Music theory is the study of elements and structures in music and how they affect us as listeners and performers. It is becoming more and more combined with studies of music cognition, as cognition is able to succinctly express musical perception and experience and what causes them.
Below are recommended resources for studying music theory at any level.
How to Read Sheet Music Course (Free!). This free course gives you the tools to approach and read any piece of sheet music in traditional staff notation. Additionally, I go over some of the logic of what music notation is and share some of the other kinds of notation, so you can quickly learn any kind of notation or create your own. This course also comes with pdf downloads of helpful illustrations and access to the course’s learning community and discussion board.
The Musician’s Guide to Fundamentals | Amazon
There are a ton of books out there that can get you started in music theory, but this might be my favorite. I’d definitely choose to teach out of it. It covers the fundamentals of note-reading, scales, rhythm, and meter, but more than others it includes musical examples from more than just the classical era. There are folk tunes and pop tunes. But my favorite part is that this book has you learn by writing your own music and gives you all the tools to do so. Composing is one of the best ways to learn music theory (like why we learn to write our own sentences when we’re learning grammar), so this is definitely one of my favorites. It has a lot of online resources (workbook, ebook, quizzes), so once you buy it, definitely check those out!
The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis | Amazon
By the same author as the fundamentals book above, this theory and analysis text will take you pretty much through a typical undergraduate core music theory course (usually around 2 years of study). Like the other book, it includes musical examples from outside the typical Western Classical Music canon, so I find it approachable. It includes a brief summary of the fundamentals covered in the previous book, so if you’ve had any experience with reading music, you can skip straight to this book. It covers everything from tonal-harmonic analysis, to counterpoint, to 20th century music, and beyond. This book also has a lot of online resources, so once you buy it, you’ll have access to those!
This textbook is used at the college level for most undergraduate introduction to music theory classes. It covers the same fundamentals as musictheory.net and 12tone’s youtube channel, but it also goes more into depth regarding harmonic function, modulations, and even goes into 19th and 20th-century harmonic function and introduces post-tonal theory (basic atonal and 12-tone serialism). It’s loaded with exercises with answers at the back.
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.
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!
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.
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.