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Tutorial General Music Theory

This guide is intended to provide a list of resources as a starting point for studying music theory.

When people start out becoming interested in making music, I think a lot of them get somewhat conflicted by the choice they meet between studying music theory or not. On the one hand, most people probably get the idea that they "should" study the subject because they assume that most professional musicians have done so. On the other hand, they're struck by the topic's appearance of being something complicated and time-consuming to study.

Like any new discipline, I suppose theory does take its share of time and effort to learn. And the decision that many people come to, which is to hold off or avoid studying theory altogether, and instead work based off of what "sounds right," isn't entirely unpersuasive; most of us are probably exposed to enough music without even realizing it that we've become accustomed to our culture's musical system, so we anticipate what songs will do, to a certain extent, without formal study.

However, most of us can probably relate to the situation of putting some music together and finding that certain notes just don't sound right together. And I'm sure we've all struggled at some point to know what the next thing to do is (i.e., what different forms might a song commonly take, or what principles underlie a melody that works). I haven't finished my study of music theory yet, but from what I've learned so far, music theory can help with those things.

Equally importantly, while there is a definite place for and tradition of the intuitive aspect of music (i.e., what "sounds right"), music theory provides a framework within which and around which to work. Rather than stifling creativity, its forms and rules provide suggestions that spark new ideas. It discourages less than optimal choices, inspires better ones, and occasionally gives a place to depart from in order to arrive at a new radical idea that works.

After that bit of introduction, let's move on to the resources. Below are resources I've either used or likely will be using to learn music theory. Given their nature (at least two of them are textbook-type books), the list isn't very long; if anyone has other resources that they like/have worked well for them, please feel free to suggest them, and I'll add them to the list (giving you appropriate credit, of course--likely via a quote or an @ mention in parentheses).

Books/Course-Type Resources
  • Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course for all Musicians
    • This book gives you a broad basic coverage of how music works and its most important fundamental topics. It starts off by teaching you how to read music (which is important for things like understanding chords, intervals, scales, etc.), and then moves on through the aforementioned topics, as well as the different kinds of scales/keys, time signatures, different modes, different musical forms, etc. It includes some CDs, as well, for ear training, though I'm not sure how comprehensive they are--I think the ear training resource listed below might be better. The text in this book is sparse--aside from brief explanatory paragraphs of a few sentences, ideas are conveyed with pictures of musical notation with little explanatory blurbs around them. This is also a true textbook, in that there are exercises/worksheets at the end of each page and at the end of every chapter, as well as an answer key in the back.
  • Music Theory for Computer Musicians
    • I've not read this book, but it seems like it will relate more traditional music theory to the specific tools that digital musicians use--namely, a DAW.
  • (@Kona)
    • "A free resource that covers just about everything you could ever need! Also created the paid iOS app Tenuto, but all Tenuto exercises can be accessed here too, I believe (I use this for reference and Tenuto for easy practice)." (@Kona)
  • Hooktheory (@Kona)
    • "Great resource and textbook series. This is what I used at first, because it has physical textbooks as well as the option of getting them as apps so you can use them anywhere. Takes music theory mostly from real music and gives examples using popular songs." (@Kona)
  • How to use the major scale for songwriting (@uncreepy)
    • Uncreepy's guide to music theory related to the major scale. Concisely explains many core points of theory and relates them to one another through helpful charts.
  • Computer Music magazine (@Kona)
    • "Not sure specific issue numbers, but there are MANY issues of CM that focus on music theory. They've been very helpful for me in reference and learning new things." (@Kona)
    • MusicRadar (which seems to be Computer Music magazine's parent company) seems to have a number of other magazines available, too, which may be of interest.

Ear Training
  • Musical-U: Ear Training Exercises
    • This website offers a great article on what ear training is and why it's important. As you'll see in the article, ear training isn't just good for identifying pitches you hear around you; it's also good for identifying the pitches you hear in your head when you get inspired, which makes it easier to get your ideas on paper or into your DAW. Exercises are provided that support this/other applications: intervals, chords, progressions, playing by ear, rhythm, guitar, singing, frequencies, effects, mixing, perfect pitch, and transcription.

      This website also appears to offer lots of other music training content, but access to some of its resources is subscription-based.

  • How to Write a Melody?
    • This is an incredible video about using a scale (and, by extension, the associated chords) to write a melody. It's about half an hour long, but it's worth the watch because it explains why scales are important for melody and how different notes in a scale can be better for making melodies that work well. And it's done by a University of Wisconsin professor, so it's basically like getting a half-hour class for free.
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