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Bars, Measures, Phrases, Motifs, Riffs, & Licks

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 11 - 20091 COMMENT

theory-lesson2Some musical terms are so basic and widely used that we never stop to ask ourselves: “Hey, what is a measure? What is a riff? What is a phrase? What’s the difference between a bar and a measure?” This article should answer all of those questions for you and more.

• Bar = measure
Phrase = long(-ish) musical idea
Motif = short musical idea
Riff = lick

Bars & Measures

A bar is the same thing as a measure. What determines the length of a measure can vary depending on the time signature of a song, but generally speaking you’re going to be able to tell by the snare pattern. For most pop applications, you’ll be dealing with either 4/4 or 6/8 time.

In almost every song in 4/4 time, there will be 2 snare drum hits per measure. These hits indicate beats 2 and 4. This is called a back beat. In addition to the back beat, there will often be snare accents, but they will not feel as strong as the snare hits on beats 2 and 4. The back beat is so universal that it almost seems silly to provide examples, but here are a couple for your reference.

“And Then What” by Young Jeezy:

“Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:

In the first example, each measure is almost twice the length of time of a measure from the second song. In other words, the tempo of the second song is considered about twice as fast and you can tell because of how often the back beat repeats.  For hip-hop, claps and snaps may provide the back beat rather than a snare drum.

In a 6/8 song, the strongest snare hit comes only once per measure, on beat 4. Take D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” for example:

Some people think a measure is just the time in which a chord progression or musical idea repeats, but in fact what they’re really thinking of is called a phrase.


Phrases are mysterious creatures. The most basic definition is a musical idea. Doesn’t really explain anything, does it? Well that’s because a phrase can be just about anything. They don’t even necessarily have to be repeated. Songs can have phrases within phrases within phrases. To understand phrases, you just have to learn by example.

It can be daunting to understand what constitutes a phrase in Classical or Jazz context, but when talking about pop music it’s a little more intuitive–generally we’re talking about a section of a song with a chord progression, usually one that repeats. For example, the introduction to “Learn To Fly” by Foo Fighters uses 4-bar phrases:

If you play in a rock or pop band, using the term “phrases” is often much more useful than talking in measures: “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every other phrase” is much more concise and less awkward than “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every 8-bar section.”


A motif is any short, repeated pattern. Usually both the melody and rhythm of this pattern are repeated–also known as a lick or a riff. If you have a motif which is purely rhythmic, it can be called a “rhythmic motif”.

“Today” by Smashing Pumpkins uses a 1-bar guitar riff:

During the introduction to “Meant To Live” by Switchfoot, the riff is the same length as the phrases (2 bars):

Keith’s Guide To Chord Symbols & Shorthand

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 11 - 20092 COMMENTS

theory-lesson2Note: this post requires a basic knowledge of intervals.

To understand why some chords have intervals of 9, 11, and 13, read our explanation of tensions.

This post will give you abbreviations for the most common chords we’ll be dealing with in our Compositional Analysis series. While some of the naming conventions and rules are confusing, this list should get you started. Also note that our analyses usually use Roman numerals instead of note names (e.g. C minor 7 in the key of C would be written I-7). This is called ‘functional analysis.’


  • How the chord is written … Full chord name … Notes in the chord, listed by intervallic relationship with the root of the chord. These notes can be in any order.*

*See inversions below.

Triads (three notes):

  • G … G major … 1, 3, 5 (i.e. G, B, D)
  • G- … G minor … 1, b3, 5
  • or Gdim … G diminished … 1, b3, b5
  • G+ or Gaug … G augmented … 1, 3, #5
  • Gsus2 … G suspended 2 … 1, 2, 5
  • Gsus4 … G suspended 4 … 1, 4, 5

Seventh Chords:

  • Gmaj7 … G major 7 … 1, 3, 5, 7
  • G-7 … G minor 7 … 1, b3, 5, b7
  • G7 … G dominant 7 … 1, 3, 5, b7
  • Gø7 … G half diminished 7 … 1, b3, b5, b7
  • Gº7 … G fully diminished 7 … 1, b3, b5, 6

Extended Chords (seventh chords+tensions):

  • Gmaj9 … G major 9 … 1, 2, 3, 5, 7
  • Gmaj9/13 … G major 9 with 13 … 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7
  • G9 … G dominant 9 … 1, 2, 3, 5, b7
  • G-9 … G minor 9 … 1, 2, b3, 5, b7
  • G-11 … G minor 11 … 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b7,
  • G-13 … G minor 13 … 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7

Other Common Chords:

  • G5 … G with no third (guitarists: a power chord) … 1, 5
  • Gmaj7(no3) … G major 7 no third … 1, 5, 7
  • Gadd9 or G2 … G add 9 … 1, 2, 3, 5
  • G6 … G major 6 … 1, 3, 5, 6
  • G69 … G69 … 1, 2, 3, 5, 6


  • G/3 or G/B … G major first inversion … 1, 3, 5 – 3rd must be the lowest note, others can be in any order
  • G/b3 or G/Bb … G minor first inversion … 1, b3, 5 – 3rd must be the lowest note, others can be in any order
  • G/5 or G/D … G major second inversion … 1, 3, 5 – 3rd must be the lowest note, others can be in any order

Things To Know…

  • When referring to a note or Roman numeral, the sharp (#) and flat (b) symbols come after the note or Roman numeral they are modifying.
  • When referring to a pitch interval, the sharp (#) and flat (b) symbols come after the number they are modifying.
  • These chord symbols are used by musicians and scholars trained in Jazz (and Pop). The Traditional/Classical school of thought uses a different nomenclature.
  • If you find a chord that is written (chord)/(note other than a chord tone), it’s not an inversion, it’s a polychord, which means you should play both chords simultaneously, with the top chord above the bottom chord. For example, a C/F chord is a C major chord with the note F in the bass.
  • For chords with perfect 5th intervals above the root, these 5ths can generally be omitted and it will still be considered the same chord.

For a more extensive list of chords, check Wikipedia: Types of Chords (they actually did a pretty good job with this one).

Keith’s Easy Explanation Of Chord Tensions

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 11 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

theory-lessonsNote: this post requires a basic knowledge of intervals.

A chord tension is any note in a chord that is not considered integral to the chord (the integral notes are called ‘chord tones’). Tensions are also referred to as ‘added colors’ or ”non-chord tones’ (I try to avoid using the latter term because means something different in Traditional/Classical harmony).

There are only three possible tensions: 9, 11, and 13 (in other words: 2nds, 4ths, and 6th, respectively). But these notes are not considered tensions on every chord–the only way to know for sure is to have a good knowledge of chords (to get started, read our article on chord abbreviations). These tensions may also be modified by a # (sharp) or b (flat).

Chord tensions are written up an octave (by adding 7 to the interval number) because chords can sound muddy or cluttered if the note intervals are too close together. Tensions tend to come in between chord tones, so these notes are often placed in higher octaves to keep things clean (not to say that chord tones are usually all within one octave-they aren’t). The only exception that comes to mind is that a Cadd9 chord (C major chord with a major 2nd added) is sometimes written C2.

Keith’s Easy Explanation of Voice Leading

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 20 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

theory-lesson2Voice leading is a common songwriting or arranging technique which (traditionally) results in smooth-sounding chord transitions.

To use smooth or ‘proper’ voice leading when arranging a chord progression for an ensemble, write each instrument’s part so that the performers will make the smallest note jumps possible or no jump at all if the note occurs in both chords (“common tones”).

This technique is particularly important when writing harmonies for background vocalists because smaller jumps are easier to hear and sing against a melody.

Soloists and lead singers are expected to break from this principle, since larger melodic leaps provide interest and can make a melody more memorable.

Tritones & Why Locrian Mode “Doesn’t Exist”

Posted by Keith Freund On June - 27 - 20099 COMMENTS

theory-lesson2Note: This post requires a basic knowledge of intervals, which you can acquire by checking out my post Keith’s Crash Course On Intervals for Self-Taught Musicians. If you are not familiar with solfege syllables (do re mi fa sol), also read our Solfege Syllables To Intervals Translation chart.




This article comes as a response to a user question left in a comment on my article on modes. The question is:

Why (supposedly) can’t we hear Locrian mode?

Of all the seven modes derived from the major scale, Locrian is the only one considered to be a “theoretical mode”–one that our ears cannot actually hear. While there are supposed examples of Locrian mode, naysayers can argue that while these songs appear to be Locrian on paper, we hear them as a combination of chords borrowed from different parallel modes (“modal interchange”) or as being in a relative key.*

First, let’s explore what makes this particular tonality so interesting. Locrian is the only mode with a tritone interval and no perfect fifth (relative to the root note, not between the other notes of the key–in other words there is fi but no sol [see solfege chart]). This means that the root chord of a Locrian song is a diminished triad, which is comprised of the root, a minor third, and a tritone (the tritone would be called a diminished fifth in this context). It is this tritone that makes a diminished triad inherently unstable. While root chords are supposed to sound like a point of resolution or finality, tritones are so unstable that some say our ears can usually only hear them as going somewhere; we cannot hear a I diminished triad as ‘home.’

The most common place to find a tritone is in a V7 chord (V dominant 7), one of only a few seventh chords regularly used in classical music, and a chord which almost always resolves to I. The reason is because of its tritone. In my Intervals post, I explained that only intervals between the root and other notes are considered essential to a chord, not the relationships between the other notes. Tritones are the exception. This interval is so dissonant that it stands out in any context. The V7 has a tritone interval between its major 3rd and minor 7th. The major 3rd of a V7 chord will always be the leading tone (major 7th of the key or solfege syllable ti) and the minor 7th on the V7 chord will always be fa. When we listen to a V7 chord, our ears hear a strong pull from the leading tone up to solfege syllable do (root of the key) and from fa down to mi (major third of the key). Put do and mi together and you’ve got the I major chord.

Example: in the key of C major, a V7 chord is GBDF. B is both the major 3rd in this G7 chord and the leading tone of C major. F is the minor 7th and fa.

Technically speaking, there are several characteristics that are unique to a tritone. For one, it is the only interval which inverts to itself. For example, if you take the tritone interval from G to Db and flip it you get Db to G–another tritone. Secondly, it is the only interval which is not considered major, minor, or perfect. (It just is, man.) The tritone is in a league of its own.

Each of the 13 possible intervals are considered more stable (“consonant”) or less stable (“dissonant”). The tritone is one of the most dissonant. Played alone, a minor 2nd is more dissonant and jarring. This interval, like a tritone, is in neither the major (Ionian) nor minor (Aeolian) scales. In the context of a chord, however, a minor 2nd can sound quite pretty. In a major 7 chord, for example, the distance from the major 7th up to the root is a minor 2nd. But since we hear the major 7th interval going in the opposite direction, it sounds dissonant in a colorful way. Tritones always sound a little jarring to me (and yes, I’m including dominant chords). In the case of both intervals, our ear wants to hear perfect intervals (a unison and a perfect fifth, respectively), but they fall slightly short.

The latest pop song to come anywhere close to Locrian lately is Ciara’s “Like A Surgeon,” which features fi as the second bass note during the chorus (G in the key of C# minor). You could call this a borrowed chord (bVmaj7 from C# Lydian), but perhaps another brief flirtation with polytonality a la “Single Ladies” (both songs feature the writing and production of The-Dream and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart) because she sings minor 2nd (called a b9 tension in this context) over it, which is not considered an available tension on major 7 chords.

Most common examples of Locrian are riffs (short melodies which are repeated), not songs. The reasons why our ears tend to drift astray when hearing Locrian only apply to chords and harmony. Riffs are not like chords. They are more flexible. Because the notes are not occurring simultaneously (in the case of many rock riffs), our ear does not hear all of the same tendencies that intervals might suggest. All this being said, it’s hard not to hear YYZ as Locrian with the lead riff constantly reinforcing the root.

This Solfege Syllables to Intervals Translation Chart was designed to help self-taught musicians follow along in future FYM Blog posts, particularly our Compositional Analysis series. This guide uses intervals relative to the root note of the key going up in half steps. Also be sure to check out Keith’s Crash Course On Intervals For Self-Taught Musicians.

Solfege Syllables To Intervals Translation Chart

Text (For Copy & Pasting):

* do – Perfect Unison (Root)

* ra – Minor 2nd

* re – Major 2nd

* me – Minor 3rd

* mi – Major 3rd

* fa – Perfect 4th

* fi – Tritone

* sol – Perfect 5th

* le – Minor 6th

* la – Major 6th

* te – Minor 7th

* ti – Major 7th (Leading Tone)

* do – Perfect Octave (Root)

For example: in the key of C, C# is called ra, G is sol, Bb is te, and so forth.



Also note that some of these intervals can have a different solfege name in certain contexts, but these are the “default” names and they are all you need to know in order to understand our song analyses.


theory-lesson2This post is #2 in my series of music theory lessons. My feeling is that music theory resources on the internet are fairly scattered and typically not for beginners. Theory lessons shouldn’t make anyone run away screaming or scratching their heads, but good luck prying through Wikipedia’s music theory knowledge base, which explains things in thorough, but often highly confusing ways. Much of what I talk about in my Compositional Analysis series requires a basic understanding of theory, but anyone who is interested should be able to read along. I will be using these posts as references for that series. If anything is not clear, feel free to leave a comment.

The distance between two notes is known as an “interval.” Each interval has it’s own name, and these names are useful for analyzing, understanding, and talking about music. I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, here are the 13* basic note intervals in order, with examples starting from C:

  • Perfect Unison (C to C – must be identical pitches, no octave displacement)
  • Minor 2nd (C to Db)
  • Major 2nd (C to D)
  • Minor 3rd (C to Eb)
  • Major 3rd (C to E)
  • Perfect 4th (C to F)
  • Tritone (C to F#)
  • Perfect 5th (C to G)
  • Minor 6th (C to Ab)
  • Major 6th (C to A)
  • Minor 7th (C to Bb)
  • Major 7th (C to B, a.k.a. the “Leading Tone”**)
  • Perfect Octave (C to C – displaced by an octave up or down)

Listen to these intervals.

As you can see, each of these intervals are classified as major, minor, or perfect except for the tritone. In a simple world, it would follow that major intervals come from the major scale, minor intervals come from the minor scale, and perfect intervals are present in both. But it’s slightly more complicated than that. You may notice, for example, that the major 2nd is present in both the major and minor scales and the minor 2nd isn’t in either scale (I’m referring to intervals from the root, not intervals between the other notes in the scale).

In order for an interval to be considered “perfect” it must meet two requirements:

  1. It must be present in both the Ionian (major) and Aeolian (minor) scales.
  2. When inverted***, that interval must be present in both the Ionian and Aeolian scales. Though the major 2nd interval is present in both Ionian and Aeolian scales, it is not considered perfect because it inverts to a minor 7th–an interval which is only in Aeolian. Calling it a major 2nd works out nicely because it means that all major intervals invert to become minor intervals and vice versa.

So who cares whether an interval is major or minor? Why not just have a unique name for everything? Why not just call them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 […] 11, 12, 13? The reason is because chords are built in stacks of thirds and the types of thirds which make up a chord determine its very essence.

There are two main types of chords: triads and seventh chords.


Triads consist of three notes stacked in intervals of thirds moving up from the root.**** Check out a G major chord: G, B, D. That’s a triad. From G to B, there is a major third interval. The interval from B to D is a minor third, however note that only the intervals from the root to the other notes determine a chord’s quality.†

When someone says “play a G chord” they’re referring to a G major triad by default. When someone says “play a G minor chord” they’re referring to the G minor triad. There are other chords other than triads which are based on G, but if someone refers to a chord, they mean a triad unless otherwise indicated by additional words or numbers (other than major or minor).††

Seventh Chords

All seventh chords have four notes: a triad with a seventh. If we add the next third from the G major scale (F#) on top of our G triad, we have a G major 7 chord.  There are four different types of seventh chords: major 7, minor 7, diminished 7, and dominant. I won’t go in depth on these chords for now, but know that if you keep building in thirds on top of a 7th chord, all additional notes are called tensions. Tensions are not considered functionally essential to a chord but are said to add color.

*Inversion means you flip the interval. So a minor 2nd inverts to a major 7th, a perfect fifth inverts to a perfect fourth, etc.

**Only known as the leading tone in the context of a scale or key signature, not in the context of chords. So the major 7th on the chord would not be called a leading tone unless it were the Imaj7 chord.

***If you have ever looked at a jazz chart or tried to learn songs out of a guitar magazine, you’ve probably also seen 10ths, 11ths, etc. These are called tensions. They’re all based on the 13 basic intervals but have additional octaves in between them.

****There are also suspended triads, which use a major 2nd or a perfect fourth to take the place of a third.

†But if you really want to get crazy when thinking about chords, think of the relationship between every note in a chord and how this might subtly effect its impact on a listener. The spacing between the notes of a chord (the order in which you place notes, the octave registers you put them in, and the number of instances of any given note in a chord) is known as the chord’s “voicing.” Certain styles use certain types of voicings, and most instruments can play certain types of voicings more easily than others.

††For example, suspended (sus), augmented (aug), add 9, major 7 (“maj 7”), etc.

UPDATED: July 19th, 2011

I listen to all types of music, but I think you’ll see from this blog that pop music is what gets me excited. From years of working as an audio engineer, I’ve found that many pop songwriters (except the old school ones at the very top) have little, if any, formal music education. But the internet is changing all that, and I want to help in any way that I can. I’ve researched modes online to see what’s out there, and frankly most of it is either downright confusing or written exclusively for guitarists. So without further adieu…

Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians

You probably already know that there are two types of keys: major and minor (aka the “happy” and “sad” scales, respectively). But what if I told you that there are also 5 other exciting, sexy scales to choose from?

pianoPlay a major scale. Now play those same notes, but this time start from the sixth note (or “degree”) of the scale. You’ll notice that it sounds dark–you’re playing what’s known as the “relative minor” of your original major scale. Every major scale has one. Take C major and A minor, for example: they are comprised of the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano) but sound very different.

Already knew that? Here’s something you may not have tried: start from another degree of the major scale other than the first or sixth. These scales are called modes. You’ll notice that they have an unusual but not entirely unfamiliar sound. Each mode has its own general vibe. Technically, the major and minor scales are also considered modes, but songs written in these two most common scales are not thought of as “modal” music. Listed in order of degrees that they start from on the major scale:

1 – The Major Scale (aka “Ionian Mode”) – The most common scale there is.

2 – Dorian Mode – Minor with an exotic twist.* Often associated with the Eastern world, particularly Asia, or psychedelic music (see: the first half of “Come Alive“). Minor scale shape with a raised 6th degree (starting from the root of this Dorian scale, not from the relative major scale).

3 – Phrygian Mode – Darker than the regular minor scale. Most commonly used in metal and rap (see: “Swagger Like Us“). Minor scale shape with a lowered 2nd degree.

4 – Lydian Mode – Major with an exotic twist. Used mostly in film music and dreamy rock (see: intro to “Dancin Days“). Major scale shape with raised 4th degree.

5 – Mixolydian – Major with a rock edge. Defined the 90s pop rock sound (see: “Since U Been Gone“). Can sometimes sound Eastern. Often referred to as “Mixo” for short. Major scale shape with a flatted 7th degree.

6 – The Minor Scale – All styles. More specifically called “natural minor” or “aeolian mode.” I sometimes call it the “regular minor” scale because everyone knows what that means, but that’s not an academic name for it.

7 – Locrian Mode – A very unstable, confusing-sounding version of minor. (see: “YYZ“) Some argue that our ears cannot perceive a song as being Locrian for reasons which I will not get into. Minor scale shape with a flatted 2nd and 5th degree.

To make things even clearer, you can play the following scales with the notes CDEFGAB:

C Major, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Minor, and B Locrian.

Now you’re probably wondering: “if all these scales use the same notes, how do we know what mode a song is in?” After all, if you read my compositional analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, you know that major key songs don’t always start on the root note.

Unfortunately that answer is mostly beyond the scope of this article and not always definitive. Each mode has its own identifying characteristics in a compositional context (versus a soloing context), but for now, try to hear which root note/chord feels like “home,” and use that information, along with which scale degrees are being used, to deduce what mode you’re in.

It can be tough to write something that actually sounds modal, because certain chords will cause the listener to hear the song in the relative major or minor key (the one that has the same notes as whatever mode you’re in). For this reason, there is typically very little bass movement in modal music.

Modes are not the end-all be-all of music or scales. Far from it. There are many other harmonic possibilities including pentatonic scales (5 notes per scale instead of 7), harmonic minor (regular minor with a raised 7th), songs where the key changes from section to section, songs that borrow chords from parallel keys, secondary dominant chords, and even songs with two different keys at once (polytonality). The list goes on. Nonetheless, being aware of modes will give you yet another tool for your songwriting toolbox.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If there’s something you still don’t understand, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to clarify it. Theory won’t make you a great songwriter, and it’s certainly not required for becoming one, but you can think of it as a toolbox for understanding what you love or hate about certain songs and a potential cure for writer’s block.

*A great rock guitar player on getting through jazz solos: “play dorian over everything and people will think you’re hip.”

THEORY LESSONS: Table of Contents

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 11 - 2007COMMENT ON THIS POST

Refer to this archive of our Theory Lessons as needed while you follow along with our Compositional Analysis series.

Key Concepts:

Additional Concepts:

Advanced Reading:


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