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The Ultimate Guide to Learning Music Theory

Why learn music theory?

I’ve been toying with making music for about 30 years now. Usually, I would get really excited about some event in my life, some interesting tool I’ve seen, or just a song I’ve heard, and would jump into my music-making hobby head first.

The excitement would last for a couple of days but then I would get frustrated with a lack of tangible results and no clues as to what I am doing wrong and I just give up. Often for a number of years. And then the cycle repeats.

About five years ago I realized that it’s the lack of knowledge on how music “works” that is killing my vibe in the very early stages. I tried learning back then but the approach I took wasn’t working and I gave up again.

Now I’m back at it and approaching it differently. And this time, I think, it works! At the very least I’m still interested in both learning and making music months later and I’ve learned more than in the previous 30 years.

The “still interested in making music” is the answer to the title question — by understanding why something works and something else doesn’t I’m able to keep my frustration levels much lower. Obviously, I still make a lot of bad musical decisions but I’m able to analyze and fix them which turns potentially frustrating moments into exciting “aha!” moments.

A living guide

Learning anything is a life-long journey which is a worn-out cliche. In this case, however, I’m still learning very actively and will update this guide as I go. So, make sure you bookmark it or follow me here or on Twitter to get notified of the new updates.

A.I.R. — Absorb, Internalize, Reinforce

Five years ago I bought a music theory book and started reading. It got overwhelming pretty fast. Then I tried watching an online course and the instructor lost me not too far into the course. This time I’ve changed the way I approach it and I like it!

Every good system needs a cheesy name (don’t you hate that?) so I came up with this: Absorb, Internalize and Reinforce or AIR for short. Here’s what I mean…

Absorb. The more you hear the same things repeated in different ways the more you are able to grasp the essence of it and understand the concepts.

Internalize. Hearing the same things over and over again gives you a good outlook on the wide picture but whenever you start digging deeper you realize that your understanding is pretty shallow. You need to internalize the concepts you’ve learned.

Reinforce. Music theory is only good if you can apply it in practice. You can practice as you go about making music but these are two different things that interfere with one another. You need to deliberately practice what you’ve learned to make your understanding applicable on autopilot whenever you actually make music.

I list these concepts in order but don’t think about them as stages. You have to be doing all three in parallel all the time.

In this guide, I’ll cover the techniques, tools, and resources that I think work the best for each activity.

Absorb: Let the knowledge flow over you

In this day and age, the best way to absorb a ton of information is by watching videos online. YouTube is a huge repository of all kinds of videos but you have to sift through a lot of them to find some gems. Paid courses, on the other hand, are usually much better produced but they are, well, not free.

Luckily, in addition to really expensive college-style music theory courses, there are quite a lot of really affordable options.

Let’s cover both types…

Free content

If you want to learn just the basics and have only 30 minutes (or just 15 minutes at 2x speed), go no further than this video by Andrew Huang:

You will not get a Ph.D. in music theory after watching it but it presents everything in a very approachable manner without dumbing it down like some other beginner videos I’ve watched.

I’m constantly watching music theory videos on YouTube and adding the best to this playlist. Make sure you save it to your account and you’ll see more curated videos added in the future.

Structured free courses

(updated on April 5th, 2020)

I have now finished Fundamentals of Music Theory course from The University of Edinburgh on Coursera. And I can recommend it.

The course is free but you can pay $49 if you want a certificate.

It consists of 5 weeks of lectures plus a final exam. Each week is about an hour of video content plus reading materials. You can’t consume this course passively — each week ends in a test of about 10 questions and you have to get 80% or more to advance to the next week. And the questions are quite elaborate, not a simple quiz you’d find in other courses. So if you wanted to just absorb the information and move on, this one will not work for you.

The good: clearly explained lectures and tests that actually force you to learn.

The so-so: as can be expected from a university theory course, the concepts are explained and tests are based on a note staff notation, which in my personal opinion distracts beginners from learning the core ideas.

The bad: while overall the videos are well produced, the piano is filmed from an odd angle where hands totally obstruct the view making this type of visual aid quite worthless. They would definitely benefit from something like PianoShow.me.

Paid (but inexpensive) courses

You can find quite a few expensive (I’m talking thousands of dollars) serious courses online but luckily there are very affordable options too.

The niche between quick free videos and college-style courses is occupied by well thought out well-produced but fairly down-to-earth courses. There are plenty of options but I found my home for these for now at a quite unexpected place for many — LinkedIn Learning. It becomes less surprising once you know that LinkedIn acquired Lynda.com back in 2015 but that’s beside the point.

It costs €29.98/month (or 19.99/month with a yearly subscription) but there’s a free 1-month trial. So if you are just interested in a few courses you can go through them during the trial period. Additionally, LinkedIn Learning is included in some Premium LinkedIn plans, so if you have one of those you may get Learning for free.

Though you can cancel after the trial, if you are interested in more than just music theory you may not want to (consider this a warning ;). I’ve bookmarked close to 60 music-related courses (and I was quite picky) and it will take me a while to go through them.

Here are the music theory-related LinkedIn Learning courses I went through:

  1. Music Theory for Songwriters: The Fundamentals by Julian Velard. For a total newbie that I was when I first tried watching this years ago, it got overwhelming pretty quickly. But after I went through a couple of introductory things elsewhere it was quite useful. So don’t start with this if you know nothing yet, but come back to it later in your journey.
  2. Music Theory for Songwriters: Harmony by Julian Velard. A follow-up to the one above so the same applies. Julian covers interesting things but I think at times he forgets about the level of the target audience.
  3. Music Theory for Songwriters: Rhythm by David Franz. This one was really good and to the point. Can recommend it for anyone.

Overall, the courses on LinkedIn Learning are very well produced. At the same time, unlike YouTubers, they are very concerned with copyright issues. So whenever they refer to some well-known example, instead of playing a short excerpt of it they would just refer you to finding it for yourself. I know it’s probably not their fault but still a bit annoying.

Paid content I haven’t tried yet

Many “music theory course” searches lead to Udemy but I was wary about giving them money after a few well-publicized piracy issues in my industry (exhibit 1, exhibit 2). Having said that, I verified with the author that this course is legit. However, you can also get it from the author directly which I plan to do at some point and will update this section.

Internalize: deepen understanding at your own pace

Video courses are great at filling your brain with tons of information but, even though you can stop, rewind, and re-watch, you are still usually going at the instructor’s pace. I found that reading a music theory book in parallel to watching courses (not at the same exact time though :) is a good way to deepen understanding.

Here are two books I can recommend (in order):

  1. Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert by Nicolas Carter

The good: explains things clearly and in-depth without going much into or relying on staff notation. I find that the “proper” music theory books (see below) rely on the notation too heavily and overwhelm a newbie with an extra concept that is not directly related or beneficial to understanding theoretical concepts.

The so-so: the structure of the book is a bit too linear for my taste. It goes from fundamentals almost to the full depth of each subject before moving to the next and starting over. I think some structure where parts were grouped by level would work better.

The ugly: this may not be such a big issue in the ebook version if you read it on a tablet or a computer but for a paper or real eReader version the way audio examples are linked is just ridiculous. Instead of providing a link to a playlist and then referring “example 1.1, etc.” it provides a goo.gl link (which is deprecated, btw) for every single example and there’s no way to just click to the next one. Needless to say, after a few, I just gave up.

Verdict: overall a very good book despite a few minor shortcomings.

2. Music Theory For Dummies by Michael Pilhofer and Holly Day

The good: there’s nothing “for dummies” about this book. Which is both a good and a bad thing. All important subjects are covered and in good detail.

The so-so: this book is probably what a “traditional” music theory book is — it relies heavily on stuff notation and I, honestly, for the most part, don’t see how this is beneficial. In my opinion, sheet reading/writing is a separate subject and here it just adds an extra concept that “dummies” like me can’t handle.

Verdict: this was the book I’ve tried to read ~5 years ago and gave up. I found it much more valuable as I reread it now after the Nicolas Carter book. (P.S.: I have the 3rd edition and current is the 4th).

Pro tip:

In case you aren’t interested in reading a whole book (or a few books) on music theory, most of the good “learn to play piano” and alike books cover quite some ground of music theory. For example, I found an old book I bought many years ago for my daughter called “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Piano” and literally more than half of it is about music theory.

Pro tip 2:

How are you reading your books? I read most of my books on a 6" PocketBook ebook reader (ala Kindle). This size is quite sub-optimal for music theory (as well as any other technical books) — you just can hardly see some things. So, unless you are reading on an iPad or alike, consider buying a paper version of the book.

Reinforce: Practice what you’ve learned

Theory is great but how do you practice it so that the things you’ve learned don’t evaporate over time?

One good way is analyzing the songs you like. A place where you can find a lot of user-generated sheets for a lot of music is MuseScore.com (a sister site of a popular free notation software).

But a more fun way to practice is an app called Perfect Ear. It’s available for both iOS and Android. It can be (and probably is) described as “Duolingo for music.” Basically, you complete exercises in various areas and progress that way.

It became a part of my evening routine: 2 exercises on Duolingo, 2 on Perfect Ear. The odd part is that unlike Duolingo it doesn’t have ads (at least I haven’t seen them) and the in-app purchases are not essential to using it at early stages. Yet, I think I’m getting a lot of value from the app so I wanted to support developers and the only reasonable way to do this was to buy a “real piano” sound pack instead of the default one :)

In conclusion

So there you have it. This method of learning seems to be working for me and I hope it will work for you. Let me know your favorite resources for learning music theory in the comments here or on Twitter.

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Alan Mendelevich

Alan Mendelevich

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I run AdDuplex - a cross-promotion network for Windows apps. Blog at https://blog.ailon.org. Author of "Conferences for Introverts"