- 5 courses guaranteed to help you learn music theory online
- Why learn music theory in the first place?
- Can you learn music theory without an instrument?
- All your questions, answered.
You have spent years getting your playing to a standard you are happy with, land your first gig, and suddenly you’re presented with a sheet full of dots and lines that you just do not understand.
I feel you, I’ve been there. The good news is that I have embarrassed myself so that you don’t have to. Let us spare you the pain of deciphering those dots and lines on your ace. We’ve compiled a list of the best places to get your music theory education started online.
So you can get the best out of what’s out there without having to sift through millions of options.
What are the Best Music Theory Courses?
If you are a beginner, a great place to start is Berklee’s Introduction to Music Theory on edX.
For a more detailed, budget-friendly course, look at Coursera’s Fundamentals of Music Theory.
We cultivated our list based on the following criteria: accessibility, syllabus, attention to a musician’s needs, price, and resources.
So let’s have a deeper look at those and some other honorable mentions.
- Introduction to Music Theory – edX
- Fundamentals of Music Theory – Edinburgh University (Coursera)
- Herbie Hancock
- Music Theory Comprehensive – Udemy
- Music Theory for Complete Beginners – Udemy
1. Introduction to Music Theory – edX (Our Pick)
Berklee being a top pick is hardly surprising. The school has a well-earned reputation for producing world-class musicians. Their introductory course to music theory does not disappoint, and I would happily recommend this to any musician wanting to get their theory game together.
- Offered as a six-week program with one lesson per week
- 21 hours of instruction to complete
- Detailed downloadable workbooks for each chapter
- Includes keyboard technique instruction
Berklee College of Music is not a name that will be new to any musician. Berklee has long been known to have some of the best instructors in the business and to produce some truly top-class musicians.
So, what can Berklee do for students that have musical skill, but no theoretical knowledge? Well, they created a prep course for students to complete before even arriving at Berklee.
When Berklee realized what an invaluable resource this was for all musicians, they made it available for free via edX, and that is the course we are looking at today.
Berklee does a fantastic job of introducing the basics of notation and music theory while also throwing in a heaping helping of keyboard technique. Trust me, when you are learning music notation, keyboard skills are key, and the focus on this is welcome.
Professor George Russell Jr. is an outstanding teacher with a clear passion for his subject. He keeps the classes engaging, and the focus is on having fun and not getting bogged down in confusing theory. He also insists on a commitment of just 15 minutes a day.
Russel moves through the lessons in a logical and easy-to-follow fashion. Starting at the basics of constructing the major scale, the course turns an absolute beginner into a musician with a solid understanding of notation in just six lessons. While the intention is that the course is set up over three weeks, you can study at your own pace. Each lesson takes just over 3.5 hrs to complete, meaning the course can be completed in just over 21 hours.
While that seems like a huge time investment, it is honestly worth the effort. You will need a keyboard or piano to get the best out of this course, so bear that in mind.
I will say, however, regardless of the instrument you play, any musician will benefit from an understanding of the piano keyboard and how that relates to music theory. Trust me, you will just have a much easier time.
- Super accessible to inexperienced musicians
- Very detailed course
- Aims to address the needs of musicians without formal music training
- Covers all the basics of standard notation
- Moves in a clear, and organized fashion
- Easy to follow
- Price may be prohibitive for some
- The course may be too long for those pushed for time
2. Fundamentals of Music Theory–Edinburgh University/Coursera (Best Value)
This in-depth course from Edinburgh University will take the student through the fundamental building blocks of notation, and in a step-by-step fashion, gives you a thorough grounding in western music theory and practice.
- 8 hours of on-demand video
- 12 downloadable resources
- Available for free, with certification available for a small fee
This offering from Edinburgh University via Coursera is super great value for money. It’s free, and you can get a Coursera certificate for a small fee if you want to. Alternatively, you could go for a monthly subscription.
I will admit that the delivery is a little drier than the edX offering. The learning curve is certainly a little steeper because the information is condensed into 8 hours, and takes around 12 hours to complete rather than 21 hours.
I like a drier and more matter-of-fact presentation of what I need to know, so I enjoyed the course delivery.
The course is taught by Dr. Thomas Butler, with assistance from a diverse range of staff. The course is engaging and can be demanding in places, so be prepared for that.
The course moves rapidly from pitches, scales, and intervals all the way through to cadences and basic harmony. A good place to start if you want a crash course in basic theory.
- The course is available for free, which is always a win
- Covers an extensive range of topics
- Thorough understanding of concepts
- Steeper learning curve
- May not be ideal for absolute beginners
- Delivery is drier than the Sahara
3. Herbie Hancock
Masterclass – Masterworks (Best Premium)
Herbie Hancock hardly needs any introduction. His
To get the most out of this class, I would recommend that you have a basic understanding of notation. If you have that, then this course is a great ride.
- 25 video lessons with jazz legend Herbie Hancock
- 4 hrs and 23 minutes of tuition time
- Includes 164-page workbook.
Herbie Hancock’s reputation precedes him. So what does a course with one of Jazz’s living legends offer?
If you are looking for insight into jazz theory and composition, musical practice, and improvisation, then you are in the right place.
The course is made up of 25 lessons. Each of these is between 5 and 15 minutes long. Herbie does not cover the basics of notation, so you would do well to grasp those before you start.
With that in hand, you can look forward to Herbies’ insight on finding your own creative voice, the art of jazz composition, ideas in jazz theory and musicianship, and much more.
While the course could do with a slightly more structured approach, the information and the wealth of knowledge Herbie Hancock possesses makes the course worth a look.
- The classes are super in-depth
- Included workbook integrates with the course very well.
- Lots of practical advice for musicians, not just theory
- Definitely not for absolute beginners
- Individual courses are quite pricey.
- Felt the course lacked some of the structure present in others
4. Music Theory Comprehensive – Udemy.
This was actually the very first course I took on music theory, and it was beneficial. It offers a thorough explanation of the basics of notation, and as a bonus, you also learn how to use MuseScore. The price is worth the product, and you could do much worse than Udemy’s offering.
- 12 hours of video
- 34 resources available to download
- Certificate of completion
With a genuinely affordable price tag of $16.99, Udemy’s Music Theory Comprehensive course is a pretty easy starting point on your music theory journey.
The course consists of 157 bite-size videos that are easily digestible and build on the contents of the previous chapter. The entire course can be completed in about 12 hours.
In that 12-hour span, Jason Allen, Ph.D., takes you on a journey through the absolute basics of musical notation, building a solid foundation before moving on to much more advanced topics.
Your journey starts with an explanation of “All the Little Dots” and moves you through the world of scales, triads, and chord voicings and ends with score analysis. Quite a long way to go in just 12 hours.
There is also quite an active community on the Udemy course forum, and Jason Allen is very responsive to students. This gives the course a nice level of tutor access, making it well worth the price.
- Starts from the basics for absolute beginners
- Active user community
- Responsive tutor
- No free or trial option is available
5. Music Theory for Complete Beginners by Udemy
Another offering from Udemy. This time with a specific focus on beginners. If you have had no exposure to notation, and this is definitely your first rodeo, then this one might be worth looking for.
This course takes the absolute beginner from zero to hero in almost no time. While it does not have the same level of detail as the other offerings, it does what it says on the tin, and that is all we really want.
- 1 hour of on-demand video
- 5 downloadable resources and workbooks
- Certificate of completion
Starting from the fundamental building blocks, Udemy’s Music Theory for Complete Beginners guides you to a solid foundation in music theory.
The course is broken up into six sections, each building on a basic notational concept.
Section one starts with how to count notes and rests. It is a primer module on measuring the duration of notes and silences in music.
By chapter six, you will have covered the basic names of notes, time signatures, and tempos and have a good understanding of the fundamentals. From here, you can jump into something a little more in-depth now that you are confident you have the rudiments sorted.
- A solid introduction to the basics of notation
- Easy-to-follow lessons
- Downloadable content is good and relevant
- The basic introduction does mean that more complex topics are not introduced
Can I Learn Music Theory Without Instruments?
While I personally wouldn’t suggest it as the best way to learn, you can definitely get started in music theory without an instrument. You will definitely have an easier time if you have access to a piano or keyboard.
Don’t let that scare you off, though. There are also apps and online keyboards that you can access. So, there are options, and you don’t need to buy an instrument to start.
Why Should I Learn Music Theory?
There are several reasons to learn music theory. Learning theory allows you to understand how music works and is structured. It can help you become a better performer and a better improvising musician. If you understand basic harmony, it is much easier to improvise a coherent solo.
Most importantly, learning theory will make you a musically literate musician. You can read the language you speak. This allows you to communicate what other musicians or band directors expect clearly.