Does your head spin from only hearing the word music theory? Or do you want to dig in deep and explore difficult concepts and become more creative? Then this list of music theory books for beginners and professionals will be perfect for you
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Music theory is where many students start their musical journey. Maybe it’s a parent sending their child to music school or some pupil learning online. I know from my own experience and from musicians around me that music theory is not everybody’s favourite topic. But I really believe that people underestimate the fun you can have and how creative you can become and can be with it. So that’s why I made a list that both professionals and new learners can use.
Here is a quick list with all of the books so that you can quickly navigate them. If you are interested in learning more about songwriting or music composition, then check out the 12 best songwriting books for songwriters and my list of the best books for music composition.
Best For The Ultimate Beginners
Best For The Creative Intermediates
Best Beginner To Advanced Harmony
Best Book For Learning to Read Music
Most Interesting Book On How Music Works
Music Theory Books for Beginners
Music Theory: From Absolute Beginner To Expert By Nicholas Carter
Nicholas Carter’s book is the perfect book to start learning. The helpful diagrams and tables guide you and help you whenever you need some more visual information. What I especially like is that definitions are explained clearly and that even instruments are used for extra clarity. That’s why I find this theory book suitable for any type of student.
Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: Complete by Morton Manus, Andrew and Karen Farnum Surmani
Alfred’s music theory books are a classic and rightfully so. Music theory topics are explained in an easy-to-understand manner. I feel that there is very little room for confusion and that’s what makes this book so suitable for teaching or learning by yourself. Of course, if you are looking for a challenge or something deep into theory this book will not be right for you. It’s perfect for younger music students.
Idiot’s Guide To Music Theory by Michael Miller
The idiot’s guide books on any topic are a great introduction. I love how easy everything reads and how clearly everything is laid out. It might not be as thorough as some other texts this is partially because of the many topics that it covers. You cannot expect to dive deep into each and every definition or concept. But in any case, it definitely delivers enough information to get you going on a fun exploration!
Music Theory Text Books For Intermediates
Music Theory and Composition: A Practical Approach by Stephen C. Stone
Any music theory textbook that combines theory and composing music grabs my attention. Why you ask? That’s because I believe that what you learn in theory should be practiced in real life. In the book music theory and composition you learn a great amount of music theory and composition concepts. And the great thing is that the difficulty leavel gradually increases. Also, this book does not have a very heavy emphasis on harmony which is very refreshing.
Music Theory in Practice Books (ABRSM Theory Exams)
For anybody looking to take an ABRSM theory exam these books are the place to start. If you begin with the first book you will learn the most basic music terms and building blocks of music. These books are intuitive and thorough enough for anybody looking to start learning or any student who wants to sink his/her teeth in some more difficult lessons.
Theory of Harmony by Arnold Schoenberg
When you talk about music theory you cannot leave out Arnold Schoenberg. Apart from being one of the most respected composers he was also a very important educator. His books on composing, harmony and theory are a valuable resource to anybody who wants to learn more about tonal music. Eventhough the information is limited to a certain era, it is nevertheless a very accurate and interesting read.
Advanced Music Theory Text Books and Harmony
The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis by Jane Piper Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin
Together with the Complete Musician book, The Musician’s Guide music theory textbook is one of the more elaborate ones out there. This book is used as a companion during classes at music faculties but it can also be used for private study although I do recommend that you work with a tutor/teacher. Just like many other books it is more geared towards classical music and harmony. But nevertheless, it is an amazingly helpful read.
Harmony and Voice Leading by Edward Aldwell, Carl Schachter, Allen Cadwallader
The mother of all harmony books if you ask me. I used this book extensively during my years at the faculty. And I still reference it frequently. The book “Harmony and Voice Leading” is more for classical music-oriented people but don’t let that discourage you. This is a book that will last you a lifetime.
Twentieth-Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice by Vincent Persichetti
The first time I opened this book I was just not ready. Period. I got completely overwhelmed and put it away. But after some time and years of learning, I gave it another try and I can tell you that this book is a masterpiece. Every time when I read or learn a chapter I get so much inspiration for writing music. It’s just one of those books you know? It is definitely not recommended for the beginner, but for anybody looking to sink their teeth into something more advanced give this harmony textbook a go. You won’t be disappointed, I guarantee.
Music of the Twentieth Century: A Study of Its Elements and Structure By Ton de Leeuw
Ton de Leeuw is a famous Dutch composer and pedagogue. He was a student of Olivier Messiaen and his music is a profound synthesis of eastern and western music. His book on music composition is a wealth of compositional techniques throughout modern music history. For any composer seeking more depth and advanced composition techniques, this book comes highly recommended.
Reading Music and Advanced Notation
How to Read Music: For Beginners by Nicolas Carter
Learning to read music can seem daunting to some people. But if you do it right from the beginning it is a real joy and can be very easy. With this book, you will not only learn to read music quickly but also enjoy playing your instrument more afterwards. Just like his music theory book the layout is clear and the chapters are easy to understand and the information flows naturally.
Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation by Elaine Gould
This book is not about writing music as in music composition techniques, but it should be on any composer’s desk nevertheless. Why? Well because without proper music notation, your music might not be performed properly and also it can look amateur if your notation is incorrect. The book behind bars by Elaine Gould is a masterpiece. It is the best book on music notation.
Music Theory Books For Guitar and Bass Players
Guitar Fretboard Workbook by Barrett Tagliarino
Music theory and guitar don’t always go hand in hand if you ask me. For me personally, it has to do with the layout of the fretboard and how chord shapes and scales work. It’s just less clear than on the piano where all the notes go clearly from left to right. But this book does a great job of integrating all these difficulties into smart and intuitive lessons. Of course, there is a reason why this book is so popular after all!
Modes for Guitar by Tom Kolb
This book was recommended to me by my guitar teacher. And I cannot thank him enough. This book on modes has given me so much. It’s hard to imagine that such a thin book can contain so much valuable information. You can find many summaries online but here is a short description:
In this one-on-one lesson, MI instructor Tom Kolb unravels the mystery of the modes, giving guitarists a complete approach to soloing and a thorough, hands-on explanation of Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. He also covers melodic minor, harmonic minor, and the blues scale; soloing over diatonic and modal progressions; superimposing modes; patterns, progressions, licks; and much more. The accompanying online audio includes 83 full-band tracks. The audio can be downloaded or streamed and includes PLAYBACK+ tools such as tempo adjustment, looping, and panning capabilities.
Guitar Exercises for Beginners by Guitar Head
I am never a fan of when a book, class or product claims that you will double or 10x your knowledge or skill. But I must give this one the benefit of the doubt. The exercises span many important techniques that you need to learn as a guitar player and also you have real-world music references which makes it more interesting. I often found that practising guitar just for the sake of practising was amazingly boring. I wish I had this book when I learned to play.
Music Theory For The Bass Player by Ariane Cap
Teachers and students pay attention! This book is often referred to as the best one to properly learn the bass guitar. There is enough to learn to go from absolute beginner to intermediate and beyond. You will lay the real foundation for becoming a great musician who knows how to play, read and understand music. After this book, you should feel confident to improvise, write music and play along with other musicians. And if something doesn’t click, just check out the amazing videos that you can watch online.
Piano Music Theory Books
Essential Elements Piano Theory By Mona Rejino
The piano is the most satisfying instrument to play when you are learning music theory. So lucky you for choosing it! The Essential Elements series is well known for its clear and concise books for instrumentalists. And the piano version is no exception. The first book is meant for music students who have zero experience. I find that you could use this book for self-study as well as with a teacher. Always wanted to learn piano and music theory? Then this series will be your companion.
Interesting Music Books
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
This is not so much about theory itself but it is a discovery into what music means for different people and also what happens when you don’t process sounds like others do. So what is musical beauty or what is talent for music and how do you get it or are you just born with it? This book is for your Sunday mornings when you have some quality time to read.
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
I enjoyed reading this book a lot. When I read it I was just about to start music faculty and I would read anything about music that I could get my hands on. It is a very easy read with lots of fun and interesting facts. It is definitely something that you can come back to every now and then. I recommend it to anybody who wants to learn and have fun.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross
This book contains enough information and a music listening list for a full music composition bachelor’s study. The book ‘The Rest Is Noise’ is a detailed overview of modern music history. Alex Ross masterfully takes the listener by the hand to the different continents and musical styles and times. I cannot recommend this book enough. And when you’re finished reading you can check out his other book which is called “Listen To This“.
How Music Works by David Byrne
To many, the name David Byrne is not unknown. He has earned his traces in music history. If you want to strengthen your relationship and appreciation of music then this book will do a wonderful job. David Byrne enlightens the reader with his knowledge and experience. He unravels the workings of music and gives a peak into the world of music production, recording music and much more.