Best Music Theory Books You Can Buy to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed

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Are you one of those people that hear the term music theory and immediately feel the need to change the subject? I’ll agree that it’s a touchy subject, even in some musician circles, but it’s a subject that will become a lot more comfortable once you’ve browsed through some of the best music theory books.

Practicing all the scales mechanically until you become a virtuoso won’t be enough to make you a great songwriter. This goes for any instrument. With the knowledge of music theory, you will be able to understand how everything goes together.

7 Best Music Theory Books that I Recommend

Check out my top picks for music theory books for all ages.

Written by Michael Pilhofer, Music Theory for Dummies is an excellent choice and one of the most popular books in this niche. It offers an easy-to-follow overview of all things music theory. Beginner lessons like notes, minor and major scales, intervals, notations, and time signatures are all explained in a detailed yet not exhaustive manner.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book is that it doesn’t use overly technical language. It’s both adult and kid-friendly. The importance of this can’t be stressed enough. Even when you reach intermediate or advanced lessons in the book, the language will still be easy to follow.

The great thing about this book, or book series I should say, is that it can help anyone. Whether your goal is to start a garage band or to one day get accepted to Berklee, Music Theory for Dummies can set you up with the fundamentals of music theory and help you understand advanced concepts on a result-oriented progressive practice schedule.

  • Available in multiple editions
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    Good mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced lessons
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    Simple language
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    Applicable to any instrument
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    Available in paperback and Kindle
  • A bit expensive to go through all the editions

Although the book’s title is pretty straightforward, here’s what you need to know about Nicolas Carter’s Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert. The main goal of this book is not to make you a music theory genius. Instead, the focus revolves around digesting boring information easily. And, even I can’t deny that some concepts of music theory feel useless at some point or another.

But I digress. With this book, you’ll be able to start from the very beginning. This means notes, time signatures, scales, chords, harmony, etc. Eventually you’ll work your way up to how to piece it all together and then how to make use of advanced creative concepts such as polychords, atonality, modal playing, and others. These are pretty much the building blocks of jazz.

Another thing that makes this book so useful is the practical approach. Using non-complicated language is one thing. But offering practical exercises that helps the student understand and remember a technique takes some skill. Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert has tons of exercises designed to overcome the boredom associated with some music theory concepts.

  • Available in three formats
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    Easy-to-follow text
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    Emphasis on providing examples and exercises
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    Tackles easy and hard concepts
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    Affordable
  • Not all formats come with digital aids

Available only in paperback, Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory is another comprehensive book, written for the benefit of any aspiring musician. The book can help you build a strong foundation whether you’re a guitarist, vocalist, composer, etc.

There are a total of 75 lessons. There’s a nice flow of information through it all. But none of the concepts is fully expanded upon in order to facilitate faster learning. A good amount of exercises can also be found in the book.

One thing I really liked was the testing component. With the learning material broken down into 18 sections, there are 18 tests for assessing your knowledge. Of course, the beauty of these tests is that no one can force you to take them if you don’t feel ready.

And, because this is a self-study book course, the answers are provided at the back of the book. That way you’ll know exactly how you’ve done. Audio exercises are also available on the CD that comes with the book.

  • Practical school-like approach
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    Good information and structuring
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    75 lessons
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    Ear training CD lessons
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    Option to review or test yourself
  • Might not be the most beginner-friendly book

This is a very interesting book that I think can help just about any guitarist or bass player. If you’re not much for overcomplicated explanations and lots of text, the diagram practical approach in this book may just suit you.

Only simple explanations are provided. 94 tracks are also included to help you progress through the lessons and gain an understanding of what playing the guitar is really like. The audio files are available online and don’t come on a CD. They are however downloadable so you won’t be dependent on an internet connection to go through your lessons.

The book contains a good mix of scales, chords, modes, and ear training exercises as well as some more advanced music theory concepts. That being said, I would but this book in the beginner to intermediate/advanced category. There are no expert-level lessons worth mentioning. But, if you’re just looking to build a strong base, this is a good place to start.

  • Access to 94 tracks
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    Beginner, intermediate, and advanced lessons
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    Practical learning method with diagrams
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    Focused on guitar and nothing else
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    Free of filler information
  • Not very useful for those interested in more than one instrument

This book is available in paperback format and Kindle. The book is accompanied by 20 video lessons complete with practice exercises and follow-through explanations. It’s truly an interactive experience that should make learning the piano more engaging, especially to adults that lack patience.

Unlike others, this 122-page book doesn’t dwell too much on music theory. Instead, it offers a good breakdown on chord progressions, finger patterns, and some of the most basic techniques you need to know in order to master the piano.

There’s also a separation between left-hand and right-hand songs and a dedicated section for songs that make use of both hands. There’s also a good sense of progression as the lessons will become more challenging as you keep reading.

The entertainment factor comes from the list of highly popular piano tunes that you’ll be able to learn. Whether you want to play Jingle Bells, Amazing Grace, or Bach’s Prelude in C Major, there’s an extensive library of songs explained using a beginner-friendly approach.

  • Rich song library
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    Available in paperback and Kindle
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    Interactive learning
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    Book and video course
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    Affordable
  • May not be challenging enough for experienced players

Don’t think for a second that bass players are not as interested or as well-versed in music theory as other musicians. Though it may often be just a 4-string instrument, the bass guitar is a complex beast. To tame it, you need more than the fundamental building blocks of music theory.

This book provides an in-depth look at the bass guitar and the music theory you need to become an accomplished bass player that can follow and improvise in any genre. There are over 180 pages of information regarding intervals, scales, modes, harmony, and exercises.

There are plenty of diagrams in the books which suggests an interactive learning approach. There are also over 80 videos on the author’s blog that accompany the book. Some of the videos expand on the lessons and act as proper guides while others teach you songs or composition.

Whether you’re looking to just understand other people’s music or you want to start creating your own, for a bass player, this is one of the most comprehensive and easy-to-follow books on music theory.

  • Text and video course
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    Emphasizes bass-specific techniques
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    Multiple photos and diagrams included
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    Music theory and composition concepts
  • May require some first-hand notation knowledge

This is yet another music theory book that doesn’t focus on a particular instrument but rather the knowledge necessary to master all of them. It contains lessons on intervals, scales, chords, key signatures, transposition, harmony, modulation, and even more advanced concepts.

The book is a wealth of knowledge which you can access on your Kindle or read as a paperback. Although authored by two authors, the book has a nice flow of information and a gradual progression that makes it easy to follow.

The language used is accessible to adults and kids, with or without an instrument available or prior knowledge of music theory. The book has been around for over a decade, but its 176 pages don’t need a rework to remain relevant.

  • Comprehensive guide from beginner to advanced
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    Available in Kindle and paperback
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    Easy read
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    Affordable
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    Applicable to any instrument
  • Lacks visual aids

Music Theory Books vs. 1-on-1 Lessons

There really is no right or wrong here. While some may respond better to private tutoring, other people are more than capable of learning on their own and using music theory books to their advantage.

This really comes down to how well the book was written and how easy the definitions and explanations are to follow. Sometimes reading complex terminology and concepts may be difficult. But, an interactive learning experience can also be achieved in a paperback format.

Go with Something Instrument-Specific or Not?

This is where things get interesting. There are music theory books that pretty much teach you what any high school student should know and then expand on all those concepts and introduce new ones that are essential in composition and understanding all genres.

Then there are instrument-specific music theory books. Not all of them are as good as the authors make them out to be. Focusing on a single instrument such as guitar may mean skipping some music theory concepts that are important. Not for the purpose of playing that instrument but for the purpose of understanding the roles of other instruments.

With that in mind, if you want to focus on a specific instrument and you’re having a hard time mastering it, then a music theory book written around your instrument may be of more use. These instrument-specific books tend to come with dedicated photos and diagrams that explain certain techniques a lot better.

Audio Video Perks to Look For

Once you get the basics of music theory, reading sheet music and tablature should become second nature. But that doesn’t mean that you’re all set to join an orchestra. Ear training is just as important as music theory.

This is why developing lessons around particular songs that use must-know techniques is very important. Some books will come with video lessons and tutorials or at least audio versions of them. You might want to consider spending extra on those if you want to progress faster.

Music Theory is not just for Musicians

Regardless of whether you play an instrument, having knowledge of music theory will surely enhance your appreciation of every song you hear. Knowing music theory doesn’t imply that you’ll feel compelled to scientifically break down every tune you’ll hear.

The books in this article are as comprehensive as they come, and all but one of them can be used by people with no knowledge or understanding of how music is read, made, and played.

Gavin Whitner
    Gavin Whitner
     

    A guitar player, songwriter, composer, and also the lead editor of MusicOomph, Gavin is one of the four musician friends behind this site. Outside of music, he's an avid sports fan and hardly misses anything from football (soccer) to F1.

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