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It’s no secret that the prospect of learning music theory can be daunting
Luckily, there are plenty of books that can help you out
Accomplished music educator and professional composer, Noah Teachey, rounds up his top 10.
The prospect of learning music theory can be daunting.
Any listener can understand music at a basic level without having to look too far beyond their own listening, and music theory novices can pick up music theory fundamentals relatively quickly by checking out a YouTube video or two.
In this article, we’ll go through the full range of offerings, from the best music theory books for beginners to complete music theory textbooks, many of which offer something akin to a full music theory course.
We will also consider books introducing music theory skills for specific instruments, and look at the best piano theory books for beginners and the best guitar music theory book for beginners.
In the end, you should be left with a clear set of choices depending on your prior experience and your motivation for learning music theory.
Beginner Music Theory Books
The following four texts (note that one is actually a PDF document you can acquire right this minute!) are great places to start if you have never thumbed through a music theory text.
They’re primarily meant for a beginner audience and make music theory easy to pick up.
1. Music Theory: From Absolute Beginner To Expert – The Ultimate Step-By-Step Guide to Understanding and Learning Music Theory Effortlessly By Nicholas Carter
It defines a lot of important terms and brings a few helpful diagrams to the table, including guitar neck and piano keyboard diagrams so you can learn how to define intervals, making it one of the books for beginners learning piano or guitar.
That said, this book provides more of an appetizer, so it may not be enough if you have a voracious appetite for music theory and require a full-course meal.
2. Alfred’s Essentials Of Music Theory: Complete By Andrew Surmani, Karen Farnum Surmani, And Morton Manu
The attached link goes to the most recent (as of this writing) amalgamation of all of the slides. As the title of the series suggests, it’s not just for musicians but also for normal people, which of course means it is very beginner-friendly.
Best of all, this is the only resource on the list that is completely free.
The following three books are the priciest, costing over $100 new and nearly as much used.
As textbooks, you can rent them for less. Even if you’re not using them as a textbook, they make fantastic reference resources, so I would first look into an older edition or a used version in fair condition before renting and returning a new copy.
My annotations in my copies of these texts alone are priceless to me.
5. Harmony And Voice Leading By Edward Aldwell, Carl Schachter, And Allen Cadwallader
That little corner of the vast ocean that is music theory may very well be all the music theory that you need, depending on what you want to do with music.
Similarly, if writing simple tunes over simple verse-chorus song form is the only kind of songwriting you want to get into, then the music theory you have may be all you need and all you want to acquire.
That said, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re hoping to expand your horizons and push the envelope, which is where music theory comes in.
Music theory is a set of tools for your toolkit that help you to understand what is happening when an instrument or song sounds a certain way, or when a song’s notation looks a certain way.
Those tools give you greater flexibility in manipulating sounds and finding sounds that sound good with what you already have.
Music theory essentially gives you a map that expands as you learn more. Of course, you don’t necessarily need a map at all, but having one doesn’t hurt.
And the bigger the map, the more likely you are to go off exploring and still be able to find your way back.
What Is The Best Way To Learn Music Theory?
I’m writing both from my own musical experience as a learner and from the experience of a teacher, and as someone who has worked with many other learners on their own experiences.
The way I learned music theory is not the only way to learn music theory, but the approach that worked best for me (and that seems to work the best for my students), is the way that stuck.
I did most of my formal music theory training in college. My first music theory class was in the fall semester of my sophomore year.
It met Friday mornings at 8, which meant that I never quite brought my best self to class. The thing that I did bring to class, though, was a great deal of hands-on experience with my violin.
Being able to visualize how pitches were laid out on my violin made it so much easier to count intervals.
Had it not been for my ear, which has always been pretty good, and my ability to anchor what I was hearing and seeing in class in my visual and tactile sense for my violin, I suspect I would have found the whole experience significantly more difficult.
Can You Learn Music Theory From A Book Alone?
That is to say that books alone are insufficient for learning music theory.
The typical music theory course should incorporate musical listening and ideally call on a learner’s experience with an instrument or with their voice, so they can embody and visualize the music theory knowledge found on the page more effectively.
In What Order Should You Learn Music Theory Concepts?
I often think about the proper order for learning music theory when working on a curriculum.
Drawing from my experience trying a few different approaches with students, and from reading through each book we explored in the first half of the article, I would suggest that music theory can be broken down into a few different but interrelated topics.
These topics then spiral into greater levels of complexity in their own right, but still have a relatively simple core that you probably already have some experience with.
For example, rhythms can get incredibly complicated. Still, you could start with the concept of pulse and basic subdivisions in simple tunes like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” before getting into further subdivisions, dotted rhythms, complicated time signatures, and the like.
In the same way, pitch can be discussed in terms of intervals and scale, which are fairly elementary concepts.
However, in more complex music, the pitch relationships in both melody and harmony can easily fill entire books of music theory analysis.
All of this is to say that different interrelated topics within music theory can be discussed and learned independently, even though they generally go in a logical order from simpler to more complex.
This basic foundation comes through in all of the books on this list.
As I’ve been writing this article I have been asking myself whether my work here might save you some shelf space.
Living in a tiny New York City apartment has taught me the importance of avoiding redundancy.
When it comes down to it, each of these books made its way to my shelf because they each offer something different, or at the very least — do the same thing differently.
That said, any of them on its own would have sufficed in pushing me along in my journey as a music theory learner.
Hopefully, this list will prove a useful starting point for you in your journey to understand music theory!