Textbook on Music Theory

January 12, 2019, 7:10 AM · Hello,

Are there any recommendations for a suitable book on music theory for someone with no background in music?

Thank you!

Replies (26)

Edited: January 12, 2019, 7:20 AM · Ew. Why would you willingly subject yourself to that? That's borderline masochism.
There is a lot of great theory stuff on Youtube (the only prerequisite is that you can read music). Once you get bored of that
—which will take a while—it won't be hard to find some advanced theory books. But that's just... No.

The best way to learn theory is by naturally applying it on your instrument. If you try to learn it from books, you will want to shoot yourself.

Edited: January 12, 2019, 8:41 AM · Cotton is right that there are resources online, free and paid. Of course you asked for a specific recommendation, though, and he did not provide that. There have been other threads on this, you can probably find them by searching the archive.

I can also well understand the OP's desire to have a bound textbook. Some of us spend enough time at work looking at computer screens.

My daughter took a few years of music theory through our local private music school. The book they used was "Rudiments: A Foundation in Music Theory" by Barbara Mackin. It was good -- intervals, keys, circle-of-fifths, triads and inversions, etc. It's very basic and intended for young students, but it's not "childish". Make sure the one you buy online is new because it's just as much workbook as textbook. It was authored by one of the piano teachers in the local school, so if you cannot find a clean copy let me know and I can help (my email address is easy to find).

I would likewise love to have a nice big thick tome of a book on English Grammar. I just think it would be fun to torture my kids with it.

Depending on what you are doing there are lots of theory books out there that are intended to help folks play jazz from a fake book. Some of those kinds of books are good for basic harmony (chord progressions, substitutions, matching scales to harmonies, etc.) Probably the best of these is "The Jazz Piano Book" by Mark Levine. It's more advanced, though, and assumes the kind of knowledge that you would get from Volumes 1 and 2 of Mackin.

January 12, 2019, 9:15 AM · The first thing I need to know is what you think you want to know about "music theory." Either way, I don't think a "textbook" is necessarily the best place to start.

What is usually called "Music Theory" is mostly a set of the rules within which "Western Music" ("European Music") is written and performed. Real music theory, in a scientific sense is approached in a few books about temperament and/or harmony.

For either of these topics a search of Amazon.com books will provide a number of titles.

The "Idiot's Guide to Music Theory" may be as good as any for the first approach, but there are other titles as well.
For the more scientific side of things "Temperament," "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)" and "Tuning and Temperament A Historical Survey" will be informative. This will lead to many other titles. Ultimately, reading Herman Helhmoltz's "On the Sensations of Tone," first published in 1864 may provide the ultimate challenge.

January 12, 2019, 9:58 AM · If you want to see how harmony, counterpoint etc were formally taught in the 19th century have a look at textbooks by the English pedagogue and composer Ebenezer Prout. Four of his books are on IMSLP (search for Prout under "composers" and then "books" in the sub-menu). And the best of luck, bearing in mind Prout's textbooks were the staple diet of students of the time and later, some of whom doubtless went on to become famous names.

I have a copy of Hemlholtz - which I don't read from cover to cover (!) but it is an invaluable technical reference manual.

January 12, 2019, 10:51 AM · "The best way to learn theory is by naturally applying it on your instrument. If you try to learn it from books, you will want to shoot yourself."

It's not clear how this statement helps Phil. And you're assuming that he hates theory as much as you obviously do. You were obviously scarred by music theory in your past. People have different reasons for wanting to learn it.

These days, there is a vast number of books and resources on music theory, and probably any of them will do for the autodidact. I have recommended "Basic Materials in Music Theory" after having used it in classrooms. It's designed for self-instruction. The only problem is that it's WAY overpriced at almost $100. But there are used copies for much less. Look for one that hasn't been written in. Kostka Payne is a classic text as well.

Theory textbooks basically all have the same information. It would be like trying to chose a textbook on Physics or biology: all the same stuff. Ideally, the best way to learn the building blocks of music is for the teacher to include a little at each lesson. In that way, Cotton was correct.

However, the sad fact is that very, very few private teachers take the time and effort to teach the basics (or don't understand them), and neither do school teachers. Most high school students learn practically nothing about the very basics of music, such as intervals, keys, or basic harmony. This stuff isn't "theoretical." So it's no wonder so many do so poorly in college courses. I know--I've had to teach many of them.

Edited: January 12, 2019, 11:06 AM · Go cheap.
Eric Taylor,
The AB Guide to Music Theory. 2 vols at a penny each if you watch Amazon for a few days.

I've just binned a copy of "Tuning and Temperament A Historical Survey". I managed the first 50 pages then skimmed the rest. Now that really is masochism. "During this period 20 men developed 50 more systems, and here they all are: -" NO!

A suitable antidote to that book (and to the world's obsession with so-called Pythagoras) might be Martin West's Ancient Greek Music.

As an example of how irritating the Pythagoreans were, has anyone given any thought to the major third? The Pythagoreans loved their rational numbers, we are told, and the JI major third is 5/4; what could be simpler? The problem is, the Pythagoreans were obsessed with the numbers 3/2 and 2, and you can't get 5/4 from those, so they ignored it and invented a ditone major third that was sharper than anything any musician ever used. Go figure.

Edited: January 13, 2019, 5:52 PM · One of the requirements of getting grade 8 on an instrument in my day (for me that instrument was the cello) was that you also had to have grade 5 theory, which of course meant that the teacher had to teach some theory in at least some of the lessons. From what I remember, grade 5 theory also included useful things such identifying types of chord and scales at various pitches on the piano, different kinds of cadence, music form, and basic music dictation (writing down a simple tune played on the piano).

[edit added] I should also mention that I was taught figured bass – useful for a cellist and of course essential for the keyboard accompanist in Baroque music.
Edited: January 12, 2019, 12:26 PM · That's the thing a physical book won't give you is ear training. The online resources are really good for that. Like I said earlier, there have been lengthy threads on this in the past.

When you're a kid the idea of learning stuff from a book just seems awful. My private teachers (piano! NOT violin) taught some theory at every lesson, and one of my teachers had his own ear-training regimen in his studio, which I never did (something about the timing of my lessons). But after you've been through college, you realize how efficiently you can learn from a textbook if you're just open to the idea, because it's a basic survival skill when you have a required course with a miserable professor. "Music Theory for Dummies" is probably pretty good too.

Edited: January 12, 2019, 6:04 PM · I learned using the English ABRSM Music Theory in Practice set of workbooks in conjunction with the AB Guide mentioned by Andrew Fryer, all by Eric Taylor. It is all excellent, and I had a good theory teacher helping me. Good luck! Knowing theory is helpful to good musicianship (and crucial to jazz musicians) and interesting in its own right.
January 13, 2019, 4:54 AM · For jazz, you can spend a lot of money, but I have a book called Jazzology which I selected on price, and I selected well. It's good, but I found that once I had read half of it, that was enough for my needs.
January 13, 2019, 11:50 AM · "...borderline masochism..." - ditto. Like studying organic chemistry or differential equations for fun. Another approach to the project would be; start with guitar and learn the chords. Then graduate to keyboard using a jazz harmony book. The conventional functional theory texts place a lot of emphasis on the bass note, the inversions, which is complicated.
January 14, 2019, 8:44 PM · Organic chemistry for fun ... hey ... I resemble that remark. LOL
January 14, 2019, 11:19 PM · Take it from one who has studied organic chemistry: It is fun--once you have studied it and get to practice it--just like music theory.

I find it difficult to learn theory from a book, especially harmony. Part of what is necessary is ear training and this is better done with a teacher. Otherwise your knowledge remains theory indeed. I know, I didn't have enough of it... Also: the pianists have a huge advantage over us when it comes to learning harmony.

January 15, 2019, 12:08 AM · What Scott said!!!
Edited: January 15, 2019, 12:45 AM · I dont share the view of music theory books being so arduous. In fact I would very much recommend a beginner in music to start with one. And the reasons for that are:

Teachers dont necessarily follow a curriculum of teaching music theory and even if they do, they dont usually give fact sheets for students to study at home. Adult beginners with no musical backround need to see the theory things written somewhere clearly to be always referable and free internet resources are a zigsaw puzzle, there is no big picture to be seen, if you start from the beginning. A teacher or internet resources may leave blanks unintentionally in the teaching of music theory and those black spaces may confuse a complete beginner a lot.

Many people like studyiing things from books and not from the internet. Books are easier on the eye, they smell and look nice and many are used to studying from them. And its easier to refer to them when in need thatn to various internet resources. You can carry books with you to places you dont want to carry your ipad and many people find the phone very hard to use for text reading especially as the sight degenerates as you get over 40 years.

Of course there is no ear training in books, so an knternet clurse spesifically designed for the purpose is a good idea. But still there a lot of things in music theory for a beginner that can be taught with a book.
Dotn have any recommendations though.

Edited: January 15, 2019, 4:24 AM · Tragically, I was interested in continuous maths, not discrete. So I was interested in differential equations. Foolish. No point in learning a problem-solving technique if you don't have a problem to solve with it. Physics might have made more sense. Social sciences would have made far more sense!
January 15, 2019, 8:00 AM · All the piano students I know get theory from their teachers, and in the music school where my daughter has lessons (violin), the piano students (NOT the string players!) are required to have music theory classes after they reach a certain age/level. One could argue that theory, harmony, counterpoint, etc. are all more important for a pianist than they are for a violinist, but the argument is superficial and wrong-headed in the long run. Undeniably theory is easier to teach on the piano because you can see your intervals, scales, and chords laid out in front of you. Great for the "visual learners" in us all.
January 16, 2019, 7:10 AM · The Idiot's Guide to Music Theory worked for me to relearn things about 20 years after I took Grade 5 theory. ;)

After that I moved on to an old edition of Piston's "Harmony" until I got bored, though I should really pick it up again at some point. Then depending on what you want to learn, there are various books in more detail about form and structure, at various levels of complexity from "pretty accessible" to "read it if you're doing a masters degree".

Unsure how useful recommendations of books about the fine details of temperament are.

(Ok.... I am sure... that's a useless thing to recommend unless for some reason you want to learn all about that very very narrow area. Learn theory as it's taught, which is in equal temperament, then watch Kurt Saussmanhauss's videos to understand when you don't use equal temperament on the video.)

January 16, 2019, 10:43 AM · I did grade 5 theory in 1975-ish, but I found that it was easy enough to read Eric Taylor from cover to cover 5 years ago.
Edited: January 17, 2019, 1:58 AM · --Andrew, Paul, Albrecht--Oops, sorry to disparage your mastery of those hard sciences. Actually,I do remember that chemistry labs were fun. I hit a wall second year college and switched to music. What I did not appreciate at the time was 1) I was at a hard school-UCSD, 2) Everyone was having trouble, and 3) you don't need A grades and graduate degrees to find employment in science and technology. JQ- (retired bio-med. lab. tech.)
Edited: January 17, 2019, 2:02 AM · Not at all - I'm happy to admit that studying maths was a massive blunder. If only I could go back in time, and learn violin younger too!
January 17, 2019, 8:40 AM · Joel, 99.9% of scientists "hit a wall" eventually, myself included. I've hit several walls, actually, but always managed to scramble around and find happiness in some other direction, sometimes by just getting lucky at the right moment. I definitely agree with you that people don't need graduate degrees to have good careers in science. As for UCSD being a hard school and everyone having trouble, those are issues we could talk about endlessly. We have anonymous teaching evaluations (like almost all American schools), so I hear these kinds of comments all the time.
Edited: January 18, 2019, 6:33 AM · I am thoroughly annoyed with many of the answers I have seen posted here. What I have read I guess is the output of people who have not succeeded in applying their study of music theory.

I write as many as four or five arrangements a week, week after week. I find music theory books absolutely boring, because they say nothing new. But, I use my knowledge of music (theory) daily, in reharmonising tunes, harmonising modal tunes, writing countrapuntal lines, bass lines, etc.

Two tricks: 1) Accept that 17th Century vocal harmony is merely a convenient way to "immobilise" many variables, and then to proceed to discuss a particular development of harmony; and all this is not necessarily applicable to the understandings you want to develop and apply. Four part vocal harmony is not a lot of use in writing jazz arrangements (though the principals of this vocal harmony are still "not wrong"). 2) Accept that we all need to bump through a few basics, before we can understand the "useful" stages of music theory.

The single most useful "first" book of music harmony applied to real music making I have ever read is Making Changes: A Practical Guide To Vernacular Harmony, by Eric Salzman and Michael Sahl, 1977 McGraw-Hill New York. ISBN 0-07-054488-3 (But, I think you will find this hard to locate.)(Whoops! I just found it readily available on Amazon.)

The Dick Grove books on improvising are very understandable, and these are easily obtained. They discuss the scales, chords, progressions, melodic development techniques, harmonisation, etc.

Start with jazz harmony and expand to "traditional" harmony.

Of course, all this only makes sense, if you know what a scale is, what a triad is, and all the rhythm stuff you get from playing instruments.

Music theory is not hard, but there is a lot of it, and it builds, step by step, on "something else". I taught theory to hundreds of students over fifteen or more years, and very, very few students did not understand music theory.

And, then, of course, when you come to apply your knowledge to arranging, composing or improvising, (or analysis for exams), not all music theory applies to all pieces of music.

Edited: January 25, 2019, 6:27 AM · I might make a new thread for this, but I need a textbook for advanced music theory (counterpoint, and covering the different era styles, and their unique characteristics, as well as advanced harmony), and also melodic dictation. Any suggestions?
Edited: January 24, 2019, 7:15 PM · I am not sure what "advanced music theory is". Dariusz Terefenko has a book, "jazz theory from basic to advanced study" Routledge 2014, which is my first choice recommendation to people with a bent toward commercial music performing, and arranging. But it won't teach you strict counterpoint, or 17th Century vocal harmony, etc.

Mark Levine's book, The Jazz Theory Book, Sher Music 1995, is another very comprehensive book, and I enjoyed studying this over six months, or so, twenty years ago. It is a very jazz-oriented book.

Now, I have a couple of favourite "traditional" harmony books, too, but it is hard to prefer these, unless you are preparing to take examinations (or to prepare students for examinations) of very traditional harmony coures.

And that is a "problem" with your question: why are you studying "advanced theory"?

While there have been three or four counterpoint texts published in the past ten years, they are either "dumbed down", or "old school" and lacking contemporary insight, and I could comment further but I don't know what kind of countrapuntal technique you need.

If you are seeking to compose or arrange, in any genre, I recommend the Terefenko book, particularly if you are also a performer. It is insightful and practical.

The comprehensive traditional theory books remind me of studying a whole lot of math formualae, without doing any engineering.

PS Don't forget the Vernacular Harmony book I mentioned earlier in this thread: if you are a strong performer, armed with this book, you may not need any other: build your own music theory.

January 24, 2019, 7:45 PM · Anything by Mark Levine is good.

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