Music Theory Step 1: Knowing the Notes

Jan 05, 2021
sheet music from a book

By Marie Votapka


Let’s talk about music theory. 

What is it, why is it...where even is it? Who came up with all of this stuff? How are you supposed to learn it? 

Music theory has unfortunately become known as a confusing, frustrating, even exasperating subject that at times can seem as though it is only understandable to those with some sort of special, beautiful mind. 

First of all, let me just say this: everyone has their own special and beautiful mind. That may be a bit cliche, but it’s true! No one sees the world exactly the way you do, and that in itself is something special. Being an individual and using your own personal expression is a HUGE part of music, so never take your own way of hearing, feeling or communicating things for granted. Hang onto that, and use it in sharing your music with others.  

Second of all, the idea that music theory is a dusty old subject meant only for composers or genius musicians is just not true. Music theory is a basic and crucial part of learning the violin - or any instrument - and honestly, it can be quite simple if approached in the right sequence and with proper explanations. Let’s start with defining the term. 

“Music Theory” refers to the information that helps us to understand, play and write music. It explains what music does, and what’s going on when we hear it.

Now, this can encompass quite a lot of things, ranging from fundamental to high-level concepts. I'm here to help make things comprehensible and approachable for you, so we’re going to start with step one:

Know the notes. 

This may seem simple (or not, depending on how far along you've come in reading music), but it is incredibly important.  Imagine trying to read out loud without knowing how each letter was pronounced! Luckily, there are only 7 letters in the musical alphabet that repeat over and over. All you have to do is memorize a few of these, and the rest will build on itself. Once you are comfortable reading the notes, you'll actually start hearing them in your head as you see them on the page. Making and retaining these connections can be tricky, but there are a few tips and resources I’d like to give you. 

First is a tip concerning the 5 lined staff and remembering which note is which. It’s likely that you’d been taught this in your early days as a kid in school, but it is still completely valid and useful. It's a trick to remember the notes that go in the spaces versus the notes that go on the lines. This trick, by the way, is only for when you see a treble clef on your music (treble clef indicated below with the red arrow).  If you see a different symbol in place of the treble clef, this particular line/space hack doesn’t apply (though there are other ones for other clefs). More importantly, without the treble clef, the music you’re looking at is not written in a format to be played on the violin. And another quick fact for some of you who are more familiar with calling the treble clef the "G clef" (either name is valid and they both refer to the same symbol) - it is called the G clef because the line of the staff that goes through the center of the "swirl" of the clef is where the note "G" belongs. You'll see below. 

Anyway, here’s the elementary school trick I was referring to. The notes that go in the spaces spell the word “FACE” (going upwards), and the notes that go on the lines have a phrase, which may or may not ring a bell. EGBDF = Every Good Boy Does Fine.  Or Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. You could also say Every Good Ballerina Deserves Flowers. Or you could make up your own, honestly, whatever works. (Comment below what you've heard!) Here's how it looks on the staff: 

Easy enough when you’re reading it straight on, but when it comes to remembering all that while you’re trying to play a song...that’s another story. And that’s where this great exercise and resource site comes in handy. 

Free Online Practice Tool:

When you have a chance, I highly suggest you mosey on over to and check out the note identification exercise linked above. It takes you through an easy and stress-free drill of identifying notes on the staff by name. You will see a note, and  keyboard of options below it to choose from:

Take your time and choose what you think is the right one. If you choose correctly, it will also play the note so you can hear what it sounds like. If you get the note wrong, it won’t give you a sound - which is actually genius, because this ensures that you don’t accidentally develop incorrect memories of the sounds associated with the visual note. It will also leave all of your incorrect attempts marked red until you get it right, so you can visualize the process of elimination as well.

And what’s great about it is that you can just keep going for as long as you want, going through a variety of notes until you feel more and more confident, or pick it up again the next day or whenever you want to refresh. 

What's more, is you can even customize the exercise, and "gamify" this flashcard exercise for some fast fun. Use the gear icon in the top right corner of the screen. You can modify many factors to make it easier or harder as you progress in skill: the key signature, what range of notes you want to focus on, etc. You're not limited to studying notes in treble clef, and you can change it in there as well. 

If you have a teacher, he or she can create specific exercises and send you a link to what they would like you to learn, which is great for tailoring lessons to each individual student's strengths and weaknesses. However, there are a lot of students that are out there on their own. And that's ok! I'm going to give you some already prepared exercises from our lead teacher's online group violin classes. You'll be practicing flashcards like this:

Note Identification Flashcard Drills in Order of Difficulty


View the new set of cards here

Happy Practicing! 

Keep working those over and any other settings you choose to use in the exercise! Practice makes perfect as long as you are practicing the right things, and mastering the notes in this way will certainly have you on your way towards whatever goals you may have.

So there you go! A first lesson in music theory. Not so hard after all. Once you have the notes down cold, the next step is to practice connecting what you see on the page to the mechanics on your instrument and how to play them correctly. 

Just remember, repetition is key, so keep your mind sharp with regular study and practice and you’ll know the notes and how they sound in no time.

Best of luck to you, and stay tuned for more advice for beginners. Keep up the good work and keep making that music!