How to Find Music Theory Books for Beginners
(Note: This is the second of a 2-part series on music theory.)
In the first installment of this 2-part series, I explained what music theory is, why you should learn it, and defined some of the basic music theory subjects and terminology. In this section, I’ll suggest how to find books and other resources for learning basic music theory, discuss how to apply and demonstrate your music theory knowledge, and identify the levels of music theory most colleges look for from applicants.
Some areas we will explore in our discussion of music theory books include:
- Finding music theory books you can learn from
- Applying your music theory knowledge
- Demonstrating your music theory knowledge
- Theory knowledge colleges look for from applicants
In my own quest to grow as a musician, learning to read music and understanding music theory and music terminology was an important step. Having begun playing music by ear, I initially resisted learning about these subjects, until I came to the conclusion that I was missing opportunities as a result. Music theory is a common language shared by musicians all over the world, and my theory knowledge and music reading ability has been helpful in opening the door to meaningful musical collaborations on a global scale.
The music vocabulary and musical terminology addressed in the first installment of this series can be learned by taking classes, studying privately with a Teacher, and from various books and other resources, many of which can be accessed online. There is no one way to learn, and I would encourage you to seek out and use any and all available sources you can find.
Having the knowledge and applying the knowledge are two different things. You may know all the scales and chords, but have you learned to use them? We apply music theory in two important ways: in writing and in performing music.
Finding Music Theory Books You Can Learn From
There is no definitive list of “best” books to learn from, and I don’t want to try to provide one. There are many books out there, and none are really comprehensive. This means you should look for multiple books where you can understand the way the content is presented and explained. I’m going to offer a few examples but would urge you to consider all resources as you choose books to study from. You should also seek out theory books designed for the instrument you play, and you should plan on using more than one book. Music Teachers can be a useful source of book recommendations.
For example, if you are a drummer you will want to study rudiments as part of your theory training. The following books seem like they might be useful: Stick Control for the Snare Drummer by George Lawrence Stone; Groove Alchemy by Stanton Moore; The Drum Rudiment Bible: 500 Rudiments Beginner to Advanced by D. Agostinelli, Modern Reading Text In 4/4 by Louis Bellson, and The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary As Taught by Alan Dawson.
For guitar, I benefitted greatly from Leon White’s series of books on music theory, chord structures, studio music styles, and improvisation. I’d also recommend the Berklee Press books for guitar theory. I like Mark Baxter’s voice lesson books and he also has excellent free training videos on his website. You will find music theory books geared to every instrument. There’s no shortage of authoritative sources for books, video courses, and DVDs to learn theory for any level and instrument (including voice). You will also find numerous blogs and articles online with clear explanations of various music theory topics. Just Google. (Or check out our existing articles on “Why Do We Learn Music Theory?” and “Music Theory for Beginners: The Simple Way.”)
You can find many books used online for just a few dollars. I recommend you pick up an abridged music dictionary, such as the Harvard Dictionary of Music as it is useful to have on hand to look up any terms you come across you aren’t sure of the meaning for. Mark McGrain’s Music Notation is an outstanding workbook to learn how to draw all the music symbols. It makes a great reference book as well if you ever need to look up how to notate something. There are software notation programs such as Finale and Sibelius you might also find useful to learn more about music notation.
If you know any Music Teachers or professional musicians, ask them for their top recommendations. Study prominent music schools’ websites for suggested learning materials. Lastly, don’t discount the usefulness of magazine articles and blogs. If you search, you will find many shorter, well-written articles with clear examples in them for free. Use them.
Music theory is not something to fear. Literally anyone can learn it, given some time and effort. Embrace music theory with curiosity and diligence, and watch yourself grow musically as a result.
Applying Your Music Theory Knowledge
Having the knowledge and applying the knowledge are two different things. You may know all the scales and chords, but have you learned to use them? We apply music theory in two important ways: in writing and in performing music. Can you write out all the scales and chords? Can you play them on your instrument and sing them?
We can also use music theory as a tool to analyze established works in order to learn from them. When we are composing, or writing songs, music theory gives us a solid foundation to analyze and understand what we create, even if we are using our ear and intuition in the creative process. Music theory, and especially chord scale knowledge, is super important for improvising (soloing), and arranging music for all instruments and in every musical style. Musicians use their theory knowledge on a daily basis. Music theory is an important tool when learning new music, as it provides a framework for understanding and memorizing unfamiliar music. It’s important to note that music theory is an applied subject, and not only theoretical, despite its name.
Demonstrating Your Music Theory Knowledge
When I used to conduct eligibility interviews for college admissions, I would ask the students to spell scales, key signatures, modes, and chords. We always valued accuracy over speed, but if the student was accurate and fast it would make a good impression.
For example, I might ask you: Tell me the key signature for A flat. Your answer should be: 4 flats; B flat, E flat, A flat, and D flat. (Notice that the flats in the key come in the order that they appear in the circle of 5ths – so we can write the key signatures properly.) Or I might ask you to spell the same scale using the note names in ascending order. The answer would be: A flat, B flat, C, D flat, E flat, F, G, A flat. The A flat major 7 chord? A flat, C, E flat, and G. And so on. I could very quickly get an understanding of how much theory a student knows when conducting an evaluation. Music theory is a cumulative subject area, in that every topic builds on what came before it. For example, if you haven’t memorized your circle of 5ths, you couldn’t possibly spell your key signatures.
We would also ask students to demonstrate their knowledge on their instrument. Maybe you weren’t really quick in recalling your memorized scales and chords when asked to spell (or write) them. Not a problem; take out your instrument and play (or sing) the example. Can you play an A flat major scale properly? If you know it on your instrument, you know it! The next logical step is to write it down, of course. You should also be able to read it off a page.
We might also ask students to identify written examples. So, I would show you a written chord voicing or a scale and you should identify it by name. Or I’ll ask you to write it out for me on the staff. If you are musically literate, this will all come much more easily to you. Almost always, students would have some difficulty with music theory in one area or another. That wouldn’t be a big problem as long as they had an overall grasp of the subject.
Finally, I would ask a student to improvise using a certain scale over a chord or chord progression. I could ask you to play an A Blues scale over a 12-bar blues progression in the key of A. Can you do it? Improvising is the ultimate test of your theory knowledge. Now, there are people who can improvise but don’t know any of the theory. They have “good ears” and just rely on what sounds good to them. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I can very quickly find out how much theory they know by asking them to describe what they are doing.
That’s the thing about music theory; you either know it or you don’t. It might sound intimidating to hear musicians talking about all these theory topics, but once you know what the words mean, it opens up a whole new vista of possibilities to try out. It’s like being a member of an exclusive club. I always viewed my theory knowledge as something to fall back on when I wasn’t sure what to play or write in music. I’d rather rely on my ears and gut instincts to just play what sounds good, but sometimes I’m faced with unfamiliar musical settings and need to quickly figure out what scale to use. That is where the theory knowledge really kicks in.
Theory Knowledge Colleges Look for from Applicants
You could use my list of theory topics in the first part of this article as a guide, with the understanding that you won’t necessarily be responsible for ALL the topics there. If you were solid on at least half of the topics you might be in pretty good shape. Keep in mind that each school will have its own requirements for admissions, and they should have a list of theory topics for you to review. If it’s not on their website, you could request it from them.
Colleges are evaluating your preparedness to compete in their programs based on more than just music theory. A solid foundation in music theory could be viewed as an indication that a student is well-prepared in other areas of music. Schools will look at each applicant as an individual, so there won’t necessarily be a “cut-off” for those with limited theory background, as long as an applicant is strong in other areas. Having a recommendation letter from a Music Teacher which specifies your theory level might be helpful. The goal of the admissions process is not to keep you out; rather, they want to be certain you will have the tools to succeed in their programs.
I recommend you get the basics and then progress with your theory to the intermediate and advanced topics. Get a Teacher or attend classes if you feel you need to. There’s an awful lot you can figure out on your own using books and other resources. Most important: music theory is not something to fear. Literally, anyone can learn it, given some time and effort. Embrace music theory with curiosity and diligence, and watch yourself grow musically as a result.
This concludes Part 2 of a two-parter series.
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