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Sharpening your music theory skills will allow you to understand your favorite songs at a deeper level.
It can help you write and compose songs at a higher level too.
The key to mastering music theory is keeping the process fun and applying what you learn to your playing.
Otherwise, it’s just an intellectual exercise, and that doesn’t lead anywhere.
Taking advantage of the right music theory books can keep the learning process light and fun while giving you access to a new world of vocabulary and musical comprehensions.
Let’s look at nine of the best music theory books to increase your musicality today.
The Ultimate Guide To Music Theory – Hello Music Theory – Best Overall For Beginners
If you’re a beginner to music theory and are looking for a step-by-step walkthrough the fundamentals of reading and writing music correctly, then I’d recommend taking a look at the Ultimate Guide To Music Theory from Hello Music Theory.
Starting at the beginning it teaches you the very foundations of music looking at what is rhythm and pitch and not assuming you know anything already. It then slowly, level by level introduces new concepts in a straightforward and well thought out way going all the way through to irregular time meters, complex key signatures and lots more.
It’s made up of 5 different books, each a different level that’s written in simple to understand words. Non of this dated jargon like lots of the old music theory books have.
And what’s also great, is that it’s available digitally as a PDF which means you can download it straight on to your phone or tablet and be learning within minutes where ever you are.
Harmony And Theory: A Comprehensive Source For All Musicians
Musicians Institute books tend to be among the most usable because they are concise and practical and come with exercises.
Harmony And Theory: A Comprehensive Source For All Musicians by Carl Schroeder is certainly no exception.
Like many books, there are walls of text to process in Harmony And Theory, but at least it dives right in with covering Tools.
This is my preferred approach, as we can only use what we understand, and sometimes lengthy, academic explanations only serve to complicate matters.
What are the quick wins?
That’s what matters to me as a reader.
This book is made up of three key sections: Tools (notes, rhythm, scales), Structures (chords and chord progressions) and Variations (harmony and melody).
Positive reviewers said they loved how easy to understand the content is.
They also liked that the book offered just the right amount of information to grasp the fundamentals.
If you don’t like working through exercises, however, then this book probably isn’t for you.
The Musician’s Guide To Theory And Analysis Series
This is essentially a series of textbooks comprised of the following:
- The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis.
- The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis Workbook.
- The Musicians’ Guide to Theory and Analysis Anthology.
While these are bigger books, why anyone hasn’t thought to compile them all into one book is beyond me.
Anyway, this book is used in many Universities across the U.S. and to that extent it is thorough, detailed and academic.
When using this book, you should expect to get a relatively comprehensive education in music theory – especially classical music.
And, it is certainly receiving of the “best” badge it has received on this list and others, but it may not be the most fun to work through unless you are especially driven to do so.
Some readers say this book series gave them a strong foundation in music theory while others say you should not use it without the guidance of a teacher who can provide you with the answers to exercises.
Still, they did far more right than wrong, so this book should be on this list.
Music Theory For Dummies
The ever popular For Dummies series brought over 2,500 titles (and counting) to the market to help simplify complex topics and help people understand them while cutting through the fluff.
They rose to prominence in the 90s with many titles relating to computer software and programming but have since published titles on every topic imaginable.
Music Theory For Dummies, of course, is just one title among many, written by Michael Pilhofer and Holly Day.
Reportedly, it does exactly what it promises to do – it breaks down the complex topic of music theory into smaller, more digestible chunks.
It is, nevertheless, a wordy and detailed guide.
So, you’d better have plenty of time to work your way through it or you will lose momentum and even quit entirely.
Make no mistake about it – it takes work to learn music theory.
Enthusiastic customers say this book is well-written and easy to use.
Meanwhile, opinions are somewhat split with less enthusiastic customers.
Some say it’s not the easiest book to understand and others say it only covers the basics.
Either way, this book might appeal to you.
The Everything Music Theory Book
The Everything Music Theory Book by Marc Schonbrun, in my opinion, has one of the easiest to understand and reader friendly layouts of any theory book out there.
Its contents, however, are rudimentary.
It covers intervals, the major and minor scale, key signatures, modes, chords and chord progressions, harmony and transposition.
If you feel you have a thorough understanding of each of these topics already, then this book likely isn’t for you.
Meanwhile, if you’re just getting started, or if you don’t have a complete understanding of the basics, this book can be helpful.
Most readers liked that it was concise and easy to understand.
Some people didn’t like that there weren’t clear definitions for everything and the fact that it doesn’t include exercises, which is understandable.
Again, while it’s likely not for the advanced, it could prove helpful for those just getting started in music theory.
Music Theory, 3E (Idiot’s Guides)
The Complete Idiot’s Guides series is essentially Penguins Group’s answer to the For Dummies series.
And, they have their own take on Music Theory as written by Michael Miller.
What may surprise you about this book is that it covers a lot of ground.
In addition to the main topics you would expect to see in a music theory book, it also gets into transcribing, accompanying, transposing, harmony and counterpoint, chord substitutions and turnarounds, composing, arranging and more.
Some readers liked the thorough nature of a book, noting that it contains everything you need for a long time to come.
What some readers didn’t like about it is that the author is self-promotional and some of the content is far from being idiot-proof.
If you’re curious, you’re welcome to check it out.
Alfred’s Essentials Of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course For All Musicians
Alfred Music is a known publisher, especially among piano players.
Written by Andrew Surmani, Karen Farnum Surmani and Morton Manus, Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory is a go-to guide for those looking to learn music theory.
This book includes two ear training CDs, which can help you understand the concepts better and put your knowledge to use.
The content is organized into easy to digest units and there are plenty of examples and visual illustrations (it’s basically a workbook).
Excessive walls of text are few and far between and the reader is better off for it.
Many readers liked its concise nature, but it turned out to be a double-edged sword, as some felt it was a little too terse.
It also may not be overly fun to work through and it may not be for the completely uninitiated either.
But if you’d like to take it from theory to application, this is a good book to check out.
Music Theory Remixed: A Blended Approach For The Practicing Musician
It’s fair to say that music theory is steeped in a rich tradition.
And, while studying how it originated and came together is of some use, it doesn’t necessarily give you an idea of where it’s going or how it’s being applied and implemented today.
Music Theory Remixed, by Kevin Holm-Hudson, is the kind of book that ought to be out there, and to be fair, there are more of them now.
Certainly, we can talk endlessly about the classical tradition and the early composers – like I said, there’s value in that.
But music has come a long way since then, with many modern genres and approaches.
Sure, it might be based in some of the popular works by known composers – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own merit.
In Music Theory Remixed, in addition to the classics and greats, you will find an analysis of rock, pop and jazz.
Readers liked that it was easy to follow and the fact that it’s a new take on an older topic.
Criticisms of any substance are few and far between, showing that this is a good book to delve into.
Music Theory For Guitarists: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know But Were Afraid To Ask
I thought it would be worth covering a couple of books that apply specifically to guitarists.
If you play a popular instrument, then it’s fair to say you should be able to find a method book that applies to your instrument too.
Music Theory for Guitarists, by Tom Kolb, begins by dissecting the fretboard before getting into theory basics.
What follows is an explanation of various theory concepts you would expect from most books – scales, key signatures, intervals, triads and the major scale.
Then, it explores the type of theory many guitarists would specifically find useful – blues harmony, pentatonic scales, modes, other scales, arpeggios, chord substitution and reharmonization.
What buyers liked most was the fact that it covers the essentials for beginners while being concise.
The book features good exercises as well.
What some didn’t like is the fact that it doesn’t cover everything you'd want to know about music theory.
Some found more value in it as a reference guide than a workbook as well.
There are certainly other guitar music theory books out there but this one is worth a look.
The Practical Guide To Modern Music Theory For Guitarists: The Complete Guide To Music Theory From A Guitarist’s Point Of View
Learning music theory as a guitarist is a little different than music theory for other instruments.
The fundamentals certainly don’t change.
But the practicality and usability of concepts do.
The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists promises to solve this problem by delving into concepts that are highly usable.
The key contents include a look into major scale construction, chords and harmony followed by scales and arpeggios.
Then, there is an in-depth look at each mode of the major scale (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian).
There are plenty of rave reviews for this book, though some felt it was a little challenging.
If you don’t understand the basics of music theory, this book may prove a little difficult.
Otherwise, it’s a great place to start.
Top Music Theory Books, Final Thoughts
While there are a lot of great music theory books for beginners out there, if you want to give yourself the best chance of learning without all the complex jargon, I strongly recommend you pick up the Ultimate Guide To Music Theory.
As we all know, anything worthwhile doesn’t come without a fight.
Learning music theory can be challenging – if, for no other reason, because it can be a dry subject.
Fortunately, there are many books covering the topic, so you can pick one that appeals to you most.
That is the most useful piece of advice I can give – find a book that interests you.
Having done that, just hang in there.
Study theory for 15 or 30 minutes per day and keep at it until you’ve gotten what you needed to get out of the book.
If you're also looking to build a career from your music, you should also see our recommended music business books.