Music theory is the foundation of everything you do in music, so understanding it is a fundamental part of becoming a better musician. Whether you want to learn to read music, write music, or simply better understand music, learning theory is essential to your success.
Keep reading to find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions when starting music theory classes online. We’ll share the best way to learn music theory, how long it takes to learn, and more!
Whether you’re talking about the simple structure of a pop song or analyzing the counterpoint in a Bach fugue, you are using the language of music theory.
Music theory is essentially the study of how music works. It’s a language for describing, writing, and analyzing music. Notation, rhythm, song structure, harmony, improvisation, voice leading, and instrumentation are all examples of topics that are covered in the study of music theory.
Music theory covers a very broad range of topics from simple notation and song forms to extended chord structures and 12 tone analysis. Because it’s such a broad subject, the basics of music theory are very easy to pick up on, but the more difficult concepts can be harder to master.
Young children have no difficulty learning the introductory principles of music theory, yet people can spend their whole lives studying it - and continue to learn new things! So the answer is no; starting to learn music theory isn’t difficult, but be prepared to dive into more challenging topics as you progress.
You can learn the basics of music theory in a very short amount of time. The concepts of standard pitch and rhythm notation can be learned within a few weeks, while the basics of tablature or chord diagrams can be learned in just a few hours!
Overall, how long it takes you to learn will depend on your ultimate goals. For example, students majoring in music theory in college will spend a few years studying it, but to become an “expert” could take 10 years or more.
The good news is that even a few weeks of studying music theory can make a big difference in your musical understanding and skills.
Most music theory classes typically focus on standard notation, which has been used in western music over the last 400 years. Here are some of the topics that may be covered in a music theory class:
Music theory classes may also cover popular music notation, such as:
Every musician should know at least a little bit about music theory so they can talk about music to others. Important concepts like rhythm, pitch, and harmony are nearly impossible to communicate unless you have some understanding of music theory.
Here are just a few of the many benefits of taking this fascinating subject.
The more you learn about music theory the better you will become at understanding and communicating the music you love.
Learn about the benefits of music theory for singers here.
Because much of music theory is focused more on knowledge than skill, it’s very easy and affordable to learn by taking music theory classes online. Like all musical skills, the help of an experienced teacher is necessary to really master some of the more hands-on concepts.
If you try to learn simply with the help of a book, you’ll miss out on the much-needed guidance and training that a teacher can provide.
Complex rhythms, are one example of a topic that really should be learned with the help of a teacher. Songwriting, or music composition, is another difficult skill to master without the insight that comes from an expert.
College courses are another option if you’re looking for advanced training, however they’re much more expensive than online classes.
Every time you play an instrument, you’re practicing music theory.
More advanced topics such as analyzing music can be practiced simply by doing it. Find a song or musical piece that you like and apply your knowledge of music theory to figure out why it sounds the way it does.
There are also apps, workbooks, and websites available for practicing music theory topics (see the following sections). These tools will help you train your ear, learn how to read music, practice identifying chords, learn rhythms, and more.
Lastly, you can take music theory classes online to get even more practice in a fun, group setting. Check out our selection of interactive group classes at TakeLessons Live for starters!
Learn more about how to practice music theory here.
There are many music theory apps available for your computer, tablet, or mobile phone. Although we don’t recommend learning music theory strictly from an app alone, these are some great tools to help you practice and apply your knowledge.
Music theory books come in all different levels from beginner to advanced. Any of the following books would be an excellent resource to supplement your learning.
Reading music is one of the most basic music theory skills. When most people talk about reading music, they’re referring to reading standard music notation like that used by a classical musician or pianist.
This valuable skill involves learning the symbols used in written music and how to apply them to your chosen instrument. In order to read music, you will need to learn:
Essentially, reading music is like learning a new language. It’s a language that shows what pitch to play, how long to play it, how loud to play it, and sometimes even how to articulate the note (hard attack, short attack, etc.).
All of this is displayed using basic symbols that are easily memorized. For starters, standard notation is written on a 5 line staff.
A clef is added to show the range of the staff. The most common clefs are bass and treble. The bass symbol is used to display a lower range, and the treble symbol is used for a higher range.
Pitch is shown by how high or low a note is placed on the staff. The higher the note is on the staff, the higher the pitch.
The scale is shown by the use of a key signature. While duration is shown by the use of different types of notes and by the time signature.
Typical rhythm notes are whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, and sixteenth note. More complex rhythms can be formed by using dots (which increase the value of a note by half its current value) and ties (which combine two notes together.)
Bar lines help define the meter and break up the music into smaller, more easy-to-read segments.
Learning to read music is simply the process of memorizing what each of these symbols represents and then learning to apply that knowledge to a specific instrument.
Understanding the symbols is relatively easy. Applying them to your chosen instrument can be a lifelong process of practice and training.
A scale is simply an organized set of pitches used to build the harmony or melody of a piece of music. Scales have a fundamental pitch around which the other pitches are organized.
A C major scale, for example, is simply all the white notes on a piano, starting with C and ascending up to the C that is one octave above.
Because the scale skips the black keys, some notes will be further apart in pitch than others.
The distance between consecutive notes in the scale and the fundamental, or starting pitch, of the scale will determine the type of scale and the sound it produces both melodically and harmonically.
Intervals are the basic building blocks of all scales, melodies, and harmonies. Once you understand intervals, you can easily build any type of chord or scale. Understanding intervals can also also help you write good melodies and harmonic lines.
Specifically, a musical interval is the distance between two notes either sounding together (harmonic interval) or one after another (melodic interval).
The definition of a musical interval is made up of two parts - distance and quality. For example, the distance from a C up to an F is called a “Perfect 4th.” The number distance is obtained by simply counting all the notes from C to F, including the starting and ending notes.
The quality can be either major, minor, augmented, diminished, or perfect. This has to do with how the interval relates to a scale built off the bottom note and requires a thorough understanding of scales or key signatures.
A basic understanding of intervals is extremely helpful for singing and playing melodies. Training in hearing intervals makes it easier to write down what you hear and play what you see.
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