How to Learn Music Theory: Without Music School!

Music theory is often seen as the language of music, a system of understanding how music works. It encompasses everything from the basic concepts of rhythm and notes to the complexities of harmony and composition. Music theory can be applied to a wide range of activities, from composing original pieces and improvising to performing and teaching music more effectively. No matter what type of musician you are, you are going to need to understand some element of music theory, but learning without a mentor can be a daunting task with no end. This article will give you tips on how to learn music theory all on your own – No music school required! Let’s get started!

How To Learn Music Theory

Understanding the Basics

Learning music theory starts with mastering the basics, such as recognizing musical notations, identifying scales and key signatures, and understanding rhythmic patterns. As you progress, you’ll explore the building blocks of harmony, including chords, intervals, and progressions that create the backbone of a musical piece. Diving a bit further, you’ll encounter concepts such as counterpoint, modulation, and the construction of larger musical works.

When learning theory, just know that it gets easier the more progress you make! The fundamentals are the most important, but also the most difficult to understand, because they are the first introduction to how music really works.

To grasp music theory, you must first become proficient in its foundational elements, including notation, understanding rhythm, recognizing intervals and scales, and identifying key signatures.

Reading Musical Notation

In music, notation is how you depict sounds on paper. Each note represents a different pitch. Notes are written on a staff, which consists of five lines and four spaces. The duration of each note—how long it’s held—is also essential. The basic types of notes are:

  • Whole note : 4 beats
  • Half note : 2 beats
  • Quarter note : 1 beat
  • Eighth note : 1/2 beat

The best way to learn to read music by yourself is to pick up an instrument and a beginner book. There are plenty of beginner friendly adult learning books out there, such as Alfred’s Piano for Adults! Never be ashamed of being a beginner – we all go through it!

Rhythm and Beat

Rhythm is about timing within music. It’s the pattern of notes and rests, which are silences in music. The beat is the steady pulse that you feel in the tune, like a clock’s tick. To understand rhythm, practice clapping to the beat of a song, or use a metronome to maintain a steady pulse while reading rhythms from sheet music.

Intervals and Scales

An interval is the distance between two pitches. For example, from C to E is called a major third. Scales are sequences of notes played in ascending or descending order. The two most common scales are:

  • Major scales, which follow a specific pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H): W-W-H-W-W-W-H.
  • Minor scales, which have a different pattern and sound, often perceived as somber or melancholic.

Knowing the sequence of intervals within scales is fundamental to understanding melody and harmony.

Key Signatures

A key signature, found at the beginning of a piece of music, tells you which scales the piece is based around. It indicates which notes to sharpen or flatten throughout the piece. For example, if there are no sharps or flats, the piece is in the key of C major or A minor. Each major and minor scale has a corresponding key signature, and learning these can help you predict the interval number and quality (major or minor) as you read music.

Why is this important?

Well, key signatures tell us what notes and chords sound good together. Understanding key signatures can really narrow down your options to a few great chord progressions, or if analyzing, predict where a piece may go.

If this concept scares you – don’t worry about it for now, also feel free to look up a circle of fifths chart if you need it!

How to learn music theory by yourself

Building Blocks of Harmony

Now that you understand the basics of melody, harmony, and rhythm, the next piece to the puzzle is harmony, or the playing of 1 or more notes simultaneously. The foundation consists of chords and their various forms, particularly triads and seventh chords, which are crucial for creating the structure and progression of a musical piece.

Chords and Triads

Chords are combinations of three or more notes played simultaneously, creating harmony. At the heart of chordal structures are triads, which are composed of a root, a third, and a fifth interval. Triads can be categorized based on the intervals between the notes:

  • Major triads have a major third and perfect fifth above the root.
  • Minor triads include a minor third and perfect fifth.
  • Diminished triads possess a minor third and diminished fifth.
  • Augmented triads feature a major third and augmented fifth.

These triads form the basis of harmony within the major and minor scales, contributing significantly to a piece’s overall mood and direction.

Seventh Chords and Extended Harmony

Seventh chords add another layer of complexity and emotion to harmony. They are formed by including a seventh interval above the triad’s root. There are several types of seventh chords:

  • Major seventh chords: Comprise a major triad with an added major seventh.
  • Minor seventh chords: Built from a minor triad plus a minor seventh.
  • Dominant seventh chords: A major triad with a minor seventh.
  • Diminished seventh chords: A diminished triad with a diminished seventh.

Extended harmony can go beyond seventh chords to include ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, further enriching the chord’s texture and providing more options for creating complex harmonies and melodies. Remember, the understanding and use of these chords are pivotal in defining the harmonic language of your music.

Advanced Concepts

Mastering advanced concepts in music theory empowers you to understand and create complex musical compositions. These concepts are crucial for any composer looking to enrich their work with sophisticated chord progressions and modulations.

Chord Progressions

Chord progressions form the backbone of most musical pieces. As you advance, you’ll encounter sequences like the secondary dominant (V/V), which adds tension and expectation, or the Neapolitan chord (♭II), offering a strikingly distinct color. Let’s dissect a common advanced progression:

  1. ii-7
  2. V7
  3. I Maj7
  4. IV Maj7
  5. VII7(♭5)
  6. iii-7
  7. VI7
  8. ii-7

In this progression, notice how the VII7(♭5) introduces a half-step movement to the iii-7 chord, creating a smooth transition that accentuates the melody.

Modulation and Transposition

Modulation is the process of changing keys within a composition. It adds variety and emotional depth to your music. Pivot chords are commonly used to transition smoothly from one key to another. For example, a chord that exists in both the original key and the target key can serve as a bridge to the new key.

Transposition involves shifting the pitch of an entire piece or section of music. This can be used to accommodate the vocal range of a singer or to match the key of another piece for a seamless transition during performance.

To transpose music, you’ll use methods like intervallic shifting, where every note is moved by a consistent interval. For instance, transposing up a whole step takes C major to D major, shifting all notes up two semitones:

  • C becomes D
  • E becomes F♯
  • G becomes A

By mastering these advanced concepts, you’ll be well-equipped to create music with a rich harmonic landscape and to adapt your compositions for various contexts and performers.

Applying Music Theory

Applying music theory effectively enhances your musicianship across various dimensions such as composition, improvisation, and music production. Harnessing theory can infuse your creations with emotional resonance and technical sophistication.

Composition and Songwriting

In your journey through music theory, applying concepts to composition and songwriting can fundamentally transform the pieces you create. Understanding the role of meter and tempo helps you craft the skeletal rhythm of your compositions. Using theory knowledge, you can build harmonies and melodies that communicate the intended emotion, leading to a more impactful piece. For instance, manipulating octaves and playing with unison can enrich your sound palette.

  • Harmony: Utilize intervals and chord progressions to invoke specific moods.
  • Melody: Craft compelling melodies that complement your harmonic choices.
  • Structure: Design song structures based on theoretical frameworks like AABA or verse-chorus.

Improvisation and Creativity

Improvisation relies heavily on a robust music theory foundation. As you delve into the spontaneous creation of music, your familiarity with scales, chords, and the interplay between tension and release becomes crucial. This knowledge grants you the freedom to interpret music on the fly and create original content with confidence.

  • Scales and Modes: Explore how different scales can set the stage for your improvisational journey.
  • Rhythmic Variation: Apply rhythmic structures to create fresh interpretations of familiar patterns.

Music Production

The domain of music production is another area where your theoretical skills come to life. As a producer, your understanding of theory informs how you capture and enhance musical performances. Your grasp on tone, tempo, and meter influences decisions in the mixing process. Moreover, your ability to communicate with other musicians and instrumentalists is vital for achieving the desired outcome in a collaborative setting.

  • Arrangement: Decide where instruments come in and out for optimal texture and emotional impact.
  • Editing: Use music theory to make informed choices when cutting and aligning tracks.

By applying music theory across these facets, your growth as a musician and creator becomes multifaceted and profoundly rewarding.

Additional Elements of Music Theory

Learning music theory extends beyond chords and scales; it involves understanding the larger framework that governs the construction and development of music. Form and meter are the blueprints of musical pieces, while melody is the element that allows you to express and create music with a distinct voice.

Form and Structure

Form in music theory refers to the overall architecture or plan of a piece of music. It’s helpful to imagine it like the layout of a building, with each room serving a different purpose:

  • Strophic (AAAA): This is akin to a series of identical rooms, as in many folk songs where all verses share the same music.
  • Binary (AB): This represents a two-room structure, often used in dance music, with each section usually repeated.
  • Ternary (ABA): This structure creates symmetry, like a house with wings, and is found in many classical pieces.
  • Rondo (ABACADA): Imagine a central hub with various offshoots—it’s a form that keeps returning to the main theme, or “A” section.

Understanding how these forms fit into the meter—the rhythmic structure or the ‘beat’ of the music—gives you a foundation for crafting and analyzing compositions.

Melodic Development

A melody transforms a piece from mere sound to a story or an emotion. It’s the series of musical notes that are rhythmically organized into a coherent line. Here is how you might develop a melody:

  1. Start with a motif, a short rhythmic or melodic idea, and repeat or alter it to create a sense of unity.
  2. Experiment with sequence, repeating the motif at different pitch levels.
  3. Use variation, keeping the original character of the melody while changing certain elements, to maintain interest.
  4. Incorporate call and response, where one melodic phrase (the call) is echoed by another (the response).

To create music that resonates, keep in mind that a melody should have a certain direction or narrative, guiding the listener through the piece effortlessly. Less is more!

Practical Exercises and Tips

When learning into music theory, starting with the basics is essential. Break down complex ideas into manageable lessons, focusing on one component at a time.

For Scales:

For Chord Progressions:

  • Begin with I-IV-V-I progressions in different keys.

For Melodies:

  • Try to play simple songs by ear to develop listening skills.
  • Experiment by writing your own melodies.

Games and Apps:

  • Incorporate music theory games to reinforce knowledge in a fun way.
  • Look for apps that offer interactive exercises and challenges.

For Improvisation:

  • Start with a simple chord progression and improvise melodies over it.
  • Record your improvisation sessions to track progress and improvements.


  1. Consistency is key—set aside time every day for practice.
  2. Engage with a community of learners for motivation and feedback.
  3. Consider guided lessons for structured learning and accountability.
  4. Visit your local bookstore for a used theory textbook, I recommend Tonal Harmony.
  5. When you are confused about a concept, look up You Tube videos explaining those concepts.
  6. Remember to practice your instrument, theory is just the awareness of musical concepts, but to play them is to really understand.
  7. Go easy on yourself! Nobody ever learned music theory in a day! It takes a few years to really understand and recognize all of the concepts listed in this article.
  8. Hold yourself accountable! Pretend you’re a music student even if you are not! Study, do the exercises in your books, practice, practice, practice.
  9. Make a schedule of the concepts you’ll learn.

Music theory is a vast and difficult subject but approaching it with patience and persistence will lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation for music.

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