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If you are starting out as a musician, it’s a really smart idea to learn music theory right from the beginning.

It’s not nearly as hard as some people think, and in this post, I will tell you exactly what you should be learning, how to learn it, how long it takes, and why it’s so useful for your music-making to learn and understand basic music theory starting right now.

If you play an instrument, or sing, learning music theory is one of the best ways to improve your skills and knowledge. Understanding even the basics of music theory leads you to a deeper understanding of music and gives you the tools you need to express yourself through music.

Don’t resist learning theory because you think it’s difficult! You will do yourself a favor by digging into the theory behind what makes music such a powerful expressive force. You should be excited and eager to learn everything about music you can. Let’s jump right in.

What Exactly Is Music Theory?

Music theory is the study of how music works, the building blocks of music, and what is needed to understand music notation. For the beginner, music theory is the study and descriptions of music rudiments required to notate and read music, such as key signatures, time signatures, rhythmic notation, pitches (notes), scales, modes, chords, tensions, and elements of composition such as rhythm, harmony, melody, and counterpoint.

There is no single definition that describes all the parts of music theory. As a practical discipline, music theory is concerned with the fundamentals of how music is made, and also with analysis of sounds, including silence, and how they relate to music.

Modern music theory textbooks often include descriptions and analysis of practical applications of the harmonic series, musical acoustics, orchestration, improvisation, scales, tonal and rhythmic relationships, instrumental performance, and electronic production. While this might seem like a lot of information, beginners should focus on just the basics, which limits the scope and makes it easier to make good progress quickly.

Why Should You Learn Music Theory?

Simply put, music theory is how musicians agree to talk about music as a practice. Learning music theory is also part of how we become literate as musicians. Reading and writing music will push you to learn useful techniques and terms, which you can then apply to performing, composing, arranging, and producing music. Music theory is a shared language that musicians agree on, so we can discuss music in meaningful and useful ways with each other.

Before I learned music theory, I recall feeling frustrated with my ability to communicate with other musicians about the music we were working on together at the time. This is why I became committed to learning all I could about music theory, and this knowledge has helped me immensely in my career. I strongly recommend that anyone serious about playing music learn music theory.

I think some people are afraid of music theory. There’s a myth floating around that somehow learning music theory will hurt your playing. I’m certain this is a myth propagated by non-musicians since I’ve never met a musician who believes this.

Knowing the shared language of music theory gives you a huge advantage when it comes to talking about music with other musicians. I can call up a bandmate on the phone and describe a song using theory terms and it can help them to learn the music and understand it. In rehearsals, we often get into discussions about certain passages where we need to describe a chord progression or melody-harmony relationship using specific terminology.

Having this shared terminology allows us to quickly and easily clarify what we want without misunderstandings. It’s incredibly useful to have this shared language about music! I recommend anyone who is serious about doing music, whether for a career or hobby, to learn the theory that all the professional musicians know and use.

Theory Is How We Analyze the Music

I like to say that music theory comes “after the fact.” What I mean is, what we decide to call something in music doesn’t change the fact that it happened, and it doesn’t change the way the music sounds. Putting names on things helps us understand how music is put together while finding ways to describe what happened. So, a big part of learning and understanding music theory is in learning and using special terms musicians use to describe the music.

As a musician, you should develop your ability to hear and recognize all the elements of music. This is sometimes referred to as having “a good ear.” In music school, we study ear training at the same time as music theory in order to connect what we hear to its name. We name things like chords, scales, modes, notes, and rhythms, and we practice recalling the name when we hear it.

We might also play it when we hear its name. For example, if I hear a major scale or a dominant chord, I can identify it, and then play it on my instrument (voice is also an instrument) or play it on the piano. Then I might also write it down, which we call “transcribing” music.

When you learn music theory, you will find it very helpful to have this shared language with other musicians. This, along with increasing your own depth of musical understanding, is the whole point of learning music theory. (Keep in mind that music terms and theory will differ from country to country.)

Start Learning Music Theory Right Away

It’s very common for self-taught musicians to start out learning to play music by ear, and then later apply themselves to learning music theory. If you’ve been playing for a while, you might start to come across some music terms that are unfamiliar to you. If you’ve ever felt like the musical conversation is over your head, and surpasses your level of understanding, don’t worry too much about it.

Anyone can learn music theory, and I’m here to tell you that there isn’t anything mysterious or difficult about it. I’ve taught music theory to hundreds of students over the past decades, and have seen firsthand how learning music theory has made me and so many other players and Singers better musicians. If you love music, you should also love learning about the theory behind it.

While it’s usually a good idea to take classes or private theory lessons with a good Teacher, if that isn’t immediately available, you can always get started by reading some music theory books and articles like this one.

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How Long Will It Take to Learn Music Theory?

Realistically, for some students, learning all topics on the list below might represent a year or two of structured classes or private or self-instruction. Having personally taught music theory for many years, I’ve also seen some students assimilate all or most of the important music theory topics in as little as three months.

Music theory has an element of math to it, so if you are strong in math, you will likely find the topics easier to learn. It also helps if you play an instrument fairly well (whether you read music or not).

Different Approaches to Studying Music Theory, Including Non-western

There is no single unified approach to studying and learning music theory. Every school teaches theory differently, and there are variations on many of the terms in use. The focus and style of teaching music theory differ not only by institution, but also by instrument, region, and country.

A Guitar Player might take a different approach to learning and applying music theory on their instrument than a Clarinet Player. Music theory in Europe may differ in some material ways from what is taught in the U.S., or in China, for that matter.

In the U.S. we study a western style of theory, meaning that it is “contemporary,” but based on American and European classical, pop, and jazz traditions. Technically, we call our (western) theory tertiary harmony, which is just a fancy way of saying that we make chords by stacking notes in intervals of thirds.

We use the term chord scales to describe the melody-harmony relationship within the context of chord progressions. For our western music theory, it’s important to understand how scales, chords, and melodies relate to each other and interact in the harmonic and rhythmic context.

I’ll explain some other important theory terms in more detail below, but for now, we should state that music theory is not limited to the study of western musical styles. There is a great body of musical works outside of the western musical traditions that is equally worthy of study, not all of which is written down. Music is an aural art form and tradition passed down over centuries. African polyrhythms, Indian ragas, and the Indonesian Gamelan orchestras come to mind when thinking of non-western musical forms.

Though we understand music theory is not limited to western styles, for the purpose of this article we are discussing what is taught and learned in the European-influenced west. I just want to point out that there is some ground-breaking theoretical research available into the traditions outside of western music, and state unequivocally that this music is equally worthy of study.

The Most Basic Fundamentals of Music Theory

Starting at the very beginning, here is a comprehensive list of theory topics in contemporary music, with short descriptions and subtopics. While not all-inclusive, the list is meant to be relevant for the beginning to intermediate music theory student, and for those preparing to enter a college or conservatory music program.

For further descriptions and illustrations of these music theory concepts, check out our article on how to read sheet music.

Rhythm

Note values, rests, ties, dotted notes, meter (simple and compound), time signatures, measure (bar), imaginary bar line

Pitch

Clefs, note names, accidentals, key signatures, notation of stems, flags, and beams

Scales

Circle of 5ths, major scales (sharp keys and flat keys), relative (natural) minor, major and minor pentatonic, blues scale, modes of major scale, harmonic minor, and melodic minor

Intervals

General interval types, specific interval types (perfect, major, minor, augmented, diminished), inversion of intervals, simple and compound intervals, octaves

Chords

Triads, sixth and seventh chords, tensions

Intermediate to Advanced Topics

I realize this may seem like a lot, and it is. Keep in mind, however, that it is not endless. Once you have covered these topics and understand them, you won’t have a whole lot more to study. Instead, the challenge becomes how to apply this knowledge in composing and improvising music.

Major key diatonic harmony

Diatonic triads and seventh chords

Roman numeral (functional) analysis

Tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords

Secondary dominants and related II minor seventh chords

Dominant cadence, tritone resolution, secondary dominants

Substitute dominants and related II minor seventh chords

Tritone substitution, possible related II minor seventh chords

Minor key diatonic harmony

II minor seventh flat 5 chords

Chord scales

Melodic/harmonic analysis, key of the moment, relative gravity (cadences)

What Is the Main Purpose of Music Theory, and How Can You Apply It?

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 (playing) music. Can you write out all the scales and chords? Can you play them on your instrument and sing them? You should be able to, once you know your theory cold.

As musicians, we also use our theory as a tool to analyze established works in order to learn from them. Understanding how a melody, rhythm, or chord progression works is the key to quickly learning new music. We also use our theory to read music notation and to compose music or songs.

Music theory provides a solid foundation so we can analyze and understand music while using our creativity and our ears. Music theory, and especially chord scale knowledge, is super important for improvising (soloing), and for arranging or orchestrating music for all instruments and in every musical style.

Musicians use theory every single day. It’s an amazing framework for understanding and memorizing unfamiliar music. In spite of its name, music theory is an applied subject, not meant to be just theoretical.

Musical Terminology: A Few Clarifications and Definitions

Now let’s back up a bit and clarify some terms. You should find these definitions useful since they are the most frequently asked about in my teaching experience. Keep in mind what I said earlier about putting names on things you already know.

Diatonic

This means that all the notes in a melody or a chord progression come from the same scale. For example, we could say that the melody and chords of a song are all diatonic to the key of C major, if they use only the notes from the C major scale.

Interval

The distance between two notes. We can classify intervals based on their type (perfect, major, minor, augmented, diminished) and whether they are smaller or larger than an octave (simple or compound, respectively).

Key signature

Comes at the beginning of a piece of written music, just after the clef and before the time signature. Indicates the number of flats or sharps in the key.

Accidentals

Sharps, flats, or natural signs placed before a note to raise or lower the pitch. Accidentals are canceled by a bar line or another accidental.

Meter

A recurring pattern of strong and weak beats in an established pattern. The most common (simple) meter is 4/4, also known as Common Time. There is also compound meter, like 6/8 or 12/8 where we feel each beat in subdivisions of 3.

Time signature

The vertical arrangement of two numbers in the staff following the key signature and clef. The top number indicates how many beats in the measure (bar), while the bottom number shows the note value that receives one beat.

Enharmonic

Different names for the same note or chord. For example, G flat is enharmonic to F sharp.

Harmonic rhythm

How quickly the chords change.

Root motion

The intervals of the roots of the chords, moving either up or down over time.

There are many more terms I could explain, but perhaps it’s best to gather some books on the subject (I will recommend a few below) and consider designing your own program of self-study, or get with a Teacher or a class.

Tip: If you are college-bound and looking for a Teacher, it would be best to find someone who attended the school you are applying to, as they will be best prepared to orient you to the system used there. Remember that all schools teach music theory slightly differently.

Can You Learn Music Theory on Your Own?

There are many music theory books you can learn from, and now also YouTube videos of all kinds. They do vary quite a bit in quality and approach. 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 which explain the topics in a way you can understand.

I’m going to offer a few examples but would urge you to consider all the available 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 music theory 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
  • 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. Check out Chord Systems: Sound and Structure and others by Leon. I’d also recommend the Berklee Press books for guitar theory.

I like Mark Baxter’s voice lesson books such as The Singer’s Toolbox 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). I’ve included a few here to give you some ideas about what to look for.

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 “Music Theory Online: How to Study at Your Own Pace” 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 where you aren’t sure of the meaning.

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 and learn.

Cultivate the Desire to Learn

One thing about music theory is true: 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 a little 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 or chord to use. That is where the theory knowledge really kicks in.

In my own quest to grow as a musician, learning to read music and to understand 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 have been helpful in opening the door to meaningful musical collaborations on a global scale.

If you cultivate the desire to learn, find the right learning resources for you, and then apply yourself to learning music theory from the basic to the advanced, I’m convinced that you will also reap the many benefits and rewards that come along with this useful musical knowledge.

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