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Ask HN: How Can I Learn Music Theory?
673 points by deanstag on Dec 18, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 239 comments
I self taught myself a few things over the years and I can play my way through a lot of songs. But I'd like to dig deeper into music theory and have never been able to sift through a vast array of music theory blogs and tutorials to find something that made sense. I want a different perspective from the HN crowd. How did you teach yourself music theory?

Back in the early 2000s I quit my engineering job and went to music school for a few years. We used Mark Levine's excellent "Jazz Theory Book" to cover the theoretical aspects. It presents theory in the context of trying to understand how to improvise over jazz harmonies - I found it very useful. It's a textbook though: you're going to have to invest some time in it to get the most out of it.


Books aside, in my view the #1 thing you can do to help your music theory understanding is to train your ear: if you can't reliably identify all the intervals within an octave and identify major, minor, diminished and augmented triads, as well as the basic 4-note chords (major 7, minor 7, dominant 7, minor-7-flat-5) by ear, knowing a bunch of rules about tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone won't be all that useful. Back in music school days I practised daily with EarMaster and within a couple of months had gotten solid enough at recognising intervals and chords by ear that it made all the other music learning I did subsequently much much easier. I am sure there are way better ear training tools now!

"if you can't reliably identify all the intervals within an octave and identify major, minor, diminished and augmented triads, as well as the basic 4-note chords (major 7, minor 7, dominant 7, minor-7-flat-5) by ear..."

I feel this is phrased in a very daunting way. Understanding how the different notes sounds is certainly a building block to soloing/improvisation, but you do NOT need a jazz-pro ear to do that. I certainly can't always recognize 4 note chord types, but while playing I can tell when a flat 3rd would sound tasty in lieu of a major 3rd.

A great exercise I used is playing piano in C major and getting used to using the black keys, which will all be sharp or flat notes in that key. Get used to how a flat 3rd sounds compared to a major, the same with flat 7ths, sharp 5ths, etc...learn how to add those notes in ways that work.

I improved a LOT from a VERY short course by Youtuber Jeff Schneider that teaches this in a structured manner. It's 25 short & tasty blues licks in C major, so every time something 'tasty' is played, it's either a flat/sharp note and/or a fun rhythm, like a triplet. It made so many things click for my lead playing.

I'm in no way affiliated with Jeff but I can't recommend the course enough, best 15$ I've probably ever spent. It's also now been transcribed to all keys, but I think C is probably all you need. https://jeffschneidermusic.com/store/tastiest-blues-licks

"Jazz Theory" is a good book, but I think the average person wanting to "learn music theory" would find the excellent "Jazz Harmony Book" by the same publisher much more accessible, certainly not easy, but by no means the slog/reference-style-book that "Jazz Theory" is. Link is here: https://www.shermusic.com/1883217792.php

I've tried doing ear training a couple of times in my life and it has been always absolutely frustrating. All methods I've tried just ask repeatedly which interval/chord/note it is you are listening without actually having any sort of method on how to develop the skill on how to listen.

I'm trying again now with a new method which consists in singing the notes. In a couple of days I've got better results than weeks of Ear Master or other similar software. My hypothesis is that it works because when trying to imitate a pitch with your voices you a) have to listen closely to the pitch and b) you internalize some pitch "muscle memory".

Is there any book/software you are using for the new "singing the notes" method?

I play two notes at the same time and try to sing both notes. At first I started with larger intervals and now I can hear and sing major seconds. Minor seconds are still hard.

I also play one note and try to sing an interval above and below. So for example I play G and try to sing a major third above and a major third below. I then play those notes and check how close I was. I repeat a couple of times until I get it right. I do that for different notes and with different intervals.

I then play a triad and try to hear and sing the three notes. At first I could only do it for the top note, but then I was able to hear the root note, and finally after a couple of days I was able to hear and sing the middle note.

> #1 thing you can do to help your music theory understanding is to train your ear

I live down the road from a custom guitar builder Patrick Cummings, he also offers private lessons, we were talking about learning guitar, and he was telling me the exact same thing. He said something like, "If you can't hear the music, you will never understand the music." He apparently focuses the first few weeks of lessons on ear training.

Just chiming in to say I agree with ear-training!

I've played/learned piano for ~25 years and I've decided that not taking the time to actually sit down and level up my ear training has held me back quite a bit in some ways:

- I can't improvise to save my life

- I can't accompany a melody by ear

- I really struggle to transcribe music

- Sightreading is hard because I don't have a good handle on being able to anticipate harmony

And yet I've had friends who were far less able than me in terms of raw technique be able to play pretty much any pop song on request just from memory - something I've always envied!

Learning a handful of scales got me a long way toward sounding like I was good guitar/music. Then the progressions on top of that allowed me to make songs that sounded like songs.

But just knowing a scale is worthless unless you know the key a song is in, so I can not play with others really.

Mark Levine's book is a great resource and the way he presents much of the theory behind jazz improvisation and actually ties it to practice is very useful.

Regarding ear training - I think it's worth mentioning that learning to identify intervals in isolation won't have major returns on investment unless you're main goal is to transcribe by ear 20th century music that is divorced from "common practice" harmonic approaches.

Instead, I'd recommend taking an approach of build up aural comprehension of harmonic idioms from whatever style of music you're interested in learning about - so for classical music, recognizing the difference between tonic and dominant and when we've moved from one to the other is more valuable (and easier) than knowing whether the soprano voice in an chord moved a third or a second.

Did you go back to engineering or stick with music?

Similarly, I quit my IT job a few years ago to go to music school. I also found that book and ear training very useful, especially if you're interested in improvisation. One thing I'd add (for improvisation) is to not only be able to identify, but to sing those intervals, triads, and 7th chords as well (ascending, descending, all inversions), and also do the same thing with scales/modes. If you can sing them, you know you have the sound internalized.

Thank you for introducing me to EarMaster :) I never knew such a software existed.

I've been looking for a good music theory book for quite some time now, never expected it to find on hacker news though. Thanks a lot, will definitely check that book out.

Here's how I approach it: forget about all the historic naming like "perfect fifths" and just think in terms of the modern 12-note equal temperament. Every note is a number, e.g. 440 Herz = 69, the standard guitar tuning has strings from 40 to 64, etc. Every interval is an integer, up an octave is +12, major chord is a triple of {x, x+4, x+7}, minor seventh chord is {x, x+3, x+7, x+10} etc.

Then, as a the second game-changer, learn the circle of fifths. Start with a note like C, and keep adding +7 to it. You'll get FCGDAEBF#C#G#D#A# - note how the sharped notes repeat the pattern of the nonsharped ones, easy to remember. The "keys" and "modes" stuff is just intervals of seven consecutive notes on the circle. Say you choose FCGDAEB, that's one key, then every mode is to be found by choosing one note out of those seven, and hopping over one note until you play all seven once: e.g. FGABCDE is one mode (Lydian afair), EFGABCD is another one etc. The "major" and "minor" keys are just different names for two of those seven modes. Pentatonic scales are those same modes with some notes omitted. Blues and harmonic minor scales are those same modes with some notes inserted. Overall modes, not keys or chords are the key to actually composing music intelligently, so learn them and learn to play them.

This should give you a good start in practical music theory.

If you foresee any need to communicate with other musicians I strongly recommend you don't forget about the "historic names". They're not historic, I'm a band leader and I use them constantly when communicating to my band members. Every musician in the local scene knows the difference between a Cmaj7 and a C7. If you train your brain to equate "C plus 7" as a fifth you're going to damage fluency greatly. Homebrewing your own nomenclature is excluding you from hundreds of years of literature on the subject.

Yes, but often improving the notation can make the concept more accessible to new comers, and many terms is usage among musicians can be rather u nintiuitive.

I don't agree that this is an improved notation at all. It has its advantages, it highlights the physical distance between notes in a uniform way across key signatures. But it obscures harmonic function, which is much more important.

Array indexes starting at 0 is unintuitive for beginners, I would never recommend a programming student learn arrays starting at 1 just to make it easier.

Proper playing technique is often unintuitive for the beginning musician, but encouraging it for accessibility will be destructive to their progress.

Conceptualizing a new difficult concept in a way that makes sense to you is good, foregoing convention is bad.

There are some people, maybe not many, that have a difficult time trying something new unless they have something familiar to form a relationship, even if the relationship is inaccurate and requires iterative improvement.

We might say, that finding the Rosetta Stone hindered those who knew Greek trying to learn hieroglyphs.

I was deathly afraid to try woodworking until someone showed me how to construct familiar angles on the machines using basic trigonometry. After I had a tiny relationship formed, I was able to experiment on my own (and then adopt woodworking vocabulary, to become entrenched in that community).

I think using some arithmetic rules to entice someone who knows arithmetic, but otherwise is awkward around music theory, is an agreeable compromise to get them on the way.

> I think using some arithmetic rules to entice someone who knows arithmetic, but otherwise is awkward around music theory

The biggest win from that POV would actually be numbering the diatonic scale degrees starting at 0 for the tonic, and the diatonic intervals starting at 0 for the unison. Unfortunately, it heavily conflicts with all sorts of existing notations. But once you think of the third as a "2" interval, the fourth as a "3", the fifth as "4" etc. you can arbitrarily add intervals together and to scale-degrees, without having to constantly correct for the archaic 1-based counting.

So you would subscribe to the notion that BASIC is not a proper introductory language because it hides some of the theoretical CS complexities while exposing the lowest hanging fruit to beginners?

I wasn't introduced to programming through BASIC so I can't speak to your analogy, but I believe you've taken me to say "hiding complexity is wrong." I don't think any point that I've made can be interpreted this way. There's plenty of low hanging fruit for beginner music theorists. "V7 resolves to I" is low hanging fruit, and it has tons of underlying complexity that you don't need to understand as a beginner. It's understood by every educated musician. My point is that if you want to be understood by other musicians you should learn this:

  V7 -> I 
and not this:

  (x+2, x+5, x+7, x+11) -> (x, x+4, x+7, x+12)

Or rather,

{2, 5, 7, 11} -> {0, 4, 7, 12}

There's actually established notation in music theory for this[0]. Because it IS a super convenient way to look at notes. Doing otherwise would be akin to using Roman numerals for calculus.

From personal experience, I worked with this notation a little bit. I spent a lot more time getting the hang of traditional notation. Not only is integer notation intuitive immediately, but number combinations like {0,4,7,12} become memorable very quickly and yes when I look at it (even if I saw it outside of musical context!), I would know it's a major chord.

That is, personally, I learned about the traditional notations (because you can't learn music theory and avoid those, or miss out on most of the material :) ). But that took me deliberate effort. On the other hand I wrote some python classes for converting between notes and chords and traditional notation and integer notation, seeing the patterns in those numbers required no effort at all, it's right there. The traditional notation has of course the same patterns, but they are obscured by layers of translation.

I think integer notation could be used a lot more, especially when teaching music theory. But traditional notation is also useful, partly because many people know it, partly because integer notation is less suitable for certain instruments.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitch_class

This is very nice example of the contrast in the two nomenclaturess, so thanks for that.

The problem with "V7 -> I" is precisely that it hides all the internal structure and encourages rote learning. Rather than encouraging the musician/composer to think about what that resolution actually consists of in terms of shifting intervallic relationships within the chords, it encourages you to just learn the transition itself.

Which of course is also its strength!

You might think that after centuries of musical composition across many different cultures that we'd have fully explored all the 4096 scales that exist within 12TET or even all the 4096 scales that exist for any given 12 tone tuning system.

But this is far from the case - witness how revolutionary Messaien's modes were. The conventional language is great for conveying meaning/intent/practice if the goal is to remain solidly inside the parameters of western musical practice circa 1100 to the present day.

But it's fairly inadequate if your goal is explore the rest of the music possibilities presented by psycho-acoustics, or even just those derived from (say) musical cultures which use microtones.

I also note that there's not a single comment in this thread regarding rhymthic structure, again reflecting the western emphasis on a particular (simplistic) understanding rather than the highly developed music cultures built around rhythm across Africa and Asia.

> I also note that there's not a single comment in this thread regarding rhymthic structure, again reflecting the western emphasis on a particular (simplistic) understanding rather than the highly developed music cultures built around rhythm across Africa and Asia.

This is so true. I've been wanting to learn about rhythmic theory for about as long as I've been studying music theory (harmony). But while you can find youtube videos and webpages full of explaining musical harmony all over the place, information about rhythmic theory is far and few between.

Most I've been able to find is either very abstract, like Euclidean Rhythms, which are interesting and weird but only explore equidistant grids (no swing). The other information is usually about really specific cultural rhythms. Both are good and useful, but I feel like they combine into less than 20% of the total theory about rhythm that I believe should be there. There's really a lot to it and I'm still looking for some fundamental theories about repetition and expectation and tension/release. The latter is very important in rhythm, but as far as I'm aware, the music theory about harmonic tension and release (chord progressions etc) seems so much more complete than what I've been able to find about rhythm.

If you got any good pointers, I'm all ears :)

Nonetheless I do think that music theory jargon is too dense and could do with some reform in terminology and notation. A lot of obscure terms could possibly be replaced (longer) plainspeak terms that expresses their function and meaning. At the moment, though a good concrete example eludes me, perhaps be something in lines of 'scale' -> 'basis', 'tonic' -> primary, etc..

Without a good concrete example, this sounds like a terrible idea.

Scale -> basis makes no sense to me. The scale climbs up and down, like how you scale a ladder. The basis… does not do that.

Tonic, dominant, subdominant are used mostly in discussions about functional harmony. The biggest reason why it would be a total disaster to rename tonic -> primary is because we already use the terms primary and secondary here! For example, V is the “primary dominant” but nobody actually says the word “primary”. Primary chords are taken from the scale of the tonic, and secondary chords are taken from a different scale. So V/V is a “secondary dominant”.

Perhaps 'ordered basis' for 'scale'. Or perhaps 'discrete spectrum', just searching for a term that conveys its meaning intrinsically.

I had in mind a reform akin to how modern lisps have rename CAR and CDR to first and rest respectively. For example the Lydian Mode, could be referred to by a codeword that can be unwrapped to understand what exactly it is.

In general I am always in favour of trying to advance the expressiveness and meaningfulness of notations in all fields, and I think that is something that should be continuously evolved, trying to find better way to say things.

Scale is nice and short, it’s one syllable, and it goes up and down like how you scale a ladder. “Ordered basis” and “discrete spectrum” sound outright hostile to me. We want to make musical scales accessible to five-year-old kids here, not undergraduate math students. This is not the way terminology should evolve.

I can get behind car/cdr -> first/rest.

I could get behind renaming the modes, but I’m not sure how to rename them. I would be hesitant to name them after notes or using numbers, since that would be confusing. As it is, I can say “C dorian scale” and that’s a pretty concise and unambiguous name for a series of notes. Maybe I could say “C minor, natural sixth scale”. It’s a bit verbose and modes are fairly rare. It’s also a bit weird—would I then say “A dorian scale” as “A minor, sharp sixth scale”? Already I’m a bit confused by this terminology. Maybe “A minor, major sixth scale”? The “major minor” is a bit weird.

The trick with advancing expressiveness and meaningfulness is that 1) you are going to have to memorize new meanings even if the words are familiar and 2) if it’s not usable by experts, it won’t be adopted by experts and you’ll end up with at worst, multiple incompatible sets of terminology.

Face it—I’m going to have to do a fair bit of memorization to learn music theory. It is unavoidable with music theory as it is with other subjects. So I might as well pick nice, short words like “scale” which make some intuitive sense, rather than pick “ordered basis” which is a total mouthful. After all, I will only spend a short amount of time memorizing terms, and a much, MUCH longer time using them.

As I said in my other comment, I had to do a lot more memorization to learn to recognize typical patterns (like chords and scales) in traditional notation, while integer notation ... well, for starters I just about came up with it myself, before I learned it's (of course) an established way of notation in music theory. Second I just wrote some code to play around with the numbers, basically for myself to try and make sense of the traditional system, because it seemed (to me) easier to convert the bunch to numbers and see what chords come out. What happened is that, really through no effort on my own, I started recognizing the numerical patterns for what they mean in musical theory.

It's really that much more intuitive. Give somebody CEGC' and GBD'G' or give them {0,4,7,12} and {7,11,14,19}. And as a bonus, if you can read clock, you already know how to do modulo 12 arithmetic! 14:00 is 2pm, 19:00 is 7pm, therefore that last one can also be written as {7,11,2,7}.

I don't want to do away with traditional notation, it has its advantages. But I do think that integer notation can be used very effectively and should be used more, when teaching the fundamentals of music theory.

You apparently need an intro to music set theory: https://ianring.com/musictheory/scale

Why do I "need" this? I don't understand what you are trying to tell me. Does this explain some alternative terminology?

I'm a little put off by the way you wrote that comment.

Sorry, didn't mean to be offensive.

That link provides an introduction to MST terminology, starting from somewhat math/nerd angles and moving gently.

You will find that MST provides clear terminology for the sort of thing you're trying to talk about/say.

I’m familiar with this already. It’s unambiguous but it’s fairly verbose. Our notation already places the diatonic scales in a privileged position, so it makes sense that we have special names for modes of the diatonic scale.

The system is most useful for describing / exploring certain types of atonal music. I’m going to make an unfair generalization—most people are interested in tonal music. You can see that the references here are to Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music and Rahn’s Basic Atonal Theory. So if that’s your jam, by all means, go and make atonal music. But I’m a fan of using modes of common scales, so I like having concise names like phrygian, mixolydian, and dorian.

So my own take on this is that it's not really about atonal music at all. The musical universe in which this is presented (certainly in the article I referenced) is already using 12TET, and where a specific scale (of the 4096 possible) has a known name in 1 or more cultures, it is cited (this includes the western "church mode" names that you mentioned).

It's still unclear how much "tonal music" is simply a shared set of cultural assumptions and practices, and how much arises from acoustic physics and acoustic perception. So ... rather than a priori priviledging a specific group of interval sets ("major", "minor" plus "a few modes"), why not start by exploring the full universe of all possible (12TET) interval sets (aka "scales"). By using an explicitly mathematical approach one can bring some analysis techniques to bear on the "full universe" that are not readily available when stuck in traditional western theory and notation. To me, this approach accomplishes two things. The first is that it offers a bridge to non-western musical traditions. The second is that it offers a common core from which to understand both "tonal" and "atonal" music, particularly their similarities and differences.

Finally, its a particular bug of mine when people connect "modes" and "scales" as you do in the your final sentence. What is important in (almost) all musical traditions are not the specific notes used to form the pitches that make a piece of music, but the intervals between the pitches, and their ordering. There's significant evidence that we are vastly more sensitive to relative pitch (intervals) than absolute pitch - play the same series of intervals starting from a different tonic/root and we experience it in almost the same way. Change the interval series (i.e. the scale), and we hear a much more noticeable difference. So, the major scale is just an interval series, and the "modes of the major scale" are also just interval series. There is no inherent relationship between them, other than one can construct them by rotation. The modes do not "belong" to the major or minor scales, nor vice versa (indeed, in fact the major and minor scale are just modes too ... just an interval series).

And now really finally: we actually don't have special names for most of the possible interval series that can constructed from the diatonic notes. We have a very limited number, and from my reading and understanding it is unclear if the ones we have names for are priviledged by physics and perception, or are mostly the result of historical precedent.

While true this is way more complicated an explanation than using more traditional concepts. This also barely scratches the surface of useful music theory as it doesn't explain note relationships to one another. A 3rd, a 5th, a 7th, a 9th, etc are fundamentally important concepts to grasp. Also your comment about modes being the key to composing music intelligently is somewhat nonsense. Most jazz players will tell you that understanding the chord/melody relationship is far more important than worrying about what mode you're playing in, particularly in an improvisational setting. It's way more useful to understand that you're playing a ii v7 I and know what triads are available to you as well as maybe which color tones are useful to Target than to try to keep track of which mode you should/could play over a given chord. You're better off understanding the function of a chord in a key.

> Here's how I approach it: forget about all the historic naming like "perfect fifths" and just think in terms of the modern 12-note equal temperament.

You actually want to learn these names, because they characterize the diatonic scale. Basically, pick seven contiguous notes on the circle of fifths, you get the pitch-class set of a diatonic scale. Then put the notes in the set in pitch order, and pick a tonal center. The default, naïve choice (pick the "flattest" note as your tonal center) is called Lydian mode. It can be interesting, but it has a drawback in that it forgoes the subdominant relationship. Picking the next-to-'flattest' note gives you Ionian, which solves this (the fourth scale degree forms a "perfect fourth" with the tonic, which is the flip side of a perfect fifth. Having more notes that can be related to the tonic makes for more musical possibilities). This is one simple explanation of the diatonic scale we ordinarily use.

One other quirk that also explains the "weird historic names": in traditional music theory, sharps and flats are definitely not treated equally, the way that would be implied by 12-equal temperament. The musically-relevant distinction is simple enough to explain: taking one example, F# "wants" to step up to G, whereas Gb "wants" to step down to F. This means that the "circle of fifths" turns into more of a helix of sorts that can be extended in both directions, in principle indefinitely. This difference cannot be "heard" directly; it's all about characterizing how the notes "work" in a piece of music.

After learning about the diatonic scale degrees, the next sensible step would be to start learning about counterpoint, which is based on simple definitions of consonance and dissonance between scale degrees. Then move on to thoroughbass and harmony.

Yes, the names are important for "interop" reasons and yes, historically they mattered because the temperament was different and C# was totally different from Db. And yes, not all modern music is based on the 12-note equal temp. But for a beginner, I would advocate avoiding them and thinking in terms of semi-tones as I've described. It's simpler, and it's the way guitars and pianos and DAWs and whatnot work, so it's a good way of thinking for a beginner. I know for sure I didn't appreciate being bombarded with names like "augmented fourth" or "diminished seventh" when "+6“ or "+9" would make more sense in terms of piano keys/frets that beginners usually have in front of them.

> But for a beginner, I would advocate avoiding them and thinking in terms of semi-tones as I've described.

For a total beginner, I might agree. But thinking about the scale degrees (Do, Re, Mi etc.) is also a totally viable approach (even as a starting point), and it's extremely helpful to learn about how the two relate ASAP so you aren't left holding a mess of seemingly-contradictory "theories" in your head!

> C# was totally different from Db

whats the difference between them?

Historically, they sounded different, so they wouldn't even be acoustically in-tune w/ the same notes. Each would only be in tune with its nearby notes on the "extended" cycle of fifths.

What does this mean for a piano keyboard, for example? Is the fact that it's the same key related to the fact that a piano cannot be perfectly tuned?

Yes, and it means that songs actually sound different when played in different keys. It's not just a shift up or down, the intervals within the song shift, if only slightly.

They're slightly different pitches in a non-equal temperament, depending on the key the temperament is based on.

Indeed "slightly different", as opposed to "totally different", which they are not.

And apparently the human ear can be train to ignore this slight difference (which everybody does because we are used to 12-TET). And this, for me, kind of throws the whole "simple integer fraction ratio == pleasing harmony" a bit into question. It's probably not wrong, but there's definitely more to it. But it's hard to explore, because you need the exposure to get used to the new microtonals if you want to experiment with it. Definitely very hard to test scientifically because it depends so much on a particular person's musical background and education.

> taking one example, F# "wants" to step up to G, whereas Gb "wants" to step down to F.

Uhhh....no? A flat or sharp can be the tonic, which does not lead to any other note. A note is named flat or sharp to maintain proper interval distance without repeating letters within the scale. A flat is typically not a leading tone because of interval distance, but can still want to resolve up or down. Any note can be consonant or dissonant, leading or resolved depending on the context.

> A flat or sharp can be the tonic, which does not lead to any other note.

You're right, and this is most often seen with flats; when Bb is the tonic, it doesn't "want" to resolve to A. --Of course, a modulation to F - the next-sharpest key in the cycle of fifths - is enough to change that. A "stable" sharp note is seen starting from the key of D, where F# is a stable third. But in the context of enharmonic notes, what I said generally holds. F# and Gb, to take the most common example, are so far in the 'extended' cycle of fifths that whenever both appear in the same piece, one can generally assume that the rule holds.

> A note is named flat or sharp to maintain proper interval distance without repeating letters within the scale.

Notes are not just named flats or sharps; at least in principle, there can be double, triple etc. sharps, and double, triple etc. flats. This is done in order to properly notate modulations in the cycle of fifths; one does not arbitrarily "switch" from sharps to flats, but just keeps adding to them.

Why does sharp or flat want to step up or down?

I took a few years of music lessons (granted light on theory) but I never heard this idea.

Is this exclusive to notes that are not in the current key? For example the f# in Gmaj doesn't want to step up to G any more than B wants to step up to C in Cmaj.

Because historically, a "sharp" note was thought of as a leading tone (Ti), whereas a "flat" note was thought as a fourth scale degree (Fa), tending to step down to the third (Mi).

(Actually, this was thought of most often in terms of hexachords, where there is no Ti and one would always use Mi-Fa for a half-step interval. I rewrote it in terms of scale degrees to avoid confusion.)

I.e. the F# in Gmaj does "want" to step up to G, in basic structural terms. We call the places where this happens most properly "cadences", and they are among the main structuring elements in a piece of music. (This Ti-Do - F#-to-G or B-to-C motion is then called a "cantizans", since it appears most prominently as a "canto" or "sopran" cadence. It's most typically seen as Do-Ti-Do, where the first appearance of Do is first "prepared" in a context that makes it a consonance, but then sounds as a dissonance as the other parts shift to a dominant chord (Sol and Re), so it's allowed to resolve to the leading tone.)

But B does want to step up (or resolve) to C, the tonic of the C major scale. Similarly with F# to G in G major.

So is it because it's sharp or flat or is it because of its position relative to the tonic?

Yes. (The local tonic, at least. It's no coincidence that the structural feature which most often results in "extra" sharps and flats, outside the key signature, is known as "tonicization".)

You've never heard of this because it's not true. A note wants to resolve up or down based on it's relative distance from tonic. This had nothing to do with what it's named, the most important part of naming notes is not repeating letters in an 8-note scale.

How do you make a note a tonic center? If any of the same seven notes can be a tonic, what makes it a tonic?

by it's function in the overall harmonic scheme, and through it's positioning and usage relative to the other notes.

"tonic" is another way of referring to the "key" of the song.

I know these words, question is exactly how these relationship work that a note becames tonic?

If I'm writing a song and want to make La the tonic, what should I do?

I would agree with this approach for pop music, but strongly disagree for classical music.

In the context of an electronic synth or keyboard, C# and Db are perfectly the same. In almost all traditional music, though, instruments are almost never tuned to equal temperament, so that C# and Db then mean different things.

As a famous example, Bach was very fond of his well-tempered clavier, which was a tuning method that is to be found somewhere between pythagorean tunings (usable for only one scale) and equal temperament (everything sounds equally lifeless). Bach's tuning was therefore a very carefully chosen compromise between being able to play the most common scales cleanly and sacrificing some scales in exchange for more precise harmonic relationships.

All famous European composers were experts at squeezing nice harmonics out of an un-equal tuning system where some key combinations just so happened to always sound horrible. It was called "Wolfsquinte" if you hit the wrong combination. If you limit yourself to only equal tuning, your are missing out on the slight harmonic differences that are the historical basic for all contemporary harmonic progressions.

If you start with one fixed frequency and then derive everything else as pure harmonics, that is called "Just Intonation". Wikipedia has a table on how those perfect harmonics differ from the notes that are mapped to your 12 keys: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_temperament#Comparison_w...

And lastly, by only thinking about notes as the keys on your keyboard, you completely lose the concept of musical Commata, which are when the true frequencies of two notes happen to fall onto the same key on a keyboard.

Others in this thread already pointed out that C# wants to go up while Db wants to go down. The reason for that is that for violins, cello, some flutes, and Organs, they are not the same notes. They just happen to be rounded onto the same key on most modern electronic keyboards.

Since you asked to learn about harmonics, I would therefore advise against focusing on 12-keys, because that would hide the underlying complexities from your view. Harmonics are in my opinion best studied on analogue instruments like a violin, where you can actually play a musical comma, as opposed to pretending it doesn't exist.

Tuning is a very messy subject, though. For instance, I think you're not strictly correct in your third paragraph - pythagorean tuning does theoretically admit of modulating to a different (at least "nearby") scale, since it is based on repeatedly applying the 3:2 perfect fifth interval! The actual problem is that it has bad thirds - hence "tempering", where basically, some of the 3:2 intervals are adjusted to move some of the thirds closer to being in tune. (It's true that this possibility of modulation was not musically exploited until after other tunings became popular - but strictly speaking, it is "just intonation" that can really only work for a single scale.)

For a simple introduction, I thought it would be better to skip the subject of tunings altogether and just focus on the structural implications that one would "read" in an actual piece of sheet music.

Yeah I described the Pythagorean tuning badly.

But in my opinion, how the notes that you play simultaneously sound together is the core of music theory. A good chord progression can feel like a journey and it will set the mood of the entire song. Therefore, I would argue that note frequencies and the reasons why certain tuning systems are preferred in certain situations are the key concept to understand if one wants to elicit a chosen mood in the listener.

I agree, discussing the benefits of Just Intonation when somebody asks for an intro to music theory is like starting a programming student off with building their own compiler.

Coincidentally, one of the first things I tried to build while learning to code was a C compiler ^_^ It took a long time, but I learned many valuable lessons about how Windows and CPUs work.

But I brought up Just Intonation here because people tend to use that when they sing freely. So I would see this as a way to first understand why people (and famous composers) act the way they do before one tries to categorize things scientifically.

Also a handy way to remember the modes in order is the mnemonic "I don't particularly like modes a lot". It stands for Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian.

While not incorrect, this is still a woefully limited vision of what scales / sequences of intervals can be.

Start from a tuning system. 12TET (12 tones per octave, equal temperament) would be conventional if you live in a contemporary western culture, but there are others.

Next step: pick a set of intervals (any number, though 4, 6, 7 are common numbers). Congratulations, you have a mode.

Next step: pick a root/tonic. Congratulations, you have a scale.

Next step: play it, over and over and over again till you can do so without thinking about.

Next step: do the above steps again, with different choices. And again, and again, and again ...

Next step: understand the differences in the "feel" of the different intervallic relationships present within the scale.

Next step: understand the impact of presenting these intervallic relationships when ordered in time (i.e. melody, one note after another), or when presented all at once (i.e. harmony, chords)

Then, when you're ready, tackle Music Set Theory: https://ianring.com/musictheory/scales (sadly limited to 12TET tuning, but it's still a fabulous start)

Bon Voyage!

I did some simple courses and they all started with this.

Naming stuff 1-12 and I, II, IV etc.

I found this much more relatable.

Only keyboards seem to favor C major with their layout, which makes applying these "relatives" a bit more cumbersome, if you don't want to use that scale.

At least on guitar everything looks the same.

> Only keyboards seem to favor C major with their layout

Once you're familiar with the cycle of fifths, modulation becomes fairly trivial. You start to apply the appropriate corrections "sharpen this, flatten that" simply as a matter of habit.

In fact, this is precisely how modulation arose historically; it used to be the case that all music was notated diatonically or nearly so (only distinguishing between B and B-flat!), but performers would implicitly "add" sharps and flats to make it sound good depending on the context - a practice known as "musica ficta". You're right though that on a plucked string instrument everything looks the same - and historical intabulations (i.e. tablatures!) meant for plucked string instruments are actually an important source that gives us info about how musica ficta was played in many cases.

I just find the black and whites puzzling.

Sure, the steps are the same from the prime up, but with C major you end up on all white and with others you can end up on blacks here and there.

> I just find the black and whites puzzling.

Yeah, they are largely a historical artifact from before the days of equal-temperament tuning. A few things they have going for them:

* They give you a visual reference point for an absolute pitch. It's easy to find any specific note by looking for it relative to the unique pattern of black keys. C is always to the left of the pair of blacks. Other instruments require different techniques to keep track of where you are since otherwise all note positions look the same. (For example, guitars have fretboard markers and players have to be careful to count frets correctly.)

* Having two rows of notes, even if not evenly distributed, lets a hand span a greater range of pitches. If all of the black keys were inline with the whites, it would be harder to span an octave without making the keys smaller which increases the risk of mistakes.

* The non-uniform layout means that each diatonic key has a different physical layout. This is a negative when it comes to transposing, but it can be a positive when it comes to composing. Picking a different key with its unique layout might get your hands to try different chord voicings or progressions you wouldn't think of otherwise. It increases the spatial variet of the instrument at the expense of less consistency.

Guitars get multiple rows done too.

And a zigzag would be nicer than here two and there three.

But yes, I probably have to learn the keys for a few days and things are good :)

> Guitars get multiple rows done too.

True. Honestly, from an engineering and UX standpoint, guitars are just breathtakingly brilliant. We don't give enough credit for how amazingly expressive, flexible, simple, and robust they are.

It's an analog instrument that you can make for a few hundred bucks out of a couple of pieces of wood and some wire. It lets play chords of up to six notes with one hand while articulating each note individually with great expressive control using the strumming hand. It allows a player to cover a huge range of chords across the entire chromatic spectrum and even supports bends and slides. At the same time, a beginning can make something that sounds nice within a couple of hours. It is simple to adapt it to electronics. And even when acoustic, it sounds great.

Total mechanical marvels.

Learn how the black keys map to sharp and flat notes, then learn the cycle of fifths. (There are also some "tricks" you can use to understand how sharp and flat key signatures relate to their keys: in a "sharp" key signature, the last sharp sign matches the leading tone for the corresponding major key (e.g. G major only has F# as a key signature sign); in a "flat" key signature the last flat sign matches the fourth, and the next to last matches the actual key. F major has a single flat sign at Bb; Bb major has two, at Bb and Eb.) Once you have internalized how all of these relate, it really becomes trivial.

You can also mention for interest that your scale is actually a logarithm.

x + 12 = 880 Hz in your notation.

The reason and importance of intervals are due to the harmonic series.

Perfect 5th = 3/2 * x (or x + 7 in your notation)

Perfect 4th = 4/3 * x (or x + 5 in your notation)

The 12-note equal temperament is a little off from these ratios as a hack to allow multiple key signatures. You'll find that 3/2 ~= 12_sqrt(2)^7.

You can go into complicated chords too, and you'll still find dualities and the hormonic series behind it. A major chord is a stacked major 3rd with a minor 3rd and together they range over a perfect 5th.

To someone with 0 knowledge of music theory and the desire to learn it, this is kind of useless tbh. You're making a lot of assumptions in this post that aren't very helpful :/

I kind of did this. I already had a background in writing realtime synth software and DSP, so I knew that MIDI notes (in 12TET, as I learned later) were just numbers with a frequency of the formula: 440 x (2 ^ ((n - 69) / 12)). (at least I think, I wrote that from memory). I usually asked others to produce something "musical" with my software.

Realizing that every note was basically the same and all semitone intervals are the same, I asked myself the "innocent" question, then why are they labeled black and white on a piano keyboard?

Trying to answer this question to my (full) satisfaction took me on a very deep google dive, several over a couple of years in fact. But it roughly led me through most areas of music theory. I'm still not entirely satisfied with the explanations I found, but some of the remaining questions are also kind of open in music theory.

It comes down to the question of what's so special about the major scale? And the answer is kind of in the circle of fifths and combinatorial music theory. If you have a modulo 12 system (because octave equivalence, which seems to be a physiological property of human hearing), there are two generating primes, 5 and 7. These correspond to a fifth down or up. Generating prime means that it generates all the 12 notes if you follow it modulo 12. Also it turns out that the complementary scales of the major (7) and the pentatonic (5) are "maximally even" (IIRC), .. and now I forgot why that was important. It's complex stuff.

There's also reasons why we got 12 notes instead of 10 or 16. Mainly to do with how close you can get to simple fractions of frequency ratios. You also have 19-TET, which has more notes and gets pretty close, but 12 is still superior in some ways afaik. This is the part that I found really interesting, but over time it's been nagging at me: Simple frequency ratios are special because their waves and harmonics coincide in periodic fashion. But if it's good enough to just be "close enough" to some ratio, that is actually equivalent to exactly hitting a much more complex fractional ratio. The accepted reasoning is, I guess, that human hearing is kind of fuzzy and not too fussy about these things. But that feels a little bit too hand-wavy to me. Especially cause the fuzzy can be trained, and most of us expect to hear the particular 12-TET tuning, and when they hear the exact ratios, they sound kind of "off". So I feel there's still some understanding missing from this theory, or at least more I'd like to learn (somewhere between physiological human hearing and cultural music theory of scales from all over the world and history).

I kind of feel like I learned about music "in reverse" this way, and I'm not sure I'd recommend it as the way to study music theory, but it sure as hell has been interesting.

For this, I would highly recommend the music theorist/composer Dimitri Tymoczko. His career project is to rebuild the basics of harmony from the ground up from (mostly simple) rules, closely based on how people hear. A catchphrase he uses a lot is "why does music sound good?"

He teaches a set of 2 comprehensive introductory music theory classes at Princeton, and he makes the lecture notes public: https://dmitri.mycpanel.princeton.edu/teaching.html. These are a really underrated resource and have now grown to be as complete as a full intro theory textbook.

There is a serious lack of stuff that teaches music theory from the ground up (how a lot of us hackers like to learn). So much of the confusion around music theory just comes from most theorists using using old, incredibly crufty "data structures" to describe music, when the actual material isn't so hard. Tymoczko is one of the few researchers pushing back on that. He is best known for his higher-level, mathy research (he wrote the first music theory article ever published in Science), but those lecture notes are a great way to get started for anyone who gets frustrated with learning theory the traditional way—which is pretty much everyone.

It's important to remember that there is no real "bottom-up" when it comes to music theory. Sure there's a couple of rough audio-acoustic rules like how simple fractions of frequences sound more harmonious because there's less beating, but those rules are few and don't get you far.

They're equivalent to noting that, say, vowel sounds with similar formants are harder to distinguish. That's true, but there's no way to reason up from that all the way to Shakespeare and Dickens.

The way to look at music theory is that it's like linguistics for sound. It doesn't say "here are the rules that are required to generate X". It says "people have already generated X, Y, and Z (using whatever intuitive cultural processes and/or academic learning they had) and here are the patterns we observe about the result."

People creating music are not outputting new provable theorems derived generatively from the axiomatic rules of music theory. Music theory cannot disprove a song.

People just make stuff they and others like (or don't). And then music theorists try to find the common threads that link it to better understand how the world of music fits together. It is descriptive and not prescriptive.

Knowing theory can help you write music because it can take information you already have in your intuitive "ear" and move it to your front cortex or somewhere more accessible to your hands. But many other musicians skip this step entirely and just connect their hands straight to their intuition though tons of practice. Either path is valid for producing beautiful music.

Expanding on your comment about vowels, I don't think it's fair to say that music is completely arbitrary in the same way as, say, language. Whereas for language we can be pretty confident in saying that it really is truly arbitrary, e.g. see the birth and development of Nicaraguan Sign Language: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Sign_Language

To put this another way, two hypothetical languages developed in complete isolation from each other would be completely different. Two musical traditions developed in complete isolation would be different, but not completely different. There is still an underlying theory that unifies them to some extent. This is why music theory exists as a useful topic of study, even if it is not sufficient for writing aesthetically pleasing music. Whereas I know of no equivalent for linguistics: linguistics is truly a descriptive field, it can only describe what exists, not predict what properties a new language can/should have.

Your claim about linguistics here is subject a great deal controversy in the linguistics world. The question of whether there is, for example, a deep grammar that is shared across all languages, is a matter of long lasting and deep debate (these days it seems to be leaning to "no", but the debate is not over).

So... I agree with your point about music, but I'm not sure you're right to try to contrast it with language in this respect.

> Two musical traditions developed in complete isolation would be different, but not completely different. There is still an underlying theory that unifies them to some extent.

What theory do you have in mind? My (limited) understanding is that across cultures there is wide variance in rhythms, time signatures, how many tones span each octave and what emotions are associated with different intervals and chords.

One can argue whether Tymoczko's approach genuinely leads to understanding theory "from the ground up". His research is best understood IMHO as a worthwhile (in itself) "tweak" and generalization of a previous theoretical approach known as "Neo-Riemannian theory", named after Hugo Riemann's descriptions of tonal harmony (i.e. the general working of 'chords', or rather, major and minor triads). Seen from that POV, it's quite helpful. As a general description of what might go on in a piece of music (even "classical" music)? Maybe not so much.

All good points. I don't know much about his actual higher-level mathematical stuff (I'm pretty bush-league about theory overall, really!) But I've heard that a lot of people in the music theory world say it's awfully close to regular Neo-Riemannian theory.

That said, in the Princeton lecture notes, he does seem to start a given topic on fundamental/"why" questions and then build out, more than any other intro music material that I've seen. A far as I can tell, his own theories are in there, but more as a framework to help explain things, rather than demanding you think that way.

For example, in the first pages, he describes a bunch of well-known fundamentals in music theory/psychoacoustics, but in a very "Tymoszco-esque" way. He lays out five principles common to a huge range of music styles: some combinations of notes are considered more pleasant than others, you don't want to have melodies that jump around too much, etc. (These all go for the Western musical tradition, but also many others.)

Then he says that our scales are essentially "solutions" to how you can chop up the octave into steps and meet all of the five requirements. It turns out there are a relatively small number of ways to do that, we've found just about all of them, and those are pretty much exactly the list of scales that we're using. But then he quickly builds it out to common scales that you can play on a keyboard written out in normal notation, and goes from there.

This is extremely satisfying to my hacker brain, like picking a handful of criteria and doing a search to find all the possible lists of numbers that meet those criteria.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if you can explain music theory from fundamentals just as well using traditional Neo-Riemannian theory, or even something totally different. I just haven't ran into any intro-level materials like that.

(Also: it could even be that his list of requirements isn't really true, but it's hard to see which ones you would want to deny for Western music.)

Thing is, NR theory is almost as far from fundamentals as you can get; loosely speaking, it's a description of how very "far" modulations between triads (and to some extent, scales/keys) can nonetheless be made to work. It's describing a "trick", so to speak. Tymoczko's additions make the approach somewhat more useful, but it's still nowhere near the actual fundamentals of how music is understood in general (which is what one would expect "theory" to be about).

Huh, maybe his intro-level materials are far different, then. I'm not going to die on the hill that there's any connection; I don't even know whether he claims there is. But it at least seems that this specific stuff (at least in the early chapters I've read) is both more fundamental and more grounded in math (very basic math in this case) than the other intro theory stuff I've seen.

Thanks a lot for pointing to these lectures ! Sometimes even freely available quality material doesn't serve its intended purpose due to lack of awareness among those who want/need it

Check out Adam Neely on youtube.

He talks a lot about the why of doing certain things in music.

His step by step "jazzification" of a pop song was an eye opener for me:


This is good stuff thank you!

I would suggest that you look at the frequency relationships in logarithmic space. +-2 = one octave, +-3 = C to G, +-5 = C to E.

So if you take any note and then go +0, +3, +5-2 in logarithm, meaning you calculate f, f3, f5/2 then you get a major chord.

Once you're working on the frequency ratios like this, you will be able to spot arrangements that can be mistaken for one chord, even though they actually are the overtones of something else. That's called https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syntonic_comma

The basis of good harmonic development is then to travel around the harmonic space and then to deliberately produce these dual-meaning situations so that you can use them to jump around in the harmonic space.

As an example, consider F-Major, f#-minor, B-major. Implicitly, you are replacing the #f-minor with a g-flat-minor, which is why the jump to B-major then makes harmonic sense.

Or as another example, consider F-Major, f-minor, Db-Major, a#-minor, Gb-Major. Each pair shares 2 notes in the well-tempered tuning, but by following this trail you are completely walking out of the C-Major scale that you started with.

I've played guitar for almost 18 years and bass for roughly 5 years and also went to community college for theory and private instruction. Since then, I have recorded, played shows in various genres, and have toured the US and few places in Canada and Mexico.

You need to be able to find time to synthesize learning how to read music, playing music that challenges you but is within reach of your ability, ear training, and music theory.

You don't need to do this in a learning context, but playing with other people (especially if it's music you are learning) is a great magnifier in my experience.

I would recommend trying to learn new songs while also learning intervals, major/minor pentatonic scales, basic modes, scales, modes, chords, and arpeggios.

Counting rhythms is a little tricky to learn on your own. If you can, I would take a theory class or 2 to learn this; however, YMMV.

I used to be obsessed with this stuff, but I feel like it's not really important. It's sort of like the periodic table: you can memorize all of the factual information, but I would argue that what is really important is understanding the interaction of various elements. The table is a reference; it is not chemistry itself.

I imagine it's not really important to you now as you've turned the theory into an intuitive understanding for music itself, over the years you've been playing. Do you think you would have the same level of understanding had you had instead played entirely by ear for all those years, or do you think the theory helped you connect the concepts you felt better?

I feel like theory helped me find the right way to label certain sounds/harmonies and organize/internalize them in a way that made sense to me. I don't think I could have figured that out on my own; however, I also had friends that went to music school, so it's possible I could have just sponged off of their learning.

There are lots of complicated answers here. All you need is to be able to build scales and chords using the circle of 5ths. Just learn how to write out the notes for a scale like E major. Then learn how to write out the notes for all of the chords in that key. If you do this and learn how to build scales and chords everything will start to make sense. I have a music degree. This is the key. This page is a good start. https://www.tempomusicards.com/lessons/chord-formulas-and-th...

I would also add that to really use theory you have to know the notes on your instrument. You can know them as audible intervals, letters and written musical notes. Tab is worthless. I learned to read music for school and it transformed my knowledge of the instrument.

I wrote a course on it!


It's a bunch of short, interactive lessons to help you visualize the concepts. Still going strong after about 3 years now.

If you check it out, I'd love to hear your feedback.

I was going to recommend it. I did not go through the course yet, but it seems very promising and I liked what I saw a lot. Thanks for doing it!

Looks like exactly what i've been looking for, thank you!

I'm in similar position; I've "Tinkered" with Guitar for many many years; and with Piano/Synths more recently; but never gained an actual satisfying deep level of understanding.

Went through all the typical self-learning resources: Udemy courses, Youtube videos, books, blogs, tutorials, forums, etc.

In the end I followed the oft-given advice and got a teacher. I was explicit that I did not want to necessarily follow standard curriculum - I wanted a music equivalent of a "good math teacher" - one with enough comfort and breadth to go places with me if I have questions and explore areas of interest. I am literally GIDDY with excitement now. The teacher is not my sole source of knowledge - maybe 30% - but provides direction, explanations, motivation, ties concepts in, and honestly provides accountability ("I will practice this scale / review this concept before next class") that keeps me going.

I resisted it for much too long thinking that in this day and age there are enough resources not to need an old-fashioned teacher; and indeed I wouldn't recommend an old-fashioned teacher; but a flexible and knowledgeable expert for completely invaluable for me.

The most important thing is to relate the theory you learn back to your instrument, and to use your ears as much as your brain.

I have a hunch that so many of my engineer friends are musicians because music theory is happily systematic - it reminds me a lot of category theory & FP. It meshes perfectly with my brain at least - but just knowing theory without feeling it is useless. Learn to feel.

"music theory is happily systematic"

Funny, when I tried multiple times to learn music theory it seemed very unsystematic to me, and more like the result of hundreds of years of accretion by lots of people who thought their own way and did not have any kind of coherent, overarching system or vision in mind.

If it was more systematic it would have been a whole lot easier to learn.

It is actually pretty systematic, but with edge cases. The trouble I find with music theory teachings is they don't have systematic approaches at all, they use brute force memorization and some of the more shallow constructs. When you dig deeper, you can see the underlying patterns that created the things that get memorized.

Theory is very systematic if you start with listening, but will seem haphazard if you start with the physics.

This. ^

I have a half-baked theory about music theory that this is best facilitated by playing / singing instruments that are often holding the root of a given chord -- which means singing the bass part, playing bass guitar, or double bass, or cello in a string quartet. If you're playing entire chords (keys, guitar) you'll get some of it too, but I suspect there may be something about focusing a while on a monophonic low part that helps establish the feel for theory.

Nitpick, but the bass part does not always play the root of a chord in the proper sense - "inversions" (which are actually very common) are precisely those chords where the bass is playing some note other than the root. What is true however is that the bass part provides the broadest level of "structure" in a piece of music that can be directly read in the score. Notes in other parts are always (at some basic structural level, disregarding further elaboration) chosen based on how they "relate" to the bass according to the rules of counterpoint.

The "thoroughbass" is a historic way of thinking about the "accompaniment" of a piece of music that's based on these principles; a "thoroughbass part" writes down chords by "annotating" a bass line with intervals, and music pieces can be written as "lead line(s) plus thoroughbass part" in a way that's comparable to a modern lead sheet but a lot more theoretically founded.

I really liek this channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRDDHLvQb8HjE2r7_ZuNtWA

A lot of the videos are from a guitar-playing viewpoint, but they explain the effect of the different music theory concepts.

One change of mindset I had to make from learning maths/compsci to learning music theory is that starting at first principles is not always helpful. I found it easier to just accept things like "minor sounds sad" without really getting why, and keep playing songs and learning at the same time until the picture gradually fills out.

I took a year-long course in music theory as an undergrad; I loved it, and learned a great deal!

I recommend sitting in on a university music theory course if it all possible. But, if not, I can at least recommend the textbook we used: Kostka and Payne's Tonal Harmony. If you want to learn slowly, from the beginning, it's a great resource.

Our instructor told us that, by the end of the first semester, we would be writing four-part chorales and that we'd sound like Bach. That sounded thoroughly ridiculous and I thought he was full of shit. But, no, he was right -- after a semester I was able to do precisely this.

Kostka and Payne is not usually recommended. Knowledgeable experts tend to prefer texts by Laitz, or Aldwell (previously, Aldwell & Schachter). Bear in mind though that the latter authors do require some 'intellectual' effort, but this will hopefully pay off in understanding. Kostka and Payne is the sort of textbook that's preferred by instructors at a music dept, where the students don't actually care that much about theory - it tends to emphasize unhelpful trivia, not what's most relevant.

I taught music theory for 8 years, and we used Laitz. It's a solid textbook. The book I learned from myself was Walter Piston (!) which is extremely old-fashioned, but unlike Laitz, Piston worked from a defined 'canon' of classical music within which his theory was consistent. Laitz tries to incorporate many different kinds of music, and then he often reaches quite simplistic conclusions. Kostka and Payne is absolutely fine, though, if you want to know 'enough' and the pedagogical style is excellent.

My impression was that Kostka and Payne is fairly light going, with lots of examples of how the concepts are used in actual (classical) music. There is an accompanying workbook, and as far as learning went that was where the real action is.

Don't know the other books you mentioned; perhaps they are better still.

Others have posted some good resources like Lightnote which I also recommend as an introduction. The only one I've gone all the way through, though, has been Audible Genius (https://www.audiblegenius.com/). It's similarly hands-on and only an introduction to the very basics (more material coming at some point), but it will get you comfortable putting drum, bass, and lead together for a simple progression over a single root note. Its primary focus is training your ear to recognize rhythm and intervals and understand them at an intuitive rather than theoretical level (although the theoretical stuff will make more sense once you have the basic intuitive sense).

Although it is billed on a monthly basis which I'm not a fan of, I comfortably completed all the current material in under a month so I found the value very good and plan to resubscribe once more material is released.

(Tangentially, Audible Genius is from the same guy as Syntorial, which is a very well-regarded hands-on course in subtractive synthesizer programming which I also recommend if that's of interest, but that's not directly related to music theory)

From there, there are tons of other courses that discuss things like chord progressions which you can combine with this experience to be more deliberate with your melody and harmony to communicate what you're trying to communicate with your music.

The Signals Music Studio Youtube channel in particular I find to be approachable for a theory novice but also inspiring to try new things and stretch beyond the basics (for instance, dabbling in modes).

It really depends on your objectives. If you want to compose pop music (including rock and electronic music) the risk is to lose yourself in complicated harmony "rules" that are mostly irrelevant to the style you want to play (on top of my mind parallel fifths prohibited in classical theory but they are commonplace in rock/metal) and only useful to analyze classical pieces.

Personally as a guitarist I kind of hacked my way into music theory to being able to improvise over and compose pop/rock/electronic by only using intervals and scale degrees. I can hear chords progressions, I know why a V I cadence works, can identify and play in modes (dorian, lydian...), but I can't name the notes so transcribing into a DAW is cumbersome but at least I can compose freely. Not ideal but considering the minimal time I invested it's a very good return for me.

Concretely the idea is to focus only on patterns and formulas. The steps would be to learn to play and hear intervals, then construct chords, e.g. Major chord is 4+3 semi-tones, minor is 3+4, another +3 is minor 7 or +4 for major 7. Then by using a scale (e.g white notes on the piano for key of C major/A minor) it's easy to find the chord on each degree. After that learn a few common chords progressions and being able to identify them in everyday songs should come naturally. Finally practice composing melodies by targeting chord tones and you are ready to start composing.

I found this video does a very good job at providing this overview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgaTLrZGlk0 (edit: the second half of the video).

Oh man I've been waiting SO long to say this: get a music degree. I chose to get a BA in Music instead of a CS degree. I've had many regrets around doing so for the purposes of getting engineering jobs, but 15 years later I still have a deep understanding of music theory, history, and acoustics.

That said, self-learning music is both viable and highly enjoyable. Here are some topics you should probably cover:

- Scales

- Modes

- Rhythm and time signatures

- Musical notation

- Chord Progressions / Regressions (this is extremely high value to learn)

- Chord Voicing (using the same notes in different octaves)

- Song Forms / Structure

- Harmonics, resonance, and dissonance (this is all about ratios, and typically very interesting to those who enjoy maths and physics)

- Instrumentation, including the practical range of each instrument and voice.

- Writing and arranging music.

- Non-western approaches to all of the above

In terms of the course of learning, I recommend: - Get lessons from somebody you respect and enjoy working with. They should be able to help with theory.

- Learn multiple instruments. Just like learning additional programming languages, adding another instrument furthers your enlightenment significantly.

- Play lots of music with consistent daily frequency.

- Listen to LOTS of different kinds of music. Listen actively, picking apart melody, rhythm, chords, and structure. It really helps to transcribe songs you like to develop a critical ear.

- Hang out with lots of different musicians.

- Spend time in a good DAW / digital audio workstation. Like your IDE, it can help you create music while giving you the power of a good linter and test suite. Record simple melodies then practice editing them in a Piano Roll view.

- Music doesn't move fast like programming. Some of the best educational materials available today are 75+ years old.

- Improvisation is one of the best paths towards discovery IMHO, but you have to be learning other musical idioms to expand your own improvisational pallet.

Have fun. Music theory is very enjoyable to study, and any work in that direction will improve your performance abilities far beyond what you might expect!

It might be different now, but I actually found my music degree a net positive in terms of getting computer jobs. It's probably only true when the job market is hot, but hiring people tend to respond well - I've gotten lots of comments from people over the years indicating they've seen a good correlation between being a musician and being a good programmer.

> Oh man I've been waiting SO long to say this: get a music degree. I chose to get a BA in Music instead of a CS degree

Most people will not be well-served by this suggestion - even people with some serious interest in music. Music education is a tiny, tiny niche, and the amount of effort that you're asked to put in at a serious college level is not obviously worth it. Maybe get someone to teach you in your spare time instead. There's enough people around who have pursued undergrad or even grad studies in music (also theory), and have yet to land a satisfactory position.

I recommend that you follow Kent Hewitt (piano), Adam Neely (bass) and Rick Beato (guitar) on Youtube. They all talk about various aspect of music theory, composition, etc. Kent Hewitt is providing more of a full-blown online jazz course, Rick Beato makes incredibly interesting analyses of songs of all style (mostly rock) but also talks a lot about scales, harmony, improvising, etc. Adam Neely is all over the place :)

Rick Beato's series "What makes this song so great" is fun if you want to see/hear theory applied to rock songs. And learn about rock music song construction or rather destruction since he plays the isolated tracks of the instruments and vocals. It isn't theory instruction its theory discussion and straight fandom.

"Music Theory Everyone Should Know" by Rick Beato and many additional videos. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9d26tpvA4U

He also publishes a book on music theory, but I've not reviewed it.

Also recommended:

8-bit Music Theory (theory & analysis of video game music in an easy to digest format)

12-tone (all over the place but always interesting, dissects popular songs sometimes and also gets into some very weird fringes)

Also Signals Music Studios (great practical applications of music theory to composition)

all great channels, I love them all.

However I kind of feel like you can only really learn from them if you have a solid foundation of music theory already. If you don't, then you will be surely be entertained by these videos, but I doubt that you will come out of it with real knowledge.

It's like... you can watch anime with subtitles all day but you are very unlikely to learn Japanese this way.

Rick Beato and Kent Hewitt both wrote good books that will allow serious learners to start up.


This is a very good place to start and at least validate that you have the foundations. I mean both their courses and chord progression/melody database.

Also, playing around with their composer is a very very easy and pleasant way to actually grok harmony.

Rhythm/dynamics/etc you would need to learn somewhere else, but most people don't have a problem with that anyway.

Disclaimer: While hooktheory is a better resource than the ones posted by others, I see that they have started marketing their product as 'Pro'. This cannot be further from the truth - there is nothing 'Pro' about it - it is pure schoolboy stuff, it is just very well done.

I really loved the roman numeral chord theory here. Helped me a ton.

Professional musician here with 30 years' experience.

I recommend my friend David Newman's YouTube channel as a great first start to learning music theory basics and training your ear. His music theory and ear training songs are ingenious.


Once your ability to read music is trained up to a basic level, I also recommend listening to classical music while reading the full orchestral scores. This can vastly improve your skill levels with reading music. Scores are available for free online from IMSLP, and in print at very affordable prices from Dover Publications and others.

I have been collecting links to high-quality learning resources here which you might find helpful: https://learnawesome.org/topics/2a08a6c6-ac26-415d-a6a5-5e1b...

I have also added many links from this thread so that the above becomes one place to find them all.

Here is what I do. Head to your local university bookstore, and buy the course-pack for a music theory course. Read the syllabus, borrow the books from the library and use the materials. You get a structured way to approach the subject and you do the legwork to learn it. It usually costs ~< $100 to get knowledge worth much more.

My hot take: HN is probably one of the worst places to ask for advice on music theory, because it has a fairly high concentration of people who reject traditional music theory and want to come up with their own system. In general, these people haven’t gotten very far in making up their own system, so their advice is pretty worthless! My other hot take is that the existing system of musical notation and terminology that we have is actually pretty good, and it’s hard to figure out ways to improve it.

Music theory is a pretty broad subject and there are a ton of pathways through music theory that take you to different parts of it. I would start by trying to figure out a “map” of the different parts you are interested in.

Almost any course will start with major/minor diatonic scales, then intervals, and then chords. If you combine notes with rhythm, you get a melody. If you combine chords together, you get harmony. Figuring out how harmony works usually starts with “functional harmony” which is where you learn about tonic/dominant/subdominant chords and cadences. The main gotcha here is that there are a couple competing systems for writing names of chords, and you should at least be aware of them so you’re not surprised by a “V6 chord” because that name means two different things depending on which system you use.

This gives you a pretty good foundation for understanding music or writing your own. It’s also not too hard to get this far on your own. Music will still seem mysterious and weird, but that’s normal.

From there you can go in a bunch of directions—there’s atonal music, jazz, traditional counterpoint, nonfunctional harmony, modes, alternative scales, alternative tunings, etc.

I recommend the book The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis. Personally, I would go through the first chapters until it introduces strict counterpoint, and then consider the rest of the book as a “menu” that you can read in any order (kind of). For the second edition, that means doing chapters 1-8, and then you can feel free to skip around chapters 9+. Don’t just follow the book with pencil and paper, actually play the exercises on a real instrument and train your ear (and get an ear training app, if you think it will help).

Finally, I recommend buying a stack of staff paper from the local stationary store. It shouldn’t be hard to find. Alternatively, you can use a computer program to write music, but the choices are a bit intimidating. I’m using Dorico these days but it’s $100. Don’t rely on tabs if you want to improve theory. Tabs are cheat sheets for performance, they make theory and analysis harder.

> Alternatively, you can use a computer program to write music, but the choices are a bit intimidating.

MuseScore is free and open source. Totally fine for casual use.

When they say that a program is "intimidating," most people are talking about the user interface and the learning curve, not the license.

Maybe I'm a luddite but I used books.

Any book on common practice harmony will help with most pop/rock and classical up to 20th century. I used Harmony by Piston and happily recommend it. For some jazz theory The Jazz Piano Book by Levine was good for me.

Agreed. I loved Piston, with the caveat that his book is about the "Common Practice Period". It will teach you the standard approach to harmony used in the 18th and 19th century. But its a grounding that helps to make all the post 19th century developments in harmony make sense.

I had a similar problem. In my opinion Blogs and tutorials are great for the very beginning and probably for specific advanced/obscure topics. I picked up interesting bits and pieces about theory and their application on Youtube from 12Tone, Ben Levin, Adam Neely, Nahre Sol, Sideways, David Bruce and 8-Bit Music Theory which are all great educational and thoughtful channels.

But what I was missing was a coherent path from beginner to more advanced levels without having to cobble it together myself which wouldn't work well because I don't know what I don't know.

I endend up buying bundles of the 12-part (and growing I think) "Music Theory Comprehensive" course on Udemy and it has been amazing value for the money so far.


I think one should start music theory with some free basic introductions that are everywhere to see whether you actually enjoy learning about it. After that I reckon the best way forward is to put some money down for either books or courses.

I'd like to expand on the complementary facet that has not yet been approached here. The physics/signal theory behind of it. It's a great way to learn for scientifically inclined people. Try looking at how instruments are made, and where does sound come from. Look at experimental instruments like waterphone, bells, violins, strings, drums, winds, animal noises, natural sounds, electronic music...

Try looking at the way the waves propagate and interfere, learn about acoustics and how physical objects respond to incoming sounds by vibrating themselves at specific frequencies which depend on their geometries.

This approach will give you the basis blocks upon which generations of musicians have built a language and cultural norms that also take into account understanding the listener and its emotions.

Try to find something which interests you and dig as deep as you like.

The simplified method: Take a guitar and transpose each mode to E. So start with Phrygian since it's natrual key is E. But then transpose Dorian from D down to E. Forget the key. Just learn the modes but from E. THEN, make up chords for each note of each mode. For example, for Mixolydian you can make E, F#m, A, Bm, C#m and D (and a weird G# - there's always a weird chord). Once you memorize the 7 modes, you can deconstruct pretty much any song. Fool around playing chords of a mode and you'll start to hear familiar note patterns. Switch modes (especially for the "weird" chord) and things get very interesting. You don't even have to learn all of the modes. I used 4-5 almost exclusively. Of course it does create a communication problem if you normalize everything to 5 modes and de-emphasize the key.

This is probably not what you are looking for, but for beginners visiting this page. This website gives you a nice start and shows how old hits can be played: https://learningmusic.ableton.com/

The University of Edinburgh has a decent free course on Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/learn/edinburgh-music-theory/home/w...

These are the notes that are used to teach Harmony at Berklee: http://valdez.dumarsengraving.com/PDFmusic/Berkleeharmony/Ha...

I'm joining this conversation late. As a professional musician and music teacher, though, I think that a couple of methodological recommendations could help.

Whatever the tools (books, websites, etc) you use, never learn anything that your ear can fully grasp. For instance, in learning Harmony, many apprentices forget to put first their ear on the thing. Instead, they take an exercise as a puzzle or abstract problem, just a matter of only applying the rules. Just don't do this.

The second advise is as important as the first one. Learn basically from the masters. I do really learnt what matters when I see and hear what the best composers are always doing. Books are fine only with the real music in the horizon.

12tone's YouTube channel is amazing, especially his Building Blocks playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTOOWe_yLwY&list=PLMvVESrbjB...

I'm also working on Harmony Explorer - a CLI tool that lets you hear any chord. It's brilliant for seeing what a chord progression sounds like before taking the time to play it on your instrument of choice: https://github.com/tiniuclx/harmony-explorer

Andrew Huang's Music Theory in 30 minutes is a pretty good starting point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgaTLrZGlk0

This isn't even vaguely related, but as someone who has never dabbled in music but had a bit of skill at drawing/painting, I have always wondered if there was some scheme to explain and produce music visually by drawing or painting. For example in such a scheme one would compose a piece of music by creating an aesthetically pleasing drawing in that visual formalism, rather than by how it sounds to the ear as musicians do. Essentially a scheme of music creation directed by the eye rather than ear. Is there something like that out there?

Somewhat relevant, Lissajous Curves are a way of turning ratios of the Interval into oscilloscopic lines

If you're okay with learning on a guitar Ben Levin's* "Music Theory from the Ground Up is an excellent series. He breaks down everything into really small pieces and its a lot of fun to learn from him.

Heres a link to the YouTube playlist https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3yqUeiMn_g&list=PLJTWoPGfHx...

*I am in no way affiliated with this guy, and to my knowledge he does not charge for any of his lessons anyways.

Ben Levin is an incredible guitar player.

My music school provides free theory classes if you take any weekly class to learn how to play an instrument. The professors teaching you an instrument know what theory you are learning - so they will then include that in the music you are learning to play so you can see the theory in practice. If you want to learn quickly, a good music school is going to be hard to beat. I'm basing this on having tried teaching myself online and having had many private teachers. Both of which work, but just a lot slower and with more limitations.

I have a music degree but have also engaged in a lot of self-study, so hopefully I can still make good recommendations for someone interested in learning on their own. The general approach I'd recommend is trampolining between on-paper theory and ear training, with the specific goal at each stage being the ability to identify by listening the structures that you're learning about on paper. The text I'd recommend is Aldwell's Harmony and Voice Leading, which is very focussed on the techniques of classical Western concert music but is still, along with its exercises, the best bet I can think of for building a solid foundation of knowledge that you can bring to other musical styles.

The most important thing I can recommend while starting out is to focus your ear training on hearing scale degrees (e.g., if I play a C major chord and then play a random note from the C major scale, you should be able to identify which note that is out of C, D, E, F, G, A or B). A lot of naive ear training resources recommend learning to hear intervals (e.g. a perfect 5th, which is the interval between C and G or E and B), but intervals only really have meaning in the context of a key, and so understanding them in that context is much more important. A good app for training with this on iOS is Politonus: it'll play a few chords to establish a key, and then it'll play a random note from the key and prompt you to guess which one it was. As you improve with this, you can have it play multiple notes at a time, or even notes outside of the key.

This video “8 Facts About the Circle of Fifths You May Not Already Know” has a click-baity title and the most clear, simple, understandable description of why the Circle is like the periodic table of music. Highly recommend watching it. Even just see the guy’s circle of fifths tattoo.


Well, whose theory? If you wanna see some deep stuff, look no further than Al-Farabi. But if you want more tempered things that feed into the achievement culture, this thread is full of good suggestions. You could also go to a used book store and just read old fake books. They usually had a primer or two as to what's going on.

As for the good Western harmony? I personally just watch Ted Greene geek out on the guitar. You could pick up his book Modern Chord Progressions and try a few of his voicings--they're angelic. Chick Corea and Barry Harris have also published extensively on different aspects of music theory. Both have monster ears and an elegance for explaining. I also dig the whole Almir Chediak "Songbook" series published by Lumiar editions. He's literally the guy that transcribed the book on Brazilian music.

Stephen Feld's explanation of the "lift-up-and-over" prosody of Kaluli weeping ceremonies may, however, just give you a sense of the many beautiful theories of music might you or I learn.

The Waay iOS app provides a nice intro: https://www.tenkettles.com/

There are a couple of books aimed towards electronic music producers I thought were quite good, this one is fairly short but to the point with some good examples of real world uses of the topics it covers: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Music-Theory-Electronic-Producers-p..., this one is more comprehensive: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Theory-Computer-Musicians-Michael-H...

Years ago (like 20 years ago), I remember printing off a really cool website which had an intro to music theory, I think it was called something like Lizard’s Guide to Music Theory, but that must be wrong as there are no hits - does that ring any bells for anyone?!

That's the one! Amazing, thanks very much, I'm impressed you got that from my description haha

Kate and Ray Harmony have an excellent YouTube channel and free ebooks under the moniker Hack Music Theory



There are two ways of learning music: by ear and by sight. The first way is often (but not always) associated with or referred to as the "jazz way" in Western music. Either way works if you just want to play the music, the main use for theory is composing music. (And to sound vaguely intelligent when dissecting a piece of music but by itself that has little value unless you work in a conservatory or art museum) There are plenty of YouTube channels that teaches the core concepts of music theory. E.g. 8-bit Music Theory.

Let's be real here, there's no way to truly learn music theory without practicing. It's like math, algorithms, you don't have to learn it to compose (if you are talented you can easily cruise on raw talent) but you have to practice with pen and paper (or computer or instrument) to actually learn it. Many replies here focus on the mathematical patterns and relations, they are useful observations but ultimately has little bearing on the actual usage of theory.

another main use for theory is to communicate about musical concepts, for example, a lead sheet in jazz:

gø | C alt | f-∆

or, to abstract this further:

ii ø | V alt | i-∆

Those are the ASCII notation for lead sheets?

no, these are chord progressions using standard notation in jazz lead sheets. they both show a version of a very common and foundational progression called a "two five one" or ii-V-I.

the first shows this progression in the key of F minor (really, F melodic minor if you want to get into it).

the second describes this progression in roman numeral scale degrees, useful for transcribing this progression to any key.

either are going to be pretty much second nature for all players except for those at the beginning stages of their playing.

ø = half-diminished, or m7b5, comprised of scale degrees 1, b3, b5, b7

-∆ = minor-major, or mM, comprised of scale degrees 1, b3, 5, 7

alt = altered, or altered dominant. this type of harmony is ubiquitous in jazz since the 60s. one of the most straightforward ways to look at this is through melodic minor scale modal theory. the "locrian" scale in this mode, or mode built on the seventh note in the (ascending version of this) scale, gives scale degrees:

1, b2, b3, 3, b5, b6, b7

or, in the language of the upper structures used in jazz:

1, b9, #9, 3, #11, b13, b7

note the presence of the 3rd and the flattened 7th - these are the core elements of a dominant chord. all of these other notes, with the exception of the root, are "altered" e.g. raised or lowered by a half step from their original position, relative to the major scale.

this mode is often referred to as the "super locrian" mode.

there are dozens of options for voicing an altered dominant chord, "alt" is very general notation. when a player sees this, the context, their ear, their experience, whatever other information there is in the song, will inform what they actually play. at this point is where getting into some listening would be quite helpful!

https://www.musictheory.net is an excellent resource for getting started, and for maintaining practice.

There's also the Music Student 101 podcast, which many people recommend highly (I've only listened to a few episodes).

The musictheory subreddit is also one of the best subs I've found, for all levels.

musictheory.net is an excellent site, and buried distressingly far down this comment page.

you can just click on the link and read for half an hour and you’ll have more practical understanding than you’ll ever squeeze out of all of the comments here that purport to tell you the one critical concept that makes it all fit together. (or the ones that want to tell you how all the existing terminology is dumb and should be replaced. ugh.)

As someone who has taken two years worth of music theory at the college level, I can vouch for https://www.musictheory.net

It basically covers everything we covered in that time-span. Everything is explained quite simply and clearly.

Also, don't neglect ear training!

Former musician here --

A big +1 to the suggestion about ear training; I sure wish I'd pursued it more seriously and earlier -- probably no other activity can transform one's understanding and ability to the degree ear training can, not to mention it makes one _much_ more able to play + improvise in a group setting --

Finding a beginning book / course / etc that engagingly + logically shows the relationships between scales and chords, modes, etc, and addresses some aspects of rhythm, was immensely helpful for me -- if it uses your instrument, so much the better -- mine was Richard Chapman's "The Complete Guitarist"

Once you have the basics in hand, there are a lot of elucidating paths available to follow, but one book on counterpoint that absolutely _turned my head around_ is Joseph Fux' "Steps to Parnassus" also called "The Study of Counterpoint" -- total lightbulb --

I also strongly recommend Aaron Copland's "How to Listen to Music"

The book "Music Theory for Computer Musicians" has helped me a lot. It is quite easy to find as a PDF file online.

I second this. Great beginner's resource.

I helped bridge the gap in my own guitar playing from “can play tabs” to “can vamp and improvise from a scale” by making / using a random tab generator: https://www.asciitabs.com/random

I think building the site helped more than using it... breaking the concepts down into code helped me to see the broader patterns and abstractions more than just reading about it.

I also like forcing arbitrary constraints during practice. Can you make a simple song from only firsts and fifths in one key? Now add in sevens. Then do a key change every 8 measures (but same pattern). Now invert part of the pattern during the key change. Etc...

That kind of practice helped me intuitively understand what sounded good and what didn’t, which helped me finally grok the theory / vocab i was reading online but didn’t really get before then

If you want something structured like a math book, I learned from Walter Piston’s “Harmony.” I can’t find a place to pirate it (actually I did find an incredibly low quality scan somewhere after a week of searching) but it’s not an expensive book. I found it used (signed by “dean Howard” I think) while wandering around in my favorite book store in Lynchburg (Lynchburg and Charlottesville both have amazing small bookstores if you live in VA I would totally recommend checking them out.)

I think the only thing you’ll need to know going into it is how to read sheet music.

It doesn’t really go too much into counterpoint or melody if I remember correctly, for those there are couple YouTube channels I ended up watching that are pretty much just a narrator analyzing other people’s music:

1) 8bit music theory

2) Richard Atkinson

There are others but those are my favorites.

I hired a tutor. Even with weekly lessons for 2+ years, it required a lot of sustained effort and dedication. Like most everything in music, it requires a lot of practice and there are no real shortcuts.

Nonetheless, you can definitely teach yourself the basics via books and the websites recommended below. But once you want to go past the basics, you're going to want some kind of expert/teacher/tutor to ask questions of and to review composition exercises, so that you can understand harmony, voice leading, etc.

That being said, if you're a musician, learning music theory is enormously helpful. You understand what you're seeing on the printed page as much more than a series of notes and chords, and your musical intelligence as you listen is greatly increased. Good luck!

If you speak Spanish, I would highly recommend Jaime Altozano's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLrNRWzkImhnyDJYrUe2h0...

I haven't watched the whole thing but this lesson from Barry Harris (and the whole Lincoln Center Jazz Academy) is pretty great for thinking about harmony, solos, and improvisation / voicing:


I've also enjoyed the Leonard Bernstein Norton lectures at Harvard in terms of overall theory of why things sound good to our ears: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fHi36dvTdE&list=PLKiz0UZowP...

I'm learning by slowly building a music theory site, or rather a site that understands music theory so that I can ask it questions I sometimes find hard to answer online.

The first part is a chord namer, it's live but not perfect, there are many like it, but this is mine (I'll link below).

The second step which I'm part way through is creating a model to describe musical scales based on patterns from the root note. You might have read for example, that Major Scales all have the same pattern starting from the root note, which is Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half.

We can represent that in code as an array of integer counts of half steps, eg: [2,2,1,2,2,2,1]. From here, we can take an array of the note names, [ C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, B ], then start on the index of the root note of the Major Scale we want. Lets do that by removing the notes not in the pattern below. We end up with the C Major scale:

[ C, -, D, -, E, F, -, G, -, A, -, B ](Returning to C for the final step in the pattern)

You can do this starting from any note, using that pattern, and end up with the right scale.

I was surprised to learn that while there are some edge cases, a huge portion of musical scales follow a pattern you can use to generate a named scale from the root note. It works for Major, Minor, Pentantonic scales, Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor and so on.

This was a breakthrough for my understanding of music, and made me realize that memorizing scales is more about memorizing scale patterns, which drastically decreases the amount you need to memorize and lets you use foundational building blocks rather than arbitrary knowledge to play.

Another breakthrough for me while building the chord finder, was noticing that much of music theory is like that. It's all about learning the building blocks and applying it in real time, so that it sticks in your memory. All major chords are made of the same pattern, so if you have the root note, the major scale pattern, and the major chord pattern, you can quickly figure out any major chord, and later any complex chords, from there.

Chord progressions are the same! They follow patterns based on the scale. So when people say learning scales is important, they're not being preachy, it's because they are the basis for all music theory patterns.


I'm a huge fan of http://openmusictheory.com/. It's succinct, comprehensive and utilizes examples where relevant (such as songs through embedded vimeo players - not exactly revolutionary, but it's something a book can't offer). Did I mention it's open source?

EDIT: I also really like this YouTube series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdEcLQ_RQPY&t=74s&ab_channel.... The videos are relatively short, so if you like fast-paced high-density videos then you should enjoy this format.

OMT is a good resource, but it seems to have gone unmaintained https://github.com/openmusictheory/openmusictheory.github.io Someone should either get in touch with the authors or fork the project.

It really depends what you're trying to achieve. Music is like language. If you want to write a novel that's different from if you want to visit as a tourist. If you're interested in Jazz theory, then don't get a textbook on classical theory (Analogy: if you want to learn Portuguese, don't study Spanish instead, even if knowing Spanish will help). If you want to compose original music, you don't need music theory. If you want to compose in a particular style, then study that style and its conventions. If you want to talk with other music theory people, err... why in the hell would you ever want to do that? It will bring you no joy and will take over your life nonetheless.

This sounds like a very flip answer, but I'm serious. tl;dr: not all music theory is the same, and beware of 'universal' approaches that claim to explain all music. What do you want to achieve?

I'd say if you want to make it last learn how to apply it.

Music theory is one of these things I learned multiple times (even as a minor in University) and forgot multiple times.

The theory I learned, though, was never really relevant to my artistic work, whether it was playing guitar music or making electronic music. Whenever I tried writing something based on the theory I learned, I found it to be super boring. Thus, to this day, music theory doesn't make a lot of "sense" to me.

Thus, I'd say if you want to learn music theory, try to make it part of a creative process. Learn something new and try to write a little piece based on that, and so on. That way, it gives you creative tools instead of just being boring.

> Whenever I tried writing something based on the theory I learned, I found it to be super boring. Thus, to this day, music theory doesn't make a lot of "sense" to me.

I personally don't think theory should be used in this way, but it is very tempting to try to use it this way.

I think of theory as just a naming system and a way to chunk information. It's DESCRIPTIVE, not PRESCRIPTIVE. When composing your ear should guide you first and foremost and theory should just kind of be in the background... if you're fluent in theory then it's just kind of there gently assisting you when you arrange/compose/perform.

So for example, I might hear something in your head and play it at the piano and think "I like that... good starting point". In the background my brain says "I iii vi6 ii7 V with melody: mi re mi sol do mi re mi sol do do re do re (etc)" that's all completely automatic for me, I get it for free. It's like this automatic connection between what I hear in my head and what to label it and they kind of feed off of each other (if that makes sense)

There are a lot of very technical and quite good answers already, so I'll add a different piece of advice: play with others as much as possible. I realize you are specifically looking for theory advice, but even so - music theory is only contextually useful when applied. If you strictly want to compose or analyze, surely the grammar and syntax of the language will be imperative for you to master. However if you're looking to be a better player, absolutely nothing else compares to having conversations with others. Music is the purest language, a distinctly human form of expression, and as whole is much more than the current meta-theory-craft. Alas, I digress.

I learned it from my guitar teacher as an adult. Started with scales and ear training, then onto what chords were, modes and then chord substitutions and things like that. Most of the weird stuff I know about music comes from YouTube videos, though, and I'd recommend Adam Neely or Rick Beato because they'll probably have a video in their catalogues that you'll enjoy.

Learning the basics will be boring, not going to mince my words on it. Treat it like a pattern exercise, since that's what most of it is. The theory is stupidly dry, as useful as it can be, but I don't think there's really any other way to learn it beyond wrote learning.

Can you play your instrument? By that, I mean can you think up your own song (perhaps by hearing it on the net or something) and then sit down and play? If you're a pianist, at least at first, that'll probably involve some sort of arpeggio in the left hand (that's the rolling or rhythmic motion that underpins a lot of music)

If you can do that, you have an entry into music theory that will resonate much better. In our piano example, what are the cords you're playing? Learn how to chart them out.

Then keep playing.

Over time, you'll develop a feel for how chords and notes work together. As you develop that feel, go back to music theory and see what the official names for what you're doing. Then you get to learn tonics, and how V7s "feel right" resolving into tonics, and so forth. But you really need to already know it, in your bones. Otherwise it's just so much math.

As I was learning piano, I was required to read a lot of music theory. I guess I got it, but I didn't really get it. It was just a bunch of patterns. When I stopped playing for other people, relaxed and started just playing for myself, I got it. I understood the material in such a fashion as not to think about it. Now if I'm riffing on some stuff, I might feel for an augmented minor II or something, and I'll recognize that's what I'm doing. I can tell you the name. But unless I'm in a weird key (perhaps doing realtime key transposition) I don't sit back and do the math in my head as I play. I have a subconscious mastery. Note: although I took lessons for 12 years, I'm no expert. I don't even play the piano anymore. I play _at_ the piano, that is, I use the piano to sing. But it was that mental relaxation that was necessary for me to have all of the pieces come into place.

The wrong way, for me at least, was thinking that music theory was some kind of programming language, where you start with patterns and work towards songs. If I had mastered my instrument, yeah, but that would be after many more years of playing. You don't construct music, you feel it. If you're Beethoven, you can do both. I'm not Beethoven.

Hope that helps!

As someone who has spent too much time on music theory and not nearly enough time on learning to play songs, I'd congratulate you for doing this in the right order.

I've mostly learned music theory by a haphazard procedure of following my interests, which I would not recommend. :p

But one concept that really opened my eyes when I was learning music theory (from the perspective of a not-so-good guitar player) was how "everything" can be built from a scale, or more precisely -- a pattern for spacing a set of notes.

So, C major scale:


half tones between 3rd/4th notes and 7th/8th notes. whole tones everywhere else. Begin with any other note, and follow that pattern, and you have the major scale for that root note:

D E F# G A B C# D

G A B C D E F# G

F G A Bb C D E F

Write any major scale vertically, then next to it rewrite it beginning with the 3rd note then again with the 5th note. Read it horizontally and you have the primary chords in the key for that scale

CEG c major

DFA d minor

EGB e minor

FAC f major

GBD g major

ACE a minor

BDF b minor flat 5 (i think... was always fuzzy on this one)

Of those chords, the famous "3 chords" for a folk/blues/rock song will be the 1st, 4th, and 5th (the 3 majors) with the 6th (relative minor) or sometimes the 2nd or 3rd thrown in fairly often as an extra or replacement.

Write another vertical column there starting on the 7th note and you will get the notes in the 7th chords for the key (although rock/blues traditionally will use some variations on those).

"Rotate" that list to begin with a note other than C and you are defining a new mode (and there is one for each possible starting note). Begin with A and you have the Aelion mode (aka A Minor).

The pentatonic scales are just subsets of this scale (e.g., minor pentatonic is the minor scale without the 2nd and 6th notes, so ABCDEFGA becomes ACDEGA)

Lear to play chords and scale modes based off of C major. Raise and lower notes and see what happens. Read any book or website on music theory. It's not rocket science. I meanmajor/minor scales have 7 notes. And there are only 12 notes in different octaves to choose from and combine in pleasing ways. Don't limit yourself by theory but study it to grow.

I recommend studying the basics in any book and also watch Barry Harris on YouTube when you understand the basics to get some cool a-ha moments. https://youtu.be/F8JJncSUdUU

There is a Yale course that covers quite some of it: https://oyc.yale.edu/music/musi-112/lecture-1

In college, but now I try to stay with it. If you’re thinking classical, writing simple 4-part harmonies over a melody line or studying simple scores could be good. Try to learn about one new chord/progression/cadence at a time working from basic to esoteric and look for examples of how it’s used or figure out his to use it yourself in simple harmonies. I don’t have a good example textbook, but I’m sure you could find something. To me, being able to pick out certain chords or bass notes by ear is the coolest part, so maybe just follow whats motivating you in the first place.

Before I knew very much music theory, I tried building a music generator. I learned TONS of music theory along the way, and the generator project sort of served as a testing ground for new concepts that I've learned, as well as a driving force that compelled me to learn about new aspects of theory in order to make improvements to the generator.

This is definitely not the most efficient way to learn music theory, but for me it always helps to have a project running alongside whatever I'm studying in order to immediately reap the benefits of new knowledge.

I would recommend this book from Keith Wyatt who is a great guitar teacher.


I went through a lot of resources and this is the one that worked for me.

My advice would be to pick one good source, stick to it, and spend time to learn the material. It's easy but one has to devote some time and work. Use a pen and paper, do the exercices, be focused.

You should definitely check reddit https://www.reddit.com/r/musictheory/

There are specific resources given for beginners.

Personally I went with the large The Complete Musician by Laitz as most recommended it, and I’m quite happy with my choice.

It goes very deeply into all aspects of playing and composing music as well as understanding it.

The style Is a bit academic but the overall level is quite accessible and very clear.

I've stumbled upon a music teacher on Reddit and YT with a very different approach to music theory. He basically builds something like a framework around music theory that makes it more intuitive to learn.

Here one of his free videos that got me interested:




I would highly recommend How Music Works by John Powell. I've been playing piano since I was a kid, but, being technical, having music explained in scientific terms was the one thing that really upped my game. Everything before this book always seemed like religious teaching and I could never really find a place for the knowledge to hang on to in my mind.

There's also a book with the same name by David Byrne, but I can't comment on that one.

The David Byrne book is great but it doesn't cover music theory. It covers music in general with a focus on how the music industry works. I highly recommend it but it will not teach music theory.

I'm reading the book at https://www.howmusicreallyworks.com

It has been really helpful to me

I'll throw in a 2nd recommendation for this. It's a great starting point to learn the basics and the terminology, which will then unlock a lot of other resources.

I am working my way through this one as well.

I use Edlys Music Theory for Practical People with my students.

Don't discount the ability to fast-track your progress with a good teacher, too.

Lots of people are talking about reading, but I think ear training, particularly interval identification, is the fundamental skill to understanding music theory. You ultimately want to map combinations of frequencies to emotions, and that can only be done with the ear.

The 'theory' part is important too, so follow any of the advice of these other folks.

There are endless resources, but the most important thing is to pursue the playful goal-free explorative learning part of it first. Just discover relationships between pitches and sounds yourself. (It’s not the same, as pitch is a perceived quality.) Also worth to study Debussy scores and check harmonic constructs note-by-note, later.

The Music Of Miles Davis by Lex Giel http://amzn.eu/157pL3z Ear opener and enough theory to understand the compositions and solos of the master. Pleasant to read and whatever your level, if you reached the end, you have dug deeper into music theory.

Oh man, I've been learning and studying music theory for the past SEVEN YEARS.

TLDR: I think the single best way to learn music theory is to learn to play piano, and work with a teacher on weekly lessons. Do a harmonic analysis of every single song you learn and check it over with your teacher. THERE IS SIMPLY NO SUBSTITUTE FOR LEARNING WITH A TRAINED AND EDUCATED MUSICIAN. I learned this the hard way.

> [I] have never been able to sift through a vast array of music theory blogs and tutorials to find something that made sense.

I like to think of music theory as a LANGUAGE. Sifting through blogs and tutorials is kinda like googling "how do I learn Chinese?" yeah there's probably a lot of resources out there but it's not going to feel very productive to just dive in in this way. You wouldn't feel confident about learning Chinese using online resources so why would you feel confident learning music theory in this way?

The real problem with trying to learn from online resources on your own is that there's no feedback... you will absolutely have gaps in your knowledge and persistent misinformation that cannot be corrected because nobody is monitoring your progress.

Also learning from online resources can often feel hollow. For example, I can teach ANYBODY what a major scale is in 15 minutes. However, to truly and deeply understand the major scale can take years, it's more than just the rules about how to construct one. You have to really go over ideas many times and a teacher will be able to know your strengths and weaknesses and how to improve.

If you learn piano from the ground up (use a book series like Alfred's Adult All-In-One) with a teacher, I guarantee that after those 3 books (which will take years to get through), you will have a decent grasp on theory. Don't try to tackle these books on your own, there's a lot of stuff that's not explicitly covered in these books. If you try to tackle it on your own I guarantee you that you will not get the full benefit and you will very likely teach yourself incorrect technique and you will be left with a lot of misinformation. You need to do harmonic analysis of every song with a teacher and get comfortable doing them yourself.

I have tried learning music theory and got as far as learning how to construct scales and chords.

For me, the theory was fairly easy. But it was still hard for me to translate theory to actually composing music.

It did help me in a way to narrow down the notes to play. But it left me feeling that I am missing something.

Rick Beato on YouTube. Look no further.

What I’ve done:

Hooktheory is more modern: https://www.hooktheory.com/books

Learn an instrument & go through the level 1-5 theory books. Be sure to play the notes while you work through the book.

Make songs & apply what you’ve learned.

Music theory is really a domain specific language. Like all languages (not programming), the only way to really learn is to converse with others. I don't think you can learn theory alone, it only makes sense when you talk about music using music theory with other musicians.

There's a great tutorial from Decypher Media (who's a software developer I think).

Part 1/4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyXqcoEzX70&t=419s

I studied music theory as a requirement alongside classes at a music school and we used the "AB Guide to Music Theory" which I remember being pretty great. It's quite a short book too, most music is based on a pretty small set of rules.

Play the piano, it's the best music theoretical instrument, as it lays before you every note once in order in easy to operate form. You can easily construct chords and add bass notes and that is a vastly important foundation for music theory.

I found this site: https://www.thejazzpianosite.com/jazz-piano-lessons/ extremely helpful, if you haven’t already seen it.


This is a really nice app that takes you through a lot of music theory. I would recommend using it with a good pair of headphones though.

Can't recommend this highly enough. First time chords ever clicked for me.


Follow the Tristano method. Grew up with that methodology and learned from one of Tristano's students, Ed Paloantonio. Very rigorous. Somewhere Palantonio has a website with a book you should can buy, totally worth it.

Rick Beato, a YouTuber and former Atlanta music producer and teacher, has a lot of deep content as well as a really great “Beato book”. I’ve known many concepts, but listening to him really brought a lot together.

This is a link to what looks like a music certification exam. Where is the learning material?

A brief look around their website will reveal a wealth of high quality educational resources.

I admit, I did a brief look, and all I could find were some syllabi and other test prep materials.

I took music theory in HS and had a really good teacher. Books may work well but nothing beats having an instructor and access to instruments. I'd look into local community colleges possibly.

I thought that "Music Theory for Dummies" was a good start for that. From that I went on to YouTube channels to learn more about the specifics that I was interested in.

Fwiw, I recently found this resource, which is pretty nice:


Put down the books and websites and articles. Write music.

I've done it this way for the whole 15+ years I've been playing and producing music. The problem is, I learned by ear (which seems to be a valued skill), but I can't for the life of me tell you which chord I just played or communicate effectively with more classically trained musicians.

This has led me to start learning music theory myself, as there is definitely value in the 'by-the-book' method as well. I believe the combination of both by-ear, and by-theory can increase the possibilities of composition. However I have also seen classically trained musicians not willing to step outside of the box because of the classical music theory mindset, too.

I think it’s better to know it in your bones and then go back and formalize it with theory and terminology.

Get something like music theory for dummies and read it

I'd start just practicing scales and intervals. Without knowing how they feel when you make the movements yourself it felt kind of empty to me.

I found "Composing music a new approach by William Russo" a good start this. It is a pretty Nifty guide to the topic.

Get a cheap instrument like guitar or harmonica and start again from scratch with a good theory book?

Check out Rick Beato on YouTube. He has several videos dedicated to music theory.

justinguitar.com has a (paid) course on beginner music theory for guitar. I don't know what level you're at, but I found it enlightening to know how chords are constructed, and how they relate to scales.

One thing to notice is that the elements of music, rhythm, melody, and harmony, are based on relationships between periodic impulses. E.g. drum patterns, vibrating strings, musical sequences, and melodic intervals.

Here is a small yet information-dense book: https://woodenbooks.com/index.php?id_cms=8&controller=cms#!M...

Keeping the fundamental unity of musical elements in mind, build a framework of knowledge and practice including the following concepts.

Harmonic series as the basis of musical intervals https://www.oberton.org/en/overtone-singing/harmonic-series/

Intervals as ratios, and how the simplicity of ratios relates to consonance: - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interval_ratio - http://legacy.earlham.edu/~tobeyfo/musictheory/Book1/FFH1_CH... - http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Music/mussca.html

Polyrhythms as simple intervals (3:2, 2:3, 3:4, 5:4, etc.) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyrhythm - https://www.musical-u.com/learn/making-sense-of-polyrhythms/ - https://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/polyrhythmBeatGenerator.ph...

Ear training to recognize intervals and notes - https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Music_Theory/Scales_and_Interv... - https://tonedear.com/ear-training/intervals

Building chords from intervals - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interval_(music)#Intervals_in_... - http://www.thejazzpianosite.com/jazz-piano-lessons/the-basic... - https://tonedear.com/ear-training/chord-identification

Building major key from intervals (R, M2, M3, P4, P5, M6, M7) - https://www.howmusicworks.org/202/The-Major-Scale/Intervals-... - http://onlineguitarlessons.co.uk/major-scale-intervals-and-t... - https://tonedear.com/ear-training/scale-identification

Stacking chords from scale tones - http://www.jazclass.aust.com/scales/scastc.htm

Extended chords to add color and emotion - http://www.simplifyingtheory.com/extended-chords/ - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_chord

Major key chord function - http://hubguitar.com/music-theory/chord-function - http://openmusictheory.com/harmonicFunctions.html - https://www.jazzadvice.com/chord-function/

Circle of KEYS as a compositional tool showing diatonic chords for each key and common modulations - https://harmoniousapp.net/p/d9/Circle-of-Fifths-Keys - https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/music-theory/what-i... - https://blog.landr.com/circle-of-fifths-infographic/

Other geometric representations of musical elements - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonnetz - https://imaginary.github.io/web-hexachord/ - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euclidean_rhythm - http://www.groovemechanics.com/euclid/ - https://dev.to/erwald/euclidean-rhythms-and-haskell-5ecj

Rotating major scale to get modes (and how diatonic chords relate to modes) - https://blog.landr.com/music-modes/ - http://www.jazclass.aust.com/improvisation/im12.htm - https://onlineguitarbooks.com/2012/01/06/functional-harmony-...

Chord substitution (functional, modal, and tritone) - https://lotusmusic.com/lm_chordsub.html - http://www.simplifyingtheory.com/chord-substitution/ - https://mixedinkey.com/captain-plugins/wiki/easy-chord-subst... - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borrowed_chord - http://www.simplifyingtheory.com/borrowed-chords/ - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tritone_substitution - https://jenslarsen.nl/tritone-substitution/

Modulation - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modulation_(music) - https://www.musicnotes.com/now/tips/a-complete-guide-to-musi... - https://www.artofcomposing.com/the-art-of-modulation-part-1

Compositional forms - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_form - https://courses.lumenlearning.com/musicappreciation_with_the...

Some excellent musicians/teachers - Jacob Collier - https://www.imusic-school.com/en/music-theory/lessons/jacob-... - http://brightonjazzschool.com/jacob-collier-masterclass - https://www.youtube.com/user/jacobcolliermusic/playlists - Kate and Ray Harmony - https://hackmusictheory.com/home - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDKiHSPstsj0silp519gt6w - Nahre Sol - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8R8FRt1KcPiR-rtAflXmeg - Jazz Duets - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqimxUbWsE26KSpx2_OcmmA - Signals Music Studio - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRDDHLvQb8HjE2r7_ZuNtWA - David Bruce - https://www.youtube.com/user/davidbrucedotnet - Benn Jordan - https://www.youtube.com/user/angeldvst - Omri Cohen - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuWKHSHTHMV_nVSeNH4gYAg

I'm working on an IDE for nusic composition, I'm launching soon http://ngrid.io. I'm hoping you won't need to know music theory, the app will guide you.

Looks cool, but this person specifically requested resources to learn music theory.

It will be a resource of sorts.

This thread is absolute gold. Thanks to all contributors.

Learnmusictheory.net, also hack music theory on youtube

Buy beginner music theory books and work your way up.

Read Wayne Krantz’ Improviser’s OS 2nd edition.

How about those ancient things called books?

Have you tried Ravenspiral's guide?

what is your goal? the goal will determine the best approach

YouTube is underrated

Know and practice your scales.

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