Learning Music Theory
July 19, 2005 7:40 AM   Subscribe

How should I go about learning music theory?

Having read this excellent thread a while back I'd really like to learn more about music theory. My musical experience is highly limited: I do not play a musical instrument, though I learned to read sheet music fairly well whilst playing clarinet in elementary/middle school. In school the theory portion of everything was really downplayed in favor of musicianship, which is, in my humble opionion, really a shame.

This approach certainly seems interesting, is anybody familiar with it? Any reccomendations for solid music theory textbooks? I don't mind it being overly dry or technical, as long as it's comprehensible. A friend of mine is always telling me how mathematically interesting western music can be, and if there is any truth to that I'd certainly be interested in that angle.
posted by phrontist to Education (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
i have a series of 9 pdf files on my disk that give a very mathematical treatment of music theory.

searching for the author, it seems that he's expanded the notes and is going to publish them, but that they are still available for download (that's a coral cache link that is probably nicer to use than hitting his site directly).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:50 AM on July 19, 2005

Check out the Teaching Company's course "Bach and the High Baroque." You can buy it, or find it at a library or other sources. It consists of 32 45 minute lectures.

It covers the basics of music theory pretty thoroughly in the context of teaching you about the development of Western music, culminating in Bach. Greenberg is an enthusiastic teacher and an accomplished composer, and I also recommend his other TTC courses. But this one is a great starter.

Basically, I think you need to hear a lot of what is talked about in music. For some other help, get yourself a cheap USB midi keyboard and a basic piano instuctional book and learn-- so that you feel, not just know-- how scales are constructed, etc.

I would save the mathematics of it-- except for the really basic stuff-- for a higher level.
posted by yesno at 8:28 AM on July 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

If your goal is at all practical rather than abstract, you need to learn music theory through manipulating sound, not reading explanations or equations. A widely used tool in conservatories these days is the excellent Practica Music package from Ars-Nova software. If you've got the basics of chromatic and diatonic (and for that matter atonal) harmony, voice leading, counterpoint, transposition, dictation, etc. down, then you can start making sense of music theory as such, including higher mathematical applications like set theory.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:39 AM on July 19, 2005

Practica Music*A*, sorry
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2005

Best answer: I second the recommendation for the Teaching Company's courses by Robert Greenberg. All of his courses are fantastic. For a more general overview I'd recommend How to Listen to and Understand Great Music.

Now, this will give you a lot of music history and some music theory... but to be honest, not a LOT of music theory.

For more of a direct focus on the theory, you might check out Musictheory.net, Music Theory Web, emusictheory.com, and Dolmetsch Online.
posted by agropyron at 9:26 AM on July 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have listened to a lot of the Greenberg courses, and I singled out the Bach one because, for some reason, he goes a lot more into theory in it. Some of his courses are more biographical, and the various "How to listen to" courses, while wonderful, are just a bit too broad. But agropyron is right, if you want /just/ theory without the history of music, go somewhere else.

But I think learning music theory without a pretty thorough grounding in music itself isn't going to do much. A pretty solid understanding of Western classical music, jazz, and other musical traditions from around the world is needed to really get music theory. Pop music, be it Brittney Spears, Os Mustantes or Autechre, despite its surface variety, is not always as interesting from a structural point of view.
posted by yesno at 9:35 AM on July 19, 2005

Response by poster: Perahaps a clearer statement of mine intent is in order. I feel that while I enjoy music, I could be enjoying it much more with a grasp of theory. I'd also like to take up the creation of music in some form, though having not decided which route to take in this regard I feel a grounding in theory is the best way to move foward.

Sorry if I gave the wrong impression, but the mathematical component of this question was merely an afterthough, I'm certainly more interested in a more practical introduction.

andrew cooke: That pdf is amazing though! The explanation of fourier transforms (something that's eluded me for some time) was particularly good, as it didn't venture too far beyond basic calculus and introduced the constituent concepts before throwing gnarly equations at the reader.
posted by phrontist at 9:43 AM on July 19, 2005

phrontist, those web sites I linked should give you a good grounding, without mathematics.
posted by agropyron at 10:02 AM on July 19, 2005

Hooray for studying music! The theory textbook I learned from was Harmony by Walter Piston. I worked with it in the context of a class, but I would often read it on my own as well. It's rather dry and formal, but very thorough, and I never found it difficult to follow when reading ahead.

And I definitely second Musictheory.net and Dolmetsch Online.

Also, if you happen to be a Beatles fan, check out this site after you've learned a bit of the basics. I found it hugely instructive with regard to the theoretical/compositional aspects of their music.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:01 AM on July 19, 2005

phrontist, Bamberger (in my comment that you linked to) is a no frills hands-on approach. Since you mention you are created in music composition, try it.
posted by Gyan at 12:37 PM on July 19, 2005

I just mentioned a book in a recent thread that's very good. It has you singing over a drone instrument like a guitar to really feel what mental effects the different harmonics have, then gets into equal temperament and explains theory from that perspective.
posted by abcde at 1:32 PM on July 19, 2005

Oops, link to specific comment.
posted by abcde at 1:33 PM on July 19, 2005

oops, ..."interested in music composition"...
posted by Gyan at 1:39 PM on July 19, 2005

Best answer: Harmony and Voice Leading by Aldwell & Schacter is my favorite theory textbook. It will take you very far, though for the really basic stuff you might need another book.
posted by speicus at 1:40 PM on July 19, 2005

Earope is an interesting tool for learning to recognize different scales, intervals, inversions, progressions etc.
posted by teleskiving at 1:35 PM on July 20, 2005

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