Music theory is something that often gets a bit of a bad reputation.
While theory can be boring or obtuse (especially when you get into more advanced theory concepts), it’s important! Knowing basic music theory is one of the fastest and easiest ways to improve almost every aspect of your playing.
However, most high school musicians don’t have access to theory classes in school and don’t have time to audit a college class. However, with the proliferation of online learning resources, you can pick up the fundamentals of music theory without investing money.
Music Theory Resources
This is an incomplete list. I hope to expand this page in the future, but this is a good place to start for most musicians.
The resources are divided up into theory courses, online videos, and podcast resources.
Music Theory Courses
There are lots of music courses you can take online.
Some are free, and some cost money. Some are very detailed, and some simply a list of things to know and chapters to read in a textbook.
- Musicca: A collection of music theory lessons and exercises that can be done online for free. This course covers only the basics, but since music theory knowledge is cumulative, these must be mastered before moving on to other things. This site also includes useful resources: virtual instruments, a metronome, chord and scale finder, an interval song chart, and a dictionary of musical terms.
- Introduction to Music Theory: This free Berkley course is a bit more in-depth than the Musicca lessons, and covers everything from intervals and scales all the way to common chord progressions and simple song forms (blues and AABA forms). If you want your assignments graded and a certificate upon completion you can pay $49, or you can audit the course (and get access to all the information) for free.
- Fundamentals of Music: A course from the MIT OpenCourseware collection. This is a completely free class, but you only get a syllabus, a collection of assignments (listening and written), and a list of additional study materials. You have to supply the textbooks (Create Approach to Music Fundamentals (available for free or used) along with Kodaly exercises) yourself. These are good things to have if you’re a serious musician, but this is definitely a longer-term project than Musicca or the free Berkley course.
Music Theory Videos
There are also music theory courses (or channels that cover lots of music theory) that you can find on Youtube.
These are a lot more approachable than the previous courses. These won’t get you the same kind of knowledge that doing the “hands-on” work will. However, just watching and listening can definitely inspire you to want to go a bit deeper.
- Yale Music Theory Course: A collection of 22 lectures from Yale does a great job of covering lots of music theory and Western music history. It’s not just “Classical” music either – while Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc. are covered, so are Jazz and Pop rhythms, blues and rock bass patterns, and more. This would be another great starting point for someone who knows very little to start getting their feet wet. And since the videos are well-titled with timestamps, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for.
- Adam Neely: A popular Youtube musician. He’s got a very extensive collection of videos including bass lessons, Q&A sessions, and general music education. While there’s a lot here, some good places to start are: how to learn the bass clef quicker, counting 32nd notes, and the myth of the tritone.
- Rick Beato: Another popular Youtube music channel. This one is more guitar-centric, but also has plenty of music theory information. It also covers lots of music theory in popular music, film music, and guitar lessons. Good places to start include: minor keys explained, writing melodies like John Williams, ear training 101.
Music Theory Podcasts
Of course, I have podcast recommendations, too.
Like the theory videos, these won’t get you the benefits of hands-on work. However, they can be listened to while doing chores or other work and can help you absorb the concepts. Listening to how these concepts are actually applied to popular music can also be inspiring to encourage you to learn more, too.
- Music Student 101: This podcast covers a lot of theory ground. However, you’ll want to start at the beginning (or wherever the episode titles start to make sense). This podcast starts with basic theory, and as the episodes progress the theory concepts get more complicated. For example, episode 2 is “Theory Basics: Melody and Harmony”, and episode 99 covers the fully diminished 7th chord.
- Strong Songs: One of my current favorite podcasts. Most episodes of this podcast take a popular song (usually an older song) and break it down. Looking at things like the chords, the instruments, the arrangement, and the production. Good episodes to start with (depending on your musical preference include: No One Knows (Queens of the Stone Age), World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros., September (Earth, Wind, and Fire), I Will Always Love You (Dolly Parton) and so many more!
- Switched on Pop: This podcast is broader than just music theory. It covers music, musicians, albums, and how they fit into the present day. However, since it covers contemporary popular music and does include theory, it can be a good way to get students more interested in the importance of understanding theory.
Whether it’s improving your sightreading, learning new music faster (like All-State), or learning some other skill (like how to improvise!), a little music theory is good to know.
And thanks to some (free) online resources, learning it is easier (and more useful) than ever!