Beginner Music Theory

Free and fun ways to get learning and enjoy music more!

What's so important about beginner music theory, if you just want to play music? ;-)

It's important because theory simply helps you understand how music is put together.  Music theory is the foundation, the building blocks, and the way everything fits together -- whether it's the latest top 40 hit or a sonata by Mozart.

A funny thing happens when you start to really dig in to theory and see how it all works together in a system...

You start having "aha!" moments.

Suddenly you begin to see your piano music in a new light... and you start to recognize some of those chords you hear in your favorite song on the radio.

It's like a whole new world of music opens up to you.  A language that you couldn't speak, you suddenly understand.

Do you instinctively know the end of a song is coming?  Can you "hear" it?  As you learn theory, you'll start to understand why certain chords and chord progressions say, "this is the end."

You'll start to be able to 'decode' what you hear.

I can't tell you how cool it is to be able to hear a chord, a series of chords, or a melody and understand it.  If you've ever dreamed of composing, then dig in to music theory -- the more you know, the more tools you have to make great music.

Beginner Music Theory

The basics of music theory aren't hard to learn -- and there's some really good, well-designed beginner courses out there!  Here are my favorites to get you started:
This interactive, online course for beginners has nearly 40 lessons covering notes, staff, chords, inversions, and musical analysis, this is a terrific theory course.

The lessons go step-by-step and wait for you to click a button to proceed.

Marshall and Wendell piano

But the best part of this site, for me, are the exercises.

Here, you'll find simple to use, interactive tools (kind of like music theory games) to help you learn your theory. You can choose to work on:

  • notes
  • key signatures
  • intervals
  • chords

Plus, exercises to help you identify notes, intervals and chords on the piano keyboard, not just in written music.

There's also interval, chord, and scale ear training exercises, which are awesome.  You really, really need to do ear training if you want to be able to understand what you hear in music, whether it's classical or popular. also has a mobile app for all the exercises called Tenuto. It's a well-designed app with gorgeous graphics!  What a great idea to work on theory drills instead of FaceBook while you're waiting in line, eh?

Dave Conservatoire
This is a really amazing set of video tutorials about music theory and reading music.  Seriously.

There are 96 videos in the "Basic Music Theory" section, covering everything from the circle of fifths to modes, to types of instruments and sound qualities, to intervals, the orchestra, modern (top 40, rock) music, and more.  

This is great stuff.  I especially like the playlists.  Using Dave Conservatoire along with to work on your skills will really give you a great foundation in music theory.

There are another 34 videos in the "Reading Music" section (and for you guitarists out there, it includes guitar tablature).  

This is a really wonderful resource that I wish had been available when I was in middle school and high school.  But, you know, the internet didn't exist back then.  (No, really.  It didn't.)

Reddit Music Theory
Here's a great forum dedicated to music theory, where you can get your questions answered and meet other musicians.  I'm really impressed with the depth of the discussions here and the quality of the forum in general.

You hear me talk about it all over this site -- it's important to reach out and become part of the music community.  Learning by yourself, or even just going to private lessons where no one but your spouse and your teacher ever hear you play, keeps you isolated.  

It doesn't grow you as a musician, and the world is missing out on what you have to offer.  Your music, what you play, even as a beginner, is important.  So get out there and take part!

Music Theory for Beginners

Let's do some old-fashioned studying! 

The Free Music Theory Workbook from G Major Music Theory, by Dilbert DeBenedetti is extensive, free, and in easily downloadable (and printable) PDF format.

The great thing is that this isn't just a beginner music theory book -- it's a workbook. Each chapter has well-explained content along with exercises to help you really absorb and learn.

The workbook has 19 chapters that take you from the very beginning through chords and chord progressions. This is a really thorough, great, workbook.  And free.  Did I mention free? :-)

How about some "real book" recommendations?

Here you go! Some quick reviews...

Any of the three books above would be an excellent addition to your music bookshelf.  I chose them because they are three different learning styles.  The Alfred course is for those of you that just want a high quality theory course with no fluff. :-)  It has the most listening and written exercises.

The Idiot's Guide is also a very thorough, well-laid-out book on beginner theory, but it's a little more light hearted, with more reading and less hands-on exercises.

Music Theory for Practical People is written in a down-to-earth way, engaging, but still chock full of good material -- and has some jazz and blues information, which I really like!

Just keep learning, just keep learning...

Once you've got a solid foundation in beginner music theory, you can move on to more resources I've listed on my advanced music theory page.

I wish you every success as you learn to play piano and learn to understand how music works!

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