5 Minutes of Science: Music Theory


Music theory is the study of music. Before researching music theory, I researched sound. Sound is an audible mechanical wave, or a wave that is an oscillation of matter, through a medium like air or water. Acoustics, which deals with the study of mechanical waves through different media, is a science that can be applied to architectural acoustics, audio signal processing, musical acoustics, and more.

Music moves in waves. Let’s analyze those waves. Timbre is the perceived tone quality of a specific note that distinguishes notes by the source of their sound production. A complex tone is the sound of a note with a specific timbre. Complex tones consist of many smaller periodic waves sometimes called partials, referred to as “simples tones.” Fundamental frequency is the musical pitch of a note that is perceived as the lowest partial present.

Moving on to pitch and rhythm, the basics of music theory. Pitch is the highness or lowness of a note and rhythm is the sequential arrangement of sounds. Notes can be arranged into scales or modes. In Western music, the octave is divided in twelve tones, called a chromatic scale. In-between notes are called half-steps. Lots of non-Western music features octaves that don’t have equally-divided note division. There are seven main modes, or types of scale, in Western music: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Songs generally have a melody and harmony; some have a counterpoint. Melody is the main string of notes that make up a song and a harmony accompanies a melody and is dependent on the melody. Counterpoint is the combination of at least two different melodies to make one song. No melody is dominant; the melodies tend to wind around each other. In chord structure, “consonance” describes notes that sound good together and “dissonance” describes notes that do not sound good together. Consonance and dissonance are very subjective measures of sound quality. Time signature measures rhythm or meter. Rhythms can be simple or complex. Complex rhythms include things like syncopation, or rhythms with accent notes in places that you would not expect them to be, and polyrhythm, or multiple rhythms layered over one another.


The study of acoustics is important in many other scientific fields and disciplines. Acoustics impact everyone. Humans can generally hear sound wave frequencies from 20 to 20,000 Hz. High noises bother many people. Architects must always be aware of the acoustics of buildings.

Everyone listens to music, but few people that aren’t musicians give much thought to the composition of music. Scientists aren’t certain of the impact of music on the human brain, but studies have shown that some people have an easier time remembering and recalling information if the information is set to music or if they listen to music while studying and then listen to the same music while trying to recall the information. Perhaps research will eventually show some stronger correlation between music and information retention, or even determine which music helps people remember information most effectively.


I like music and am a musician. I like music theory. This project forced me to jog my memory on a lot of music theory concepts. Schoolhouse Rock songs helped me to remember multiplication tables and grammar rules as a kid, so I’m curious about the impact of music on memory. I was disappointed to find few concrete conclusions on the topic, but I hope to keep researching.


Janus, S. (2016). Audio in the 21st century. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from eetimes.com, http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1274790

Khan Academy: Music Basics. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from khanacademy.org, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/music/music-basics2#reading-music2

Van Dillen, O. (2011). Outline of Basic Music Theory. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from oscarvandillen.com, http://www.oscarvandillen.com/outline_of_basic_music_theory/