Suggested Theory Background

Many people who have little formal training approach Figuring Out Melody with strong intuitions and a general sense for how music works and have a great experience. Others are overwhelmed by the technical terms. The baseline theory requirements for learning melodic figuration are not as strict as you might think. If you have a good sense of the items on this page, you’ll glide through. As for the terms that don’t sound familiar, look them up in an internet search.

scales and keys


chords and intervals

  • triads: major, minor, diminished triads
  • seventh chords: dominant 7th, minor 7th, major 7th, diminished 7th, half-diminished 7th (a.k.a. “minor 7 flat 5”)
  • sus 4, add 2, add 9

harmonic function

  • tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords
  • Roman numerals for chord functions; basic lead sheet chord symbols 
  • common substitutions/extensions for tonic, subdominant, and dominant
  • secondary dominants
  • scale degrees and their tendencies


  • duple:   C,  4/4,   𝄵,   2/4
  • triple:   3/4,  6/8,   9/8,   12/8

rhythmic values 

some helpful (and free) music theory links

Music Theory for the 21st Century Classroom


Open Music

Fundamentals, Function, and Form