- 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
A unique, practical, and straightforward way to learn music theory and discover how music really works.
If you’ve ever asked Amazon how to learn music theory, it’s likely recommended Nicholas Carter’s book to you.
It is first on the list among the beginner books because it offers a broad survey of music theory concepts, making it exactly what a lot of beginner music theory students need.
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
Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory is designed for students of any age, whether listeners or performers, who want to have a better understanding of the language of music.
The Alfred Essentials book is even more bare bones and clearly intended more for students in school.
I love it for working with my middle school students, as each page of the book features a top half dedicated to the lesson and a bottom half dedicated to exercises.
Like the Carter book, it is relatively inexpensive. Also, like the Alfred book, it covers a broad range of topics relatively shallowly.
It’s a great start for a beginner student, but might be too basic for any student pursuing music theory at a more intermediate level.
3. AP Music Theory: 2 Practice Tests + Comprehensive Review + Online Audio (Barron’s AP) By Nancy Scoggin
Barron’s AP Music Theory includes in-depth content review and practice and online audio. It’s the only book you’ll need to be prepared for exam day.
Suppose you are a music theory learner who is also a high school AP (Advanced Placement) Music Theory student. In that case, you are likely already aware of Barron’s test prep book for the AP Music Theory exam.
If not, you might still consider picking it up because, regardless of its association with a particular College Board exam, it is still an incredibly rich resource for learning music theory.
Scoggin’s book is packed with comprehensive content, exercises to practice skills, and access to downloadable audio to help you develop aural skills.
The included full-length practice tests will prove invaluable if you plan to take the AP exam.
4. Music Theory For Musicians And Normal People By Toby Rush
This is not actually a book, but rather a collection of PDF images that each function as a poster explaining a particular music theory topic.
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.
View the PDF here.
Music Theory Textbooks
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
A comprehensive volume spanning the entire theory course, this book begins with coverage of basic concepts of theory and harmony and moves into coverage of advanced dissonance and chromaticism.
This is the text I learned from in college. Informed by Schenkerian analysis, it’s incredibly dense with lots of examples, and has an accompanying workbook that I highly recommend.
I would not call it particularly beginner-friendly, as I had a whole professor to whom I could direct questions (and a very good one at that) and I still found it unnavigable at times.
That said, the text is comprehensive when it comes to pitch and all of its intricacies, and is a great resource to refer back to long after one has acquired a degree and moved past their academic life.
Therefore, I would recommend this as a terrific second music theory book, but less so as a first music theory book.
6. The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis By Jane Piper Clendinning And Elizabeth West Marvin
This Workbook accompanies The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis, Fourth Edition, and features hundreds of exercises students can complete on tear-out-and-turn-in pages.
The Musician’s Guide is an excellent text in the same class as Harmony, Voice Leading, and Tonal Harmony.
The one missing piece, which is not the silver bullet for studying music theory, is that the exercises accompanying the text are not particularly well-scaffolded.
While the concepts in the book are conveyed in a nested fashion so that the topics build on themselves, the exercises require the learner to understand each concept from an entire chapter before it is possible to answer correctly.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, music theory is best learned actively, with opportunities to synthesize what you learn from the book with what you learn in your experience as a musician.
Therefore, the lack of scaffolding in the accompanying exercises is thus a bit of a hindrance to that synthesis experience.
7. Tonal Harmony By Stefan Kostka, Dorothy Payne, And Byron Almen
Tonal Harmony, written.by Kostka, Payne, and Almen, is another great full-featured music theory textbook.
Similar to the previous two texts, the Tonal Harmony Kostka, Payne, and Almen text is another great full-featured music theory textbook.
However, unlike the others on the list, this text lacks a strong focus on the linear aspects of harmony.
This is perhaps a bit nit-picky, but Tonal Harmony is a bit weak on counterpoint.
The rest of the book is about as comprehensive a textbook as you will find in a single volume.
Instrument-Specific Music Theory Books
As promised, this last section contains contenders for the best piano theory books for beginners and the best guitar music theory book for beginners.
8. Music Theory For Guitarists By Tom Kolb
Veteran guitarist and author Tom Kolb dispels the mysteries of music theory using plain and simple terms and diagrams.
So much music theory is taught using the keyboard, which makes this guitar-specific music theory book a refreshing change of pace.
If you are more comfortable with a fretboard under your fingers, consider checking out this relatively-inexpensive Hal Leonard edition written by Tom Kolb.
9. Music Theory For The Bass Player: A Comprehensive And Hands-on Guide To Playing With More Confidence And Freedom By Ariane Cap
As I will address later in the article, one cannot learn music theory in a vacuum strictly from a book.
Books are tremendous tools as long as the learner has some other musical inputs onto which they can map what they read in the book.
Ariane Cap seems to really understand this, so she has integrated a ton of video content with the lessons in her book on music theory for the bass.
Cap’s website also contains links study groups and private lessons, which she facilitates.
10. Essential Elements Piano Theory By Mona Rejino
Essential Elements Piano Theory is a comprehensive course designed to help students master theory concepts.
I have a soft spot for Essential Elements books, as they are how I learned the violin in my middle school orchestra ensemble.
Each of the books in the various Essential Elements collections is short and simple, but still effective.
Rejino’s collection on music theory for the piano contains four installments, each 40 pages long and costing just a few dollars used.
Bonus: The Elements Of Music: Melody, Rhythm, & Harmony By Jason Martineau
This innovative book presents the elements of music by building upon the long-known fundamentals of acoustics, proportion and relationship--a kind of musical metaphor.
This delightful little 58-page book could not possibly be called comprehensive or deep.
However, it contains beautiful illustrations and makes for a lovely side-quest for someone already on their music theory journey.
It’s also perfect for someone deciding whether or not to begin a music theory journey.
I happened upon it at a little independent bookstore in Brunswick, Maine, and I am so happy I did.
It would be irresponsible to conclude this article without discussing the actual importance of learning music theory and whether or not it is possible to learn music theory from a book.
Do You Actually Need To Learn Music Theory?
Here’s the thing: if you are a musician, you already know some music theory.
You might not have learned it in a classroom or from a book, but if you have played a chord, scale, a simple melody, or a rhythm, you have used music theory.
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!