Recommend an intro to music theory

I have absolutely zero musical training. I quit taking music classes as soon as I could as a student (not because I didn’t like music, but because I was focused on visual art at the time), and have never even really been able to carry a tune singing along with the radio.

So then a couple weeks ago I’m downloading utilities to edit wav files and run across some freeware music composition software. Playing around with it, I’m having a good time, so I bought a bigger-and-better version. Of course, I’m just messing around and using trial and error until things seem to sound good, which is fun, but there’s certainly a faster way to skip several steps of my trial-and-error process.

So, can anyone recommend a book (or other cheap method of learning – I can’t afford to take lessons) for absolute beginners on music theory? I’m not sure I even know the correct terminology to describe what I’d like to know, but basically I’d like to understand what makes some groups of notes a “chord” and others “a bunch of notes that don’t sound very good together,” chord progressions, if I have a piece with two different parts how do I make sure they’re both in the proper key or what not.

Thx in advance.

I’ve heard that “The Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory” is actually supposed to be a pretty decent introduction to learning this sort of stuff. Music theory is great and important to know, but be careful not to be too left-brained in your approach. A G7 chord sounds great resolving to a C major in classical music theory, but in jazz theory, a Dflat-7 works just as well.

In the end, use your ear to judge what sounds good. Back in the day, tritones and paralell fifths were absolutely to be avoided under the “rules” of classical music theory. These days, they’re okay.

But I wouldn’t ever discourage anyone from learning. Just keep in mind that these are guidelines, and primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive. The music dictates the theory, not the other way around.

Other than that, the mechanics of music: notation, how chords are formed, how to read and right the different clefs, ranges of musical instruments, etc…, will be infinitely helpful.

I would also strongly strongly recommend ear training. Find some software to help develop your “relative pitch.” This is the ability to name intervals and chord progressions on hearing them. In my opinion, good aural skills are of utmost importance to a musician.

The Idiot’s Guide isn’t so hot. It does a good job of explaining concepts, but there’s only one exercise per concept, which is not enough to drill it into your head.

I’d recommend the AB Guide to Music Theory, although I’ve no idea what availability is like outside the UK.


One of the best books I read was written by Pete Seeger. He used folk songs everyone knew as examples.

Tonal Harmony with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music

Authors: Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne

This book assumes you know nothing about musical notation, says things ONCE and moves very quickly but if you are serious and diligent I believe it is all you will need. It includes self tests at the end of every chapter, which may be helpful if you have no instructor.

I second this recommendation. This was my textbook for four semesters of music theory classes – I entered college as a music major, yet I didn’t know jack about theory and could barely read music, and this book starts with the very very very basics. It’s great.