tempo unit if not directly indicated. Or, look for the beat unit in the time signature for more clues.

On occasion, the composer might tell the tempo character by just giving an Italian word for it. Here is the general guide to understanding them:


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Thinking Out Loud – Using Classical Music Theory in other Genres of Music

I have been recently thinking about this argument posed, of which that claims how we cannot approach other forms of music (pop, rock, jazz, Latin, folk, etc.) in theory & analysis the way we approach classical art music. Reasoning behind is that it doesn’t take into account, or it essentially overlooks, what makes that particular genre different from the rest. That by putting the square pegs of other forms of music into the round hole of classical music – we would scrape off the edges and miss the understanding of what that kind of music is.

While I can entertain the idea that using the rules of strict school book-taught classical art theory to compose other genres of music is not a wise decision, I do believe that it is okay to use classical theory to understand – pick apart – and fundamentally analyze other kinds of music.

What needs to be reminded is that music theory & analysis is just like any other form of science; from psychology, to anthropology, to biology, etc., they all do essentially the same thing. They observe, group together, and name special occurring phenomenon to be used later in order to understand other properties of the subject.

Instead of advocating that every form of music needs its own theory, there should be more of an educational push to encourage music theorists to approach with the lenses and vocabulary of their desired theoretical base (whether in classical, jazz, pop, etc.), and make new rules to understand what makes a particular genre sound that way.

This is long-standing problem in the academic field – where colleges neglect, too, that there can be many music theory “lenses” to viewing a piece of music. Too many times has a person with a background of not reading music, but understanding it through their own way, become discouraged of pursuing music because they are branded “stupid” for not adopting the viewpoints of classical art theory. And teachers fear that unless a student knows how to use classical theory – classical music can’t be reproduced.

If you buy a table and you have to assemble it together, but the instructions are in a foreign language – do we say that the table is incomprehensible? No, it is a table for goodness sake. It can still be built despite not knowing how to read the instructions that came with it.

So instead of demanding that a form of theory has to stay with a particular genre, academia and scholars should instead approach all kinds of music with the understanding that they have already, and make new discoveries to the unique acoustic phenomenon of different kinds of music.

Just thinking out loud.

Bryan M Waring
Bryan M Waring

Tip #6 – Incorporating Melodic Alternation Interplay for Variety

Well, that title certainly is a mouthful. But it is just a fancy way of saying “call & response.” Everyone has probably experienced some form of practicing call & response, as it is used in blues, camp songs, jazz improvisation, polychoral music, and more. One voice (or group) plays one thing as the “call,” and the other voice plays something back as the “response.” While the “response” can be an absolute copy of the “call,” this tip post will feature different opportunities of contrast.

First: different registers. It is a bit easier incorporating this when you have a large ensemble; but even with a single instrument try bouncing between the two low/high extremes of the voice range.

Second: different intervals. Simply put, one theme can be all stepwise in motion, while the other uses leaps.

Third: different contours. Contour is the shape of the line. So, one can go in one direction while the other goes in the opposite.

Fourth: different instruments. Every instrument has their own timbre, or color of sound. Alternating between the voice-like sound of a high-registered cello and a breathy low-voiced flute can be a beautiful contrast.

Fifth: different techniques. Not only do instruments have their own unique timbre, but they also have their own techniques, too. String instruments can both be plucked and bowed, and alternating between the two possibilities in a call & response format can bring beautiful contrasting colors as well as highlights to the melody.


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Tip #5 – Finding the Right Chords for your Phrygian-Dominant Scale

Or vice versa! Maybe you already have the chordal harmony, but are looking to see if playing a lead line over in a phrygian-dominant mode is appropriate.

The phrygian-dominant scale is a mode based off of starting from the fifth degree of the harmonic minor scale. So, to remind, a harmonic minor scale looks as such:

And if you were to start from the fifth degree, it would not look like this, becoming the phrygian-dominant scale:

Notice that the scale degrees are | 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7 1 | and what chords can be derived from them. The strongest chords built when playing in this mode are:

Harmonic movements between I – bII , and I – bvii are good indicators to the ear that you have now dove into the world of phrygian-dominant.

In the case that you are in a regular major/minor kay, but want to incorporate the phrygian-dominant, look to add chords like: 7alt , 7(b9b13) , V7/III , and V7/VI . These best fit the pitch collection of the mode. Also, a VImaj7 chord can possibly work if the melody has a raised sixth being approached from above.


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Tip #4 – Crafting Melody with Chord Inversions

In chord voice-leading, the bass note has the most flexibility on how/where to move. While there are some strong suggestions to keep bass motion at intervals small – like under a perfect-fourth – there is certainly more leeway for a bass not in a chord to make large intervallic leaps… as opposed to inner voices and melody, which should move stepwise.

Now, what if these roles were reversed? Given, jumpy upper voices in a chord can sound a bit out of place; however, having the bass line be crafted like a melody can yield cool results of a smooth transition from one chord to another.

Take a chord progression for example:

After deciding on a progression, my next piece of advice is to find common tones between the chords as well as adjected notes by at most a minor third (though M3 and P4 can work, too). Make a note of all the possibilities. From there, write a melody within the harmonic rhythm that is smooth and overall stepwise in motion. Then, let those be the root positions and/or inversions of the chords you previously chosen.

Rest is there for you from there on out on how to play around with the upper voices and melody, but now you have a melodic line in the bass that can be used as a motif a basis for variation.

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Tip #2 – Getting to a Musical Destination with a Sequence

To remind for those who know, and to inform those that don’t, a sequence is a musical pattern or figure that is restated at a different pitch level while keeping the basic shape/contour/intervals of the original pattern.

Sequences tend to occur in classical music most often, especially in the melodic b-section of a phrase or period, but that should never limit a composer as to how to use a sequence! Exploring different uses of a sequential pattern of transposition in a figure can flourish a theme as well as bring a composition to an excitingly new harmonic destination.

When transposing a figure pattern up or down for a sequence, a composer will have to decide if things will remain exact or if there will be some modifications to the deviants – and this in turn will decide on where the composition will travel. First possibility is the keep the entire sequences diatonic to the key that the composition is in.

Another possibility is to make some changes by throwing in some accidentals to keep the exact intervallic patterns in each consecutive sequence. It might be wise to aim to not alter the tonal center, but there are no rules as to not doing so. So feel free to experiment!

Finally, sequence is not exclusively for melody. It can be used in harmony as well! A progression of the Circle Of Fifths in a key is a fundamental example of sequential use. Still, experimenting outside of the diatonic by using chromatic notes can allow the composer to reach different harmonic possibilities. So be creative and explore!


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Tip #1 – Using Repetition in a Unique Way

Repetition is one of the cornerstones to making a melody, theme, or in general – the piece of music itself, memorable to listeners. However, many composers abstain away from repeating the same material over-and-over again in their composition, as it is believed to be a sign of lacking in creativity or originality. Regardless of your opinion towards this matter, repeating a figure will not only help in becoming recognizable to the audience, but will also aid in developing a motif or theme. From Wagner’s epic themes to pop music ear-candy, repetition is a great technique that when used creatively can yield great results.

Two major aspects of a theme are the pitches and the rhythm. So let’s experiment with these two factors. An easy way to repeat is by simply rewriting the same phrase within a measure (with subtle variation) over again. Keep the pitches and rhythm roughly the same.

Still, the figure does not ever need to be constrained to the bar line. Having the figure be in a length longer/shorter in beats than the time signature can have surprising results!

Now, take out one of the variables. Keep the rhythm the same, but change the pitches. This will help in smoothly going from different harmonies to another.

And the opposite: keeping the same pitches, but changing the melody. This tends to not be as instantly recognizable to the ear, but the creativity in thematic development is very much still present.

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