Exploring the Fundamentals of Music Theory: How Does Music Theory Work?

Music theory is the study of the fundamental principles that govern the composition and performance of music. It is a complex and multifaceted subject that encompasses a wide range of topics, including melody, harmony, rhythm, and form. Understanding music theory is essential for anyone who wants to learn how to read and write music, as well as for those who want to gain a deeper appreciation of the art form. In this article, we will explore the basics of music theory and answer the question: how does music theory work? We will delve into the fundamental concepts that underpin the subject, including scales, chords, and key signatures, and discover how they come together to create the beautiful and complex music that we know and love. Whether you are a seasoned musician or a complete beginner, this article will provide you with a solid foundation in music theory and a better understanding of the art form as a whole.

Understanding the Basics of Music Theory

The Importance of Scales and Modes

Scales and modes are fundamental concepts in music theory that define the structure and organization of musical melodies and harmonies. Scales are series of musical notes arranged in ascending or descending order of pitch, while modes are specific patterns of scales that are used to create melodies.

Major and Minor Scales

The most commonly used scales in Western music are the major and minor scales. The major scale is composed of seven notes arranged in a specific pattern, while the minor scale has a different pattern of notes that gives it a distinct sound. The major scale is used to create major chords, while the minor scale is used to create minor chords.


Modes are variations of scales that have been used in various musical traditions throughout history. There are seven modes in Western music, each with its own unique pattern of notes and characteristic sound. These modes include the Dorian mode, Phrygian mode, Lydian mode, Mixolydian mode, Aeolian mode, and Ionian mode.

Each mode is associated with a specific emotion or mood and can be used to create unique melodies and harmonies. For example, the Dorian mode is often used to create a feeling of sadness or melancholy, while the Mixolydian mode is associated with a more playful or upbeat feeling.

Understanding the basics of scales and modes is essential for composers, musicians, and music theorists to create and analyze music. By understanding the structure and organization of these fundamental concepts, musicians can create more complex and interesting melodies and harmonies, while music theorists can analyze and understand the structure of music in greater detail.

Harmony and Chord Progressions

Harmony and chord progressions are fundamental concepts in music theory that are essential for understanding how music works. In simple terms, harmony refers to the combination of different pitches or notes to create a pleasing or interesting sound, while chord progressions refer to the sequence of chords used in a song or piece of music.

Triads and Four-Part Harmony

A triad is a basic harmonic unit consisting of three notes, typically played simultaneously. These notes are often referred to as the root, third, and fifth of the chord. Four-part harmony, also known as counterpoint, involves the simultaneous use of multiple independent melodic lines. Understanding triads and four-part harmony is essential for creating complex and interesting harmonies.

Analysis of Common Chord Progressions

There are many common chord progressions used in popular music that can be analyzed to understand how music theory works. For example, the I-IV-V progression is a common chord progression used in blues and jazz music. The “I” chord is the first chord in the progression, the “IV” chord is the fourth chord, and the “V” chord is the fifth chord. Understanding how these chords work together can help you create your own music that sounds professional and polished.

Another common chord progression is the ii-V-I progression, which is commonly used in jazz music. This progression involves the use of the second and fifth chords in a key, followed by the first chord. By analyzing these progressions, you can gain a deeper understanding of how music theory works and how to create interesting and complex harmonies.

Rhythm and Meter

Rhythm and meter are two fundamental aspects of music theory that help to define the structure and feel of a piece of music.

Time Signatures

Time signatures are used to indicate the rhythmic structure of a piece of music. They consist of two numbers separated by a colon, with the top number indicating the number of beats in a measure and the bottom number indicating the type of note that gets the beat. For example, a time signature of 4/4 means that there are four quarter notes in a measure, and the first beat is counted as “1, 2, 3, 4.”

Syncopation and Polyrhythms

Syncopation refers to the accenting of off-beat rhythms, creating a feeling of tension and release. It is a fundamental aspect of many styles of music, including jazz, rock, and hip-hop.

Polyrhythms are rhythms that combine two or more conflicting rhythms, creating a complex and often dissonant sound. For example, a rhythm with a time signature of 4/4 might be played over a rhythm with a time signature of 3/4, creating a polyrhythm.

Both syncopation and polyrhythms can add complexity and interest to a piece of music, but they can also be challenging to master. Understanding the basics of rhythm and meter is essential for composers, musicians, and music theorists alike.

Key Signatures and Transposition

Major and Minor Key Signatures

Key signatures are a crucial aspect of music theory, as they determine the tonality of a piece and establish the central note or key around which the music revolves. In Western music, there are two main types of key signatures: major and minor. Each key signature consists of a specific pattern of sharps or flats placed at the beginning of a line of music, which alters the pitch of the notes that follow.

The major key signature consists of a pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H) that determines the distance between the tonic and the other notes in the scale. The major scale is made up of seven notes: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. The key signature for the major scale is represented by the absence of any flats or sharps (i.e., a “natural” sign). For example, the key of C major has no sharps or flats in its key signature, while the key of G major has one sharp (F#) in its key signature.

The minor key signature, on the other hand, has a different pattern of whole and half steps. The natural minor scale is made up of the following pattern: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. The key signature for the natural minor scale is represented by the presence of a lowercase “b” for each of the notes in the scale. For example, the key of A minor has one flat (Bb) in its key signature, while the key of E minor has four flats (Bb-Eb-Ab-Sb).

Transposition: Concepts and Practical Applications

Transposition is the process of changing the pitch of a melody or harmony to a different key without altering the actual notes themselves. This technique is essential for composers and musicians, as it allows them to adapt their music to different keys and ensembles without having to rewrite the entire piece.

Transposition involves changing the pitch of each note in a melody or harmony by a specific interval or intervals. For example, if a melody is transposed up a whole step, each note in the melody will be raised by a half step. Conversely, if a melody is transposed down a whole step, each note in the melody will be lowered by a half step.

Practical applications of transposition include adapting a piece of music for different instruments or vocal ranges, transcribing a piece of music from one key to another, and creating new melodies or harmonies based on existing ones. Understanding the basics of transposition is crucial for any musician, as it allows them to navigate the complexities of music theory and create music that is both innovative and effective.

Building Blocks of Music Theory: Notation and Terminology

Key takeaway: Scales and modes are fundamental concepts in music theory that define the structure and organization of musical melodies and harmonies. Understanding these concepts is essential for composers, musicians, and music theorists to create and analyze music. Additionally, harmony and chord progressions, rhythm and meter, key signatures, and common music terms and definitions are important aspects of music theory that contribute to the overall structure and feel of a piece of music.

Musical Notation

Musical notation is the written representation of music using symbols and markings. It is a crucial aspect of music theory, as it allows musicians to communicate and understand musical ideas. Musical notation consists of five basic elements: pitch, duration, dynamics, articulation, and tempo.


Pitch is the perceived highness or lowness of a sound. In Western music, pitch is measured in terms of frequency, with higher frequencies corresponding to higher pitches. Musical notation uses the staff to represent pitch, with each line and space representing a different pitch. The staff is divided into treble and bass clefs, which indicate the range of pitches that each clef represents.


Duration refers to the length of a note or rest. In musical notation, notes are represented by their shape and position on the staff. Notes can be whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on, with each note representing a different duration. Rest durations are also represented by symbols, with the length of the rest corresponding to the duration of the rest.


Dynamics refer to the volume or intensity of a note or passage. In musical notation, dynamics are represented by Italian terms such as piano (soft), mezzo-forte (moderately loud), and forte (loud). These terms are usually written above or below the staff, indicating the dynamic level for a particular passage.


Articulation refers to the way in which notes are played or sung. In musical notation, articulation is represented by various symbols, such as staccato (short and detached), legato (smooth and connected), and accent (emphasized). These symbols are usually written above or below the staff, indicating the desired articulation for a particular passage.


Tempo refers to the speed or pace of a piece of music. In musical notation, tempo is usually indicated by a metronome marking, which indicates the number of beats per minute. Musicians use this marking to ensure that they are playing or singing at the correct speed.

In summary, musical notation is a system of symbols and markings that represents musical ideas in a written form. It includes elements such as pitch, duration, dynamics, articulation, and tempo, which are all essential aspects of music theory. By understanding musical notation, musicians can communicate and understand musical ideas more effectively, and use this knowledge to create and perform music.

Common Music Terms and Definitions

Tempo refers to the speed or pace at which a piece of music is performed. It is typically measured in beats per minute (BPM) and is indicated by the tempo marking, which is usually placed at the beginning of a piece of music. Common tempo markings include “Allegro” (fast), “Adagio” (slow), and “Andante” (at a walking pace).

Dynamics refer to the volume or loudness of a piece of music. Dynamic markings indicate how loud or soft to play a particular passage or section of music. Common dynamic markings include “forte” (loud), “piano” (soft), and “crescendo” (getting louder) and “decrescendo” (getting softer).

Articulation refers to the clarity and definition of individual notes in a piece of music. It is achieved through various techniques such as staccato, legato, and accent. Staccato indicates that a note should be played short and separated from the surrounding notes. Legato indicates that a note should be played smoothly and connected to the surrounding notes. Accent indicates that a particular note should be emphasized or stressed.

Expression Markings

Expression markings refer to the emotional content of a piece of music. They indicate how the music should be interpreted and expressed. Common expression markings include “molto” (very), “crescendo” (getting louder), “decrescendo” (getting softer), “appoggiatura” (a slight pause or stretching of a note), and “staccato” (a separation of notes). These markings help the performer to convey the desired emotion and mood of the music to the audience.

Applying Music Theory to Different Styles and Genres

Classical Music Theory

Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart’s Contributions

Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are among the most renowned composers in the history of classical music. Their contributions to music theory have been vast and profound, shaping the development of the field throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras.

Bach, known for his intricate counterpoint and ornate harmonies, refined the concept of voice leading and developed techniques such as the use of the “Well-Tempered Clavier,” a collection of 48 preludes and fugues that helped standardize tuning practices.

Beethoven, the “creative revolutionary,” expanded upon the Classical-era norms by introducing a more dramatic and expressive style. He experimented with form, disregarding the typical symmetry in his works, and employed a more extensive range of dynamics, articulating his intentions through unique markings in his scores. Beethoven’s music also featured a greater emphasis on individuality, moving away from the traditional emphasis on the collective and the shared.

Mozart, known for his exceptional skill and prodigious output, furthered the development of music theory through his innovative use of thematic transformation and his exploration of operatic and instrumental forms. Mozart’s compositions showcase his mastery of form, as he seamlessly combined various styles and techniques, contributing to the advancement of harmonic and textural complexity.

Music Theory in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic Eras

During the Baroque era, music theory primarily focused on the study of counterpoint and the development of complex, intricate melodies. Composers like Bach and Handel explored the limits of harmony and voice leading, while theorists like Johann Fux refined the understanding of counterpoint through the publication of his treatise “Gradus ad Parnassum.”

The Classical era, characterized by simplicity and clarity, saw the development of a more structured approach to music theory. Theorists like Christoph Willibald Gluck and Charles Burney contributed to the understanding of form and harmony, while composers like Haydn and Mozart expanded upon the principles established by their predecessors.

The Romantic era, marked by emotional expression and individuality, saw a significant shift in music theory. Theorists like Heinrich Christoph Koch and Carl Friedrich Zelter explored the role of tonality and the function of the dominant seventh chord, while composers like Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms pushed the boundaries of harmony and form, creating a more personal and expressive style.

Throughout these eras, music theory evolved to encompass the development of notation systems, the exploration of modal and tonal systems, and the study of form and structure. The contributions of composers and theorists alike have shaped the foundation of music theory as we know it today, providing a solid basis for understanding and analyzing various styles and genres of music.

Popular Music Theory

Contemporary Music Theory

Contemporary music theory is a subset of popular music theory that deals with the study of music created in the present day. This theory encompasses a wide range of styles, including pop, rock, hip-hop, and electronic dance music. It involves the analysis of chord progressions, melodies, and rhythms, as well as the study of the various musical elements that contribute to the overall sound and feel of a particular style.

Chord Progressions in Pop, Rock, and Jazz

Chord progressions are a fundamental aspect of popular music theory, and they play a crucial role in defining the overall sound and feel of different genres. In pop and rock music, chord progressions often follow a predictable pattern, such as the I-IV-V progression or the vi-IV-I-V progression. In jazz, chord progressions are more complex and can involve a greater number of chords, as well as more varied rhythms and melodies.

One of the key aspects of popular music theory is the use of chord progressions to create a sense of tension and release. By carefully selecting chords and the order in which they are played, musicians can create a dynamic and engaging musical experience that keeps listeners interested and engaged. Additionally, popular music theory also encompasses the study of melody, rhythm, and harmony, all of which play a crucial role in defining the overall sound and feel of different styles of music.

Experimental Music Theory

Experimental music theory is a branch of music theory that explores unconventional and avant-garde approaches to creating music. This field of study is concerned with pushing the boundaries of traditional music theory and creating new sounds and musical techniques.

Some of the key concepts in experimental music theory include atonal and serial techniques, which involve the use of non-tonal and non-repetitive sounds and patterns, and electroacoustic music and synthesis, which involves the use of electronic devices and technology to create and manipulate sound.

Atonal and Serial Techniques

Atonal music is a type of music that does not adhere to the traditional concepts of tonality, or the organization of pitches in a musical composition. Instead, atonal music often employs non-tonal sounds and patterns, such as noise, electronics, and other unconventional sources.

Serialism is a technique that involves the repetition of a specific pattern of pitches or other musical elements throughout a composition. This technique was first developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century and has since been used by many composers and musicians to create unconventional and avant-garde music.

Electroacoustic Music and Synthesis

Electroacoustic music is a type of music that involves the use of electronic devices and technology to create and manipulate sound. This can include the use of synthesizers, computers, and other electronic instruments to create a wide range of sounds and musical textures.

Synthesis is the process of creating new sounds and musical textures using electronic devices and technology. This can involve the manipulation of audio signals, the use of digital signal processing techniques, and the creation of new sounds using various algorithms and software.

Overall, experimental music theory is a fascinating and constantly evolving field of study that pushes the boundaries of traditional music theory and creates new and innovative approaches to creating music.

Bridging the Gap: Learning and Practicing Music Theory

The Role of Ear Training

In order to fully grasp the intricacies of music theory, it is essential to develop a strong sense of aural skills. This is where ear training comes into play. Ear training involves developing the ability to identify and understand various musical elements solely through listening.

There are several key areas within ear training that musicians should focus on in order to improve their skills. These include:

  • Pitch Recognition: This involves being able to identify the pitch of a particular sound. This skill is crucial for understanding melodies and harmonies, as well as transcribing music.
  • Sight Singing: This refers to the ability to sing a piece of music solely from sight, without prior practice or familiarity. Sight singing is an important skill for choral singers and musicians who frequently work with new music.
  • Harmonic Dictation: This involves identifying the harmonies present in a piece of music, as well as the chords and progressions. This skill is important for understanding the structure of a piece of music and how different elements relate to one another.

Developing these skills through consistent practice and exposure to a wide variety of musical styles and genres can greatly enhance a musician’s understanding of music theory and help them to more effectively apply theoretical concepts to their playing and compositions.

Resources for Music Theory Learning

Textbooks and Online Courses

  • A comprehensive approach to learning music theory can be achieved through textbooks and online courses.
  • Textbooks offer a structured learning experience, covering various aspects of music theory in a step-by-step manner.
  • Online courses provide flexibility and allow learners to study at their own pace, offering interactive and engaging lessons.

Music Theory Software and Apps

  • Music theory software and apps serve as interactive tools to help learners practice and understand various music theory concepts.
  • Some popular software and apps include Noteflight, Musition, and Auralia.
  • These tools offer features such as ear training exercises, quizzes, and digital sheet music to aid in the learning process.

Online Forums and Communities

  • Engaging with online forums and communities dedicated to music theory can be a valuable resource for learners.
  • These communities provide opportunities for discussion, feedback, and support from fellow musicians and music educators.
  • Websites such as Reddit’s “MusicTheory” subreddit and the “Musicians on Reddit” community offer a platform for learners to ask questions, share resources, and collaborate with others.

Practical Applications for Musicians

  • Writing Music
    • Understanding music theory allows musicians to compose their own pieces and create original music.
    • Knowledge of scales, chords, and progressions enables composers to create music that follows established musical principles and guidelines.
    • Music theory also helps musicians to avoid common compositional pitfalls and creates a foundation for experimentation and innovation.
  • Arranging and Orchestration
    • Arranging involves taking a piece of music and adapting it for different instruments or voices.
    • Music theory provides the framework for understanding how different instruments or voices can be used together to create a cohesive musical piece.
    • Orchestration is the process of assigning specific instruments or voices to specific parts in a piece of music.
    • Knowledge of music theory helps musicians to make informed decisions about which instruments or voices to use and how to use them effectively.
  • Improvisation and Jamming
    • Improvisation is the act of creating music spontaneously without prior preparation.
    • Music theory provides the tools and knowledge needed to create melodies, harmonies, and rhythms on the spot.
    • Understanding music theory also helps musicians to anticipate and respond to the improvisations of others, making jam sessions and collaborations more effective and enjoyable.

Overall, practical applications of music theory in writing music, arranging and orchestration, and improvisation and jamming allow musicians to unlock their full creative potential and enhance their musical abilities.

The Evolution of Music Theory: Past, Present, and Future

Historical Development of Music Theory

The development of music theory can be traced back to ancient civilizations, with each era contributing to its evolution. This section will delve into the historical development of music theory, exploring the significant milestones and advancements in the field.

Ancient Greece and the Classical Period

The earliest known music theory can be attributed to the ancient Greeks, who believed that music was a divine gift. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras is credited with the development of the first known system of musical proportions, which emphasized the importance of mathematical relationships in music. The Greek theorist Aristoxenus further developed Pythagoras’ ideas, focusing on the classification of scales and the organization of melodic and harmonic structures.

Renaissance and Baroque Eras

During the Renaissance, music theory continued to evolve, with theorists such as Guillaume de Morlaye and Gioseffo Zarlino refining the understanding of musical proportions and harmony. The development of the well-tempered tuning system allowed for greater flexibility in composing and performing music, enabling composers like Johann Sebastian Bach to create intricate polyphonic works.

In the Baroque era, music theory advanced through the work of theorists like Jean-Philippe Rameau, who developed a comprehensive system of musical harmony and analysis. His treatise, “Harmonie Réduite à une Simple Analogie,” laid the groundwork for future generations of theorists and composers.

Classical and Romantic Eras

The Classical era saw the continued refinement of music theory, with theorists like Christoph Wagenseil and Carl Czerny exploring the relationship between harmony, counterpoint, and form. During this time, the concept of sonata form emerged, which became a central structural element in instrumental music.

In the Romantic era, music theory expanded to encompass the emotional and expressive qualities of music. Theorists like Heinrich Schenker and Carl Maria von Weber explored the use of chromatic harmony and the role of tonality in Romantic music. The works of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner also played a significant role in shaping the understanding of music theory during this period.

In conclusion, the historical development of music theory has been a gradual process, with each era building upon the achievements of the previous one. From the ancient Greeks to the Romantic era, theorists and composers have contributed to the evolution of music theory, shaping our understanding of melody, harmony, rhythm, and form.

Contemporary Developments in Music Theory

  • Spectralism and Postminimalism
  • Microtonal Music and Just Intonation
  • Algorithmic Composition and Artificial Intelligence

Contemporary Developments in Music Theory

The evolution of music theory has been shaped by numerous factors, including advancements in technology, cross-cultural exchange, and the emergence of new musical styles. This section will explore some of the most significant contemporary developments in music theory.

Spectralism and Postminimalism

Spectralism is a musical movement that emerged in the late 20th century, emphasizing the importance of timbre and the spectral properties of sound. Composers in this movement, such as Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, utilize complex techniques such as microtonality and extended techniques to create a sense of timbral transformation and continuity.

Postminimalism, on the other hand, is a broad term used to describe a variety of musical styles that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement is characterized by the use of simple, repetitive musical structures, often combined with non-Western musical elements. Composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass are well-known for their contributions to the postminimalist movement.

Microtonal Music and Just Intonation

Microtonal music is a type of music that uses intervals smaller than the standard Western tuning system. This type of music has been around for centuries, but it has gained renewed interest in recent years due to advances in technology that allow for more precise tuning.

Just intonation is a tuning system that is based on the mathematical ratios of harmonics, rather than the equal temperament used in Western music. This system allows for more accurate representation of harmonic relationships and has been used by composers such as Harry Partch and La Monte Young.

Algorithmic Composition and Artificial Intelligence

The use of technology in music composition has been a growing trend in recent years. Algorithmic composition involves the use of computer algorithms to generate musical patterns and structures. This approach has been used by composers such as Brian Eno and Jodi Rose, who use software to create complex musical structures that would be difficult or impossible to achieve by hand.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has also been used in music composition, with software programs that can analyze existing music and generate new pieces based on patterns and structures found in the original works. This approach has been used by composers such as Jukin Media and Amper Music, who use AI to generate music for use in film and advertising.

In conclusion, the evolution of music theory is an ongoing process that is shaped by numerous factors, including technological advancements, cultural exchange, and the emergence of new musical styles. The contemporary developments in music theory, such as spectralism, postminimalism, microtonal music, just intonation, algorithmic composition, and artificial intelligence, reflect the diversity and richness of the current musical landscape.

Future Directions in Music Theory

Music theory is a constantly evolving field, and there are several exciting directions in which it is headed.

Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations

One of the key areas of focus in the future of music theory is cross-disciplinary collaborations. This involves working with other fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and computer science to gain a deeper understanding of how music works and how it affects us. For example, researchers may use fMRI scans to study the brain activity of people listening to music, or they may use machine learning algorithms to analyze large amounts of data about musical structure and composition.

New Technologies and Music Theory

Another important area of focus is the impact of new technologies on music theory. As technology continues to advance, new tools and techniques are being developed that are changing the way we create, perform, and listen to music. For example, digital audio workstations (DAWs) have made it easier for musicians to record, edit, and produce their own music, while virtual instruments and music software have expanded the range of sounds and techniques available to composers and performers.

Globalization and Diversity in Music Theory

Finally, the future of music theory will also be shaped by the increasing globalization and diversity of music. As music from different cultures and traditions becomes more accessible, scholars and researchers are working to develop a more inclusive and diverse music theory that can accommodate a wider range of musical styles and practices. This includes exploring new ways to analyze and describe non-Western musical traditions, as well as incorporating elements of popular music and other non-classical styles into traditional music theory.

Overall, the future of music theory is full of exciting possibilities, and scholars and researchers are eager to explore new directions and collaborations that can help deepen our understanding of this complex and dynamic art form.


1. What is music theory?


Music theory is the study of the language, structure, and techniques used in music. It encompasses various aspects of music, including notation, scales, chords, rhythm, melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Music theory helps musicians and composers understand how music works and how to create and analyze musical compositions.

2. How does music theory work?

Music theory works by providing a framework for understanding the fundamental elements of music. It uses various tools and concepts to describe and analyze musical structures and patterns. For example, music theory explains how different scales work, how chords are constructed, and how rhythm is organized. By understanding these concepts, musicians can create and perform music more effectively.

3. What are the key components of music theory?

The key components of music theory include melody, harmony, rhythm, and form. Melody refers to the sequence of single pitches that make up a musical line. Harmony refers to the combination of pitches that are played or sung simultaneously. Rhythm refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed beats in music. Form refers to the structure of a musical composition, including its sections and themes.

4. How do I learn music theory?

There are many ways to learn music theory, including taking classes, reading books, and watching online tutorials. It’s important to start with the basics, such as learning how to read sheet music and understanding the different elements of a musical composition. As you progress, you can delve deeper into more advanced concepts, such as harmonic analysis and counterpoint. Practice is also essential, so try to apply what you learn by composing or playing music.

5. What are the benefits of learning music theory?

Learning music theory has many benefits, including improving your musical skills, enhancing your creativity, and deepening your appreciation of music. It can also help you communicate more effectively with other musicians and understand the work of other composers. Additionally, understanding music theory can make it easier to learn new musical styles and genres, as you’ll have a framework for understanding the underlying structures and patterns.

How I’d Learn Music Theory (If I Had To Start Over)

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