title image with title "Music Theory Basics"
Music Theory

Music Theory Basics

Updated June 2021. Somehow, the pictures all unlinked. I have no idea what happened (possibly from a software update?), but it should be all fixed now. Sorry about that!

Please note: In an effort to keep the content “clean” and simplified, this post contains modified footnotes, which are used for additional information, not for references. We’ve added these to areas where common questions may occur or where further learning may be useful or interesting. Click on each number when you see it. (A popup window will appear if you are on desktop; on mobile, the content will expand.) 1Like this!

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series. Links will appear when new information is added.

What is music theory and why does it matter?

There’s a TL;DR at the bottom if you want to jump to how and why this applies to the kalimba.

Music theory is, essentially, how and why certain aspects of music “works” (or not), as well as how music is produced or created. Critically, it provides a common, professional language that allows for easier communication, discussion, and learning.

Music theory can sometimes be a polarizing topic. 2Talk to any sizable sampling of musicians, and you will find those who absolutely refuse to learn it and those who live and die by it; just about everyone else falls somewhere in between. How useful you find it will depend upon your own personal interests and goals. But many people, beginners and experienced musicians alike, find having at least a basic foundation of music theory to be invaluable.

I’ve heard music theory is hard.

Some people are intimidated by music theory. 3A quick YouTube or Google search can easily reveal why.  The thing about music theory is that people who are interested in it are often really interested in it, and they are happy to go as far down that rabbit hole as they can, and some of these incredibly knowledgeable people forget what it was like to be a beginner. But music theory doesn’t have to be comprehensive to be useful. We’re going to peek inside the rabbit hole and give you just enough information to help you really understand the kalimba, how to play it, and how to get the most enjoyment out of it. Don’t worry – we’ll walk you through the whole process. 🙂 

Please note that some of the concepts have been abridged to make them easier for beginners to understand. This is intentional and is an integral part of layered learning.

Let’s get started!

First, it’s worth noting that we are talking about information as it relates to what we’ll refer to it as “Western music”. 4Though what you are about to learn is fairly widely used, not all cultures use the same notes or scales, and we’re certainly not trying to argue the merits of one over another. We might explore such topics in the future, but the purpose of this post is to help you learn the kalimba as it exists in its most common modern form.

Before we even talk about kalimbas, lets take a look at a piano keyboard. 5This simplified image, for illustrative purposes, only shows 36 keys; however, most pianos have 88 keys.

A diagram of piano keys
Image by Tobias R. – Metoc – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1256764

The white and black keys (from C to B) are divided into groups, known as octaves. 6Wondering why octaves start on C and not A? We found a great video for you explaining why: https://youtu.be/NRDwrKMan_Q

animated gif showing piano keys divided into octaves
Keys separated into octaves

Each octave has 12 notes in it, seven white and five black.

animated gif labeling each of the 12 notes on a chromatic octave from 1-12 on a piano keyboard
The chromatic scale

This structure is known as the chromatic scale, which has been used by most Western music and instruments for the past several hundred years.

Sometimes, music will only use the equivalent of the seven white keys.

A diagram showing the diatonic keys of C Major on a piano keyboard in one octave.
The diatonic scale in C major (in one octave)

This structure is known as the diatonic scale (or the major scale), and an instrument that uses the diatonic scale can be said to be diatonically tuned.

If an instrument or piece of music uses only these seven white keys, the musical key (which different from a note key) will be in C major. 7It could also be in A minor, but don’t worry about that for now. 8 The notes used in a different musical key will, naturally, be different, but don’t worry about that for now, either. 9Also, a piece of music written in C major may contain occasional sharps and flats, also known as accidentals, but (you guessed it) don’t worry about that for now!

To clarify, the notes don’t have to be restricted to one octave. The same seven notes, in any octave, in any combination, can be used.

an animated gif showing all of the piano keys in C Major
The notes of C Major, in piano keys

Since this scale is missing the equivalent of the black keys, you would not be able to play every familiar song. (Any instrument comes with its own set of limitations, of course.) But you can play many of them!

So, there are seven keys in each octave of a diatonic scale, but it’s important to notice that they are not all evenly spaced.

To explain, let’s look at the chromatic scale again. (We’re keeping it simple by looking at one octave, plus the first note of the next octave.) The distance between each note is considered half of a step (or a semitone), and every two half steps equals one whole step (or a tone).

animated gif of arrows going to each key in a chromatic octave to display how many steps there are
Half steps between each note on a chromatic scale

And here is where the piano keyboard visual is so helpful.

Between keys C and D, there are two half steps – so, one whole step. How many steps are there between D and E? How about between E and F?

There is only half of a step between the E and F keys, as well as the B and C keys, while all the other white keys are separated by whole steps.

The pattern of spacing between the notes is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. And this is what actually defines diatonic tuning / the major scale. 10Wouldn’t it be easier to just use, say, every other note? Why are things this way? It’s so confusing, right? The answer depends upon who you ask. Some will say it’s mathematically related, while others claim convention and historical evolution, and there are endless debates about the true origin. What is important to know about having the pattern be irregular is that it gives you a way to be grounded (with a reference point) so we can hear the relationship between the notes.

Using what’s known as a transposition chart, you can easily see which notes belong to which musical keys. (The main purpose of a transposition chart is to, well, help you transpose music from one musical key to another, but they can be useful for many things.) Here is our favorite transposition chart.

For example, the notes in D major are D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#; that’s because we’re starting on D, which is the root note, then following the same W-W-H-W-W-W-H step sequence.

an animated gif showing arrows moving between the piano keys that make up D Major to show they follow the same pattern as C Major
The notes used in D Major (as well as B minor)

Let’s go back to C Major. We know the letter names of these notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. We should note that this labeling system is a Western convention. In many countries, it is more common to refer to them using a method known as solfège, a fancy term that means syllables have been assigned to the notes. Don’t let the word intimidate you; believe it or not, you probably already know what this is!

an animated gif that labels the notes of a piano using solfège.the
Labeling the notes using solfège. “SO” is more commonly “SOL”, but “SO” (or the pun “sew”) may be more familiar to anyone who has ever heard The Sound of Music.

We can just as easily label this scale with numbers, just like how we did with the chromatic scale earlier.

An animated gif that labels the diatonic C Major keys of a piano with numbers instead of letters
C Major labeled with numbers

Each of the seven keys are labeled accordingly; C starts back at 1.

But wait… since D Major also follows the W-W-H-W-W-W-H sequence, does that mean we can label those notes in the same way?

It sure does! In fact, you can label the keys of any major scale this way. 🙂

Every scale has a root note. The root note for C Major is C, and the root note for D Major is D, etc., etc. The root note would be 1, and since all major scales follow the same pattern, you have the same relative distance between the notes.

For example, you can play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” using only numbers instead of letters:


And it doesn’t matter if you are playing an instrument tuned to C Major, D Major, B Major or whatever major; the song will still work. (It will sound slightly different, as each musical key has its own feeling, but the melody will sound correct.) This is also why many kalimbas come with tines pre-labeled with both numbers and letters.

And that’s where transposition comes in. Remember that handy chart we linked to earlier? You can find music in just about any major scale and transpose it to the scale you want to play in. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with the kalimba??

  1. Most kalimbas are diatonically tuned, with the majority being tuned to C major, which has truly become the “international standard”. B and G are probably the next most common. (Chromatic kalimbas are becoming more and more popular but are still vastly outnumbered by their diatonic counterparts.)
  2. If you don’t understand what whole steps and half steps are, you may not understand what music can or cannot be played on your kalimba, which can be extremely frustrating, especially as a beginner.
  3. If you have find kalimba tabs in a different key than what your kalimba is, you now know that you should be able to play them on yours, too! (We’re assuming both are in a major scale.)
  4. There is a limit to the number of kalimba tabs currently available. Understanding how music works will help you find the music that you want to play.
  5. If you want to play the kalimba for relaxation or you want to compose your own songs, knowing which tines are half steps will help prevent getting any unexpected, unpleasant, or unwanted sounds.
  6. Understanding the relation of the notes will help you play songs by ear.
  7. It can assist you in the buying process! If you know what you want and what you need, that can narrow your choices down significantly. (We also have a pretty comprehensive – and free! – Kalimba Buying Guide available.)
  8. There are probably many more reasons that we’re not thinking of at the moment!

This is the end of part 1. Part 2 will be a future edit, in which we will (finally!) go into more depth on the kalimba. 🙂

Edit: Part 2 is now available. Enjoy!

diagram of tines on a c-tuned kalimba
A kalimba tuned to the key of C Major. Tines are not to scale. 🙂


Sheet music photo by Michael Maasen on Unsplash

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