Music theory was a term I remember the very first time I had heard it. My older brother (I come from a family of musicians) was talking about it and looking back, I don’t think he quite understood what it was from the way he explained it to me. But, in reality, it is not nearly as aloof or lofty as it may seem to the uninitiated, and with todays technology there are many more ways to start on how to learn music theory.
According to Wikipedia, “Music theory is the study of the structure of music.” To avoid the, “well duh,” response (as deserved as it may be), let me put it like this: music theory is a means by which to better record your ideas in writing or communicate them to other people.
So how much do you need to know? That really depends on your needs. If you a drummer I couldn’t imagine you having a very strong need to know the circle of fifths (or fourths, or sevenths or whatever interval you choose), but I would say that knowing more than just timing is important. When you hear two musicians your accompanying talking about changing syncopations in the consequent then you would know that’s a good oppurtunity for a fill before you ever heard the riff/movement about to be played.
But does anyone need to know that 12/8 is a compound quadruple? Not so much I think, but it doesn’t hurt.
So how does one go about getting all this theory into your head?
There are enough books on the subject of music theory that we could make a separate web site just reviewing them. “Music Theory for Dummies,” “Music Theory For Guitarists,” several classical titles in theory. They are all generally going to be structured the same. They will start teaching you treble cleff and C Major scale and will progress from there probably to cadance and analysis.
This is the more expensive version of the book. If you are still in college or in a situation where you can take classes at a local campus, this is a fun way to go about it. Often schools, even community colleges, will have course like “music theory for non-majors,” to accompany basic classes like music appreciation. My first class in theory is one of the only classes I even remember from college. My teacher was a crazy talented crazy pianist. One day, being the sarcastic fellow that I am I made a joke about him playing Slayer on the piano… two seconds later I was put in place with “Raining Blood.” I was sufficiently impressed.
3. A tutor.
I give guitar, piano, and various other kinds of music lessons and I always incorporate theory into what I’m teaching. I may do this more so than an the average teacher because I never took formal lessons on anything musical before college. Coming from a musical family, it all just came together organically. So, I suppose I am doing for my students as I wish would have been done for me if when I was younger I had a formal tutor. In the past I have also had guitarists that I tutored solely in music theory. I’m not trying to make this point in the article about me and my students, the point is that you can probably get on Craig’s List right now and find a tutor in your area right now who is happy to help.
What is Anki? If this were the 1990’s number 4 would have been flash cards. Anki is an SRS (Spaced Repitition Software) for reviewing flash cards. It synchronizes between your smartphone, computer, tablet, or any device with a web browser. You can make your own decks or you can choose from thousands of premade decks on various subjects ranging from Japanese to music theory, chemistry to physics. The way it works is that you quiz yourself and based on how well you know the content Anki derives a system so that you are not reviewing the cards you know as much as the cards you need to learn. For anyone studying anything, I recommend this app.
5. YouTube, Google, Wikipedia.
To support this bullet point I went to YouTube and searched ‘music theory’ and I don’t have anything else to say, the results speak for themselves. If you are alone, not in a situation to recruite a tutor or attend a class, and you are a visual learner, then YouTube is your friend. Google can connect you to the general internet full of theory sites, and it can also connect you to Google Scholar if you want actual academic articles on theory (or anything for that matter). Last, but definitely not least, Wikipedia has enough for a textbook (or a hundred… maybe) on music theory.
My last thoughts as a teacher is that using a combination of these things will be better. You can at least use Anki in tandum with any of the other points on this list. When you are bored at a family reunion/graduation/at the in laws/waiting in line, you can always continue reviewing right from your smart phone.
Personally, when I’m working with a band or musicians I don’t expect them to be a theory encyclopedia, but I expect them to understand and be able to communicate about rhythms/timing, keys and modes, progressions, and phrasing. If you elaborated on each of those points you could be up to speed after a week of practice. If you know you are never going to use sheet music in your musical path, then maybe you don’t need to take the time to learn it, but it never hurts too.
One final thought about how to learn music theory is teaching, especially relative to working with other musicians that may not know any of it, is that teaching it really solidifies your own understanding of the concept. Being forced to explain the details to another person can often bring up valuable fact checking that will improve on your own understanding of the subject. But, there is more information about teaching coming up in my article about ways of making money as a musician.