Music Theory and Analysis is the study of elements and structures in music and how they affect us as listeners and performers. Music Cognition is slowly becoming integrated with Music Theory and Analysis, as cognition is able to succinctly express musical perception and experience and what causes them.
Below are recommended resources for studying Music Theory and Analysis at any level.
Core Music Theory and Analysis refers to the around 2 years of courses that undergraduates in music programs take. These courses cover topics from beginning to read sheet music, building chords, through functional harmony, chromatic borrowings and modal mixture, all the way through posttonal and atonal theories. These websites present around the first year’s worth of material and are great resources to supplement your Music Theory and Analysis studies.
musictheory.net | Free
This site is free and completely interactive. It has lessons and exercises for learning to read sheet music; identify scales, intervals, and chords; harmonic analysis; and ear training. They also have an iOS app called Tenuto. I send all my new piano students here with custom exercises on note reading that I’ve set up for them. It’s a perfect, free way to start learning theory.
Open Music Theory | Free
This site is also free and interactive. It goes a little deeper than musictheory.net and covers just about everything you could expect to learn in an undergraduate core theory course and more. What I really love about this site is that they cover more than just 18th century traditional theory. They have discussions on form in pop and rock music as well as poetry in music!
Another free site designed that is probably the closest you can get to taking an actual college-level theory course. The units are arranged in the same way you’d see in a textbook. Robert Hutchinson, who wrote the site, didn’t limit the examples to common practice period music. There are also analyses of favorite pop tunes, so if you’re learning theory to write pop music, this is a great resource.
r/musictheory | Free
Reddit has so many helpful communities, so if you’re looking for help understanding a tricky music theory concept, check out the music theory subreddit! There are people of all levels (beginners–tenured music theory professors) who are happy to help. You can also pick up a lot of information just by browsing the discussions. It’s a rich community.
This emotion wheel is a way of categorizing emotions into their action tendencies and valences (pleasant/unpleasant). Music tends to express specific emotions by imitating our actions and behaviors when we’re experiencing those specific emotions.
For example, we often “jump for joy”: we are physically active when we express joy. On the opposite quadrant, we can be “down in the dumps”: we are down and tend not to move when we are sad.
Get a full explanation in the full Music & Emotion Course or in the 1st lesson alone:
One of the best ways to understand music theory concepts is by seeing it in real pieces of music. These websites categorize musical examples by theory topic, so you can see these concepts in action.
This list gives you popular musical examples to helpyou learn and remember specific musical intervals by sound. Some of my favorites are the Pink Panther theme, What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?, and The Star Wars Theme.
One of the best ways to understand music theory concepts is by seeing it in real pieces of music. This website celebrates the work of women composers throughout history and has specific examples organized by topic (rhythm and meter, form, harmony, etc.) and sub-topic (compound meter, sonata form, 6/4 chords) and by time period. It’s a great, free resource for studying theory and bringing diversity into the field. If you want to support them, they also have a store with some really cool posters and stickers!
- Organized by music theory concept and composer
- Includes examples outside of traditional 18th century theory
- Provides sheet music and recordings
One of the best ways to understand music theory concepts is by seeing it in real pieces of music. This website’s goal is to place women and non-white composers alongside the current canon of white, men composers. This free resource is organized by topic and time period.
Music Theory Examples | Free
Again, one of the best ways to understand music theory concepts is by seeing it in real pieces of music. This website is run by Dr. Timothy Cutler from the Cleveland Institute of Music and contains a list of examples in common practice period music (pieces you’ll probably know), organized by topic. It’s a great, free resource to start developing your analytical skills in real music.
- Good place to start
- Limited composers and concepts
A member (@andrew-brown) of the Introduction to Functional Harmony wrote a Musescore plugin that color codes each note based on its scale step in the key:
I made a MuseScore plugin that colors notes according to their location within the key (so the fourth will always be purple, for example, regardless of what key you’re in).
You can find the plugin here.
Neo-Riemannian Transformation Theory is a way of looking at the harmonic progressions with more attention placed on the relationships between chord members (each, individual note in the chord) instead of between roots and the overall key. For that reason, it’s a helpful theory to use when analyzing music that uses triadic harmony (chords built from 3rds) and is sort of in a key and also sort of not in a key.
The Tonnetz is a geometrical representation of these relationships. Each triangle represents a triad, and the goal when creating chord progressions from the Tonnetz is to move from chord to chord with the least amount of movement. Change only one chord member when possible!
More on the theory coming soon!
The Circle of Fifths is a graphic representation of 2 different harmonic ideas.
The first is that key centers that are a perfect 5th apart also are only different by one sharp or flat. G major has 1 sharp, D major has 2 sharps. Each key center and the key on either side of it on the Circle of Fifths are called Closely Related Keys (CRKs). You’ll also see that each key signature has 2 keys—a major one and a minor one—that share the same key signature. These are called relative major and minor keys.
The second idea that the Circle of Fifths shows is a relationship of chords that can occur a fifth apart. If you ignore the key signatures and think of each letter as a chord, you can create an endless cycle for a chord progression, called a Circle of Fifths progression. Or, if you want to stay in a single key, the key center and the chords on either side of it when you click on it will all sound good together.
Of course, I’m a little biased, but I do teach theory and aural skills in short chunks on my TikTok, so if you want to learn, it’s a great resource that I’m making just for you!
This channel covers basics of music theory along with analysis videos of specific popular songs in a hand-drawn style, which I find fun to watch. The Building Blocks series introduces music theory by answering the question “What is a note?” and moves into how to read sheet music and turn it into audible music all the way through functional harmony and chord substitutions. It’s great for those who don’t want to slough through a textbook and enjoy just watching videos.
Reading full analyses of pieces of music is one of the best ways to learn about the field of Music Theory.
A good Music Theory and Analysis paper begins by presenting the theory that the author is using, followed by why they chose that theory over other theories, and then the analysis itself. Usually these types of papers show how a different way of thinking about the same piece of music leads to different meanings in the music.
A free, online Music Theory and Analysis Journal provided by the Society for Music Theory.
Explore free, peer-reviewed Music Theory and Analysis articles by renowned Music Theory scholars. Including styles you may not have thought would fit into a scholarly journal!
Walk That Bass runs a helpful Youtube channel for jazz lovers. This free companion website has so many free resources for learning the fundamentals of jazz; to comping in specific styles (using voicings by Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and others; to improv and chord progressions.
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I’m a PhD studying Music Theory & Cognition at Northwestern University in Chicago.
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