15 Music Theory Books for Beginner to Advanced Students

Learning music theory isn’t a linear process, and as a result, music theory books vary widely in their scope and teaching style.

That said, the best music theory books are the right mix of comprehensive and concise in the subject matter they intend to teach. Based on countless reviews from readers – both music teachers and students – the following books achieve just that.

This post covers three types of theory books (click to jump to that section of the article):

  • Theory books for beginners
  • Theory books for intermediate to advanced students
  • Music notation books and other reference texts

At the end of the post, I’ve also included a brief list of modern music theory courses, some of which have interactive or game-like elements.

Let’s dive in!

What are the best music theory books for beginners?

The following beginner theory books assume no previous knowledge of music theory or reading music. If you’re teaching yourself music theory, these books are your best bet.

Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course for All Musicians

  • Author(s): Andrew Surmani, Karen Farnum Surmani, Morton Manus
  • Publisher: Alfred Music (August 1, 2004)
  • 152 pages
  • 2 CDs included

Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory is designed to be a complete self-study course in music theory. It includes 75 concise lessons as well as exercises for practicing reading and writing music. Much like a school textbook, each unit concludes with a review, and an answer key is included in the back of the book. The included CDs contain ear training examples to develop your musical ear.

Music Theory for Dummies

  • Author(s): Michael Pilhofer, Holly Day
  • Publisher: For Dummies; 4th edition (July 11, 2019)
  • 336 pages
  • Online audio access included

The Dummies books take often-complicated subjects and simplify them using approachable, friendly language and easy-to-follow explanations. Music Theory for Dummies starts with the fundamentals – major and minor scales, modes, chords, intervals, etc. – and progresses to more intermediate and advanced topics like composing harmonies and melodies, covering the ground you’d expect from a typical college-level course.

How to Read Music in 30 Days: Music Theory for Beginners

  • Author(s): Matthew Ellul
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (October 24, 2017)
  • 171 pages
  • Online audio access included

If you want an uncomplicated, step-by-step system for learning how to read (and write) music notation, this is the music theory book for you. It includes 150+ music examples, 100+ exercises, and a final test. The online audio includes listening challenges for developing your musical ear.

The author has also written a sequel with an online companion course called Music Theory in 30 Days: The Beginner’s Guide to How Music Works, which further builds on the theory concepts introduced in How to Read Music.

Music Theory: From Absolute Beginner to Expert – The Ultimate Step-By-Step Guide to Understanding and Learning Music Theory Effortlessly

  • Author(s): Nicolas Carter
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 3rd edition (March 17, 2018)
  • 242 pages
  • Online audio access included

This book covers an impressive scope, from the very basics to more advanced subjects like jazz theory, while remaining concise and accessible to beginners. Exercises and images help you understand and retain the material, and the included audio examples let you hear the concepts discussed.

The author has also written a supplementary book called How to Read Music for Beginners: A Simple and Effective Guide to Understanding and Reading Music with Ease.

The Chord Wheel: The Ultimate Tool for All Musicians

  • Author(s): Jim Fleser
  • Publisher: Hal Leonard (December 1, 2000)
  • 12 pages
  • Spinnable wheel on the cover

The Chord Wheel is not intended to be your average music theory book, but rather an interactive tool based on the music theory concept of the circle of fifths. The spinnable wheel on the book’s cover helps you visualize relationships between chords so you can choose chords that sound good together, quickly analyze and transpose chord progressions, and more. Diagrams and an introduction to chord theory and how to get the most out of the tool can be found inside the book’s pages.

Music Theory for Computer Musicians

  • Author(s): Michael Hewitt
  • Publisher: Course Technology PTR; 1st edition (April 2, 2008)
  • 336 pages
  • CD included (plus online audio access)

Written with music producers and DJs in mind, Music Theory for Computer Musicians teaches the fundamentals of music theory within the context of the MIDI environment. Its goal is to help computer musicians compose and produce better music. Each chapter includes a series of exercises, and the accompanying CD contains many musical examples demonstrating the concepts taught in the book.

If you’re just getting started with music production, consider enrolling in one of today’s top online music production courses.

Harmony and Theory: A Comprehensive Source for All Musicians

  • Author(s): Carl Schroeder, Keith Wyatt
  • Publisher: Hal Leonard Corporation (June 1998)
  • 160 pages

This clear, easy-to-understand guide to music theory is a good choice for self study. It covers fundamental music theory concepts like scales, modes, intervals, chord inversions, chord types, modal interchange, secondary dominants, chord substitution, modulation, and more. It’s laid out like a workbook, with plenty of written exercises.

What are the best intermediate to advanced theory books?

Most of the following music theory textbooks and methods are the equivalent of a one- to two-year undergraduate course in music theory. Accessible yet comprehensive in scope, they briefly cover the basics and progress to advanced topics such as post-tonal theory.

The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis

  • Author(s): Jane Piper Clendinning, Elizabeth West Marvin
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Fourth edition (July 1, 2021)
  • 1064 pages
  • Online audio access included (with purchase of new books only)

A favorite in universities and colleges, this music theory book is nevertheless an ideal choice for self learners thanks to its clear prose and accompanying online audio examples. The book is billed as “the most complete resource for the theory curriculum that anyone can use.”

The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis also has an accompanying workbook and anthology.

Music Theory Remixed

  • Author(s): Kevin Holm-Hudson
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (December 1, 2016)
  • 912 pages
  • Includes online workbook and Spotify playlists for all examples (with purchase of new books only)

A relative newcomer to the scene of undergraduate music theory texts, Music Theory Remixed puts theory and harmony concepts in the context of modern musical genres like rock, jazz, electronic music, and film scores, in addition to the standard classical music examples.

The book’s companion website includes an online workbook and Spotify playlists for all musical examples referenced in the text.

Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony

  • Author(s): L. Poundie Burstein, Joseph N. Straus
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (June 1, 2016)
  • 432 pages
  • Online access to examples included (with purchase of new books only)

Widely popular with university students and professors, this theory book is highly readable yet comprehensive. This latest edition starts with the very basics and progresses to post-tonal theory, with plenty of opportunities for music analysis throughout.

This book has a complementary workbook available for separate purchase.

The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Theory, Analysis, and Listening

  • Author(s): Steven G. Laitz
  • Publisher‏ :‎ Oxford University Press; 4th edition (November 20, 2015)
  • 960 pages
  • Online audio access included (with purchase of new books only)

One of the most thorough undergraduate music theory texts, The Complete Musician emphasizes the practical applications of theory and how it intersects with music composition and performance. It takes a clear, straightforward approach to explaining complex subjects.

Three supplementary books for The Complete Musician are available for separate purchase, including an anthology, Workbook 1: Writing and Analysis, and Workbook 2: Skills and Musicianship.

Barron’s AP Music Theory

  • Author(s): Nancy Fuller Scoggin, B.M.E.
  • Publisher: Barron’s Educational Series; 4th edition (September 1, 2020)
  • 756 pages
  • 2 full-length practice tests and answer keys included
  • Online audio access included

The Barron’s prep books are designed to help students prepare for AP tests, with comprehensive coverage of the subject matter, practice exercises, unit reviews, and realistic full-length tests. Barron’s AP Music Theory also includes online audio examples and aural skill development prompts.

Harmony and Voice Leading

  • Author(s): Edward Aldwell, Carl Schachter, Allen Cadwallader
  • Publisher‏: ‎Cengage Learning; 5th edition (January 1, 2018)
  • 736 pages

From the very start, this book emphasizes both the harmonic as well as the linear aspects of music through voice leading. It starts with essential theory and harmony concepts and progresses to advanced topics like dissonance and chromaticism.

With the optional purchase of Mindtap Music, available via the Cengage website, you’ll get access to the ebook version, audio examples, and PDFs of the workbook exercises for Harmony and Voice Leading.

Tonal Harmony

  • Author(s): Stefan Kostka, Dorothy Payne, Byron Almén
  • Publisher: McGraw Hill; 8th edition (February 13, 2017)
  • 704 pages

For a generation, Tonal Harmony has been one of the most widely used music theory textbooks in colleges and universities. The book has a heavy emphasis on classical music and contains many exercises and musical examples.

Options for accessing the audio examples for Tonal Harmony are available on the McGraw Hill website.

A workbook for Tonal Harmony is available for separate purchase.


  • Author(s): Walter Piston (author), Mark DeVoto (editor)
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Fifth edition (March 17, 1987)
  • 592 pages

A music theory classic, Harmony gives a thorough and highly readable treatment of common-practice harmony. The author, Walter Piston, was Professor of Music at Harvard University and a Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished musical composition. The scope of the book is equivalent to a one- or two-year undergraduate course in tonal harmony.

Harmony has a workbook available for separate purchase.

What are the best music notation books?

Below are some excellent music notation books for classical and contemporary music and rhythm writing:

  • Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation by Elaine Gould. This book is extremely comprehensive in its coverage of standard music notation. However, it doesn’t contain information on guitar and drum notation.
  • Berklee Contemporary Music Notation by Jonathan Feist. A guide to both traditional and contemporary music notation, including lead sheets, lyrics, guitar tablature, slash notation, and fretboard diagrams.
  • The Norton Manual of Music Notation by George Heussenstamm. This book is an excellent reference for composers who write their notation by hand and want to make it look more appealing. As you might expect from a book that was written in the 1700s, you’ll find no mention of music notation software herein.
  • Guide to Standardized Drumset Notation by Norman Weinberg. A useful guide to drum notation for composers, arrangers, and engravers.
  • Essential Dictionary of Music Notation by Tom Gerou and Linda Lusk. This pocket-size reference book organizes music notation terms and diagrams in alphabetical order.

Learning music theory: FAQ

What theory books are ideal for self-teaching beginners?

Two of the best music theory books for beginners are Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course for All Musicians and Music Theory for Dummies. These books are suitable for students with no previous experience with music theory or reading music, and they’re written with the self-guided learner in mind.

Is music theory really necessary?

An understanding of music theory fundamentals, while not necessary to play an instrument at a basic level, has many advantages for musicians of all skill levels. Some of these benefits include the ability to:

  • Compose your own music
  • Read standard notation and learn new pieces faster as a result
  • Write in standard notation
  • Improvise more fluently

Is music theory hard to learn?

Basic music theory is easy enough to learn from a book. However, as you progress to more advanced theory, some concepts can be challenging to grasp without hands-on application and, ideally, the help of a music teacher.

If you don’t have a teacher who can answer your questions, the next best choice is a modern music theory course with interactive elements. The next section lists some highly rated courses that can help you learn music theory faster.

What is the best way to learn music theory?

One of the best ways to learn music theory is by taking a modern course with interactive training elements to help you apply what you’re learning and get feedback on your progress. The following music theory courses offer varying levels of interactivity.

  • eMedia Music Theory Tutor Volume 1. eMedia’s highly rated training programs feature interactive images, audio, tests, and feedback. Music Theory Tutor is a step-by-step music theory curriculum that will teach you how to hear scales, intervals, chords, and rhythms “in your head” – an essential skill for composing and learning music faster.
  • Fundamentals of Music Theory. This beginner music theory course, offered by the University of Edinburgh, is available for free on Coursera. You’ll learn how to read and write music notation as well as understand and analyze basic melody and harmony.
  • Building Blocks by Audible Genius. A modern music theory and composition training course for DAW-based music makers. In this video-game-style interactive program, you’ll learn how to create drum patterns, basslines, chord progressions, and melodies.
  • Music Theory Comprehensive Complete (Parts 1, 2, and 3). A comprehensive college-level training curriculum in music theory taught by Jason Allen, PhD. The course has a Q&A forum where you can ask questions.
  • Signals Music Theory and Songwriting Course. A clear and concise music theory course taught by Jake Lizzio, the Internet’s favorite guitar teacher.

Summing up

The best music theory books don’t approach their subject matter as just that: theory. Instead, they open your eyes to the practical applications of music theory and how learning it can make you a better music student, composer, and performer.

I hope this list helps you find a music theory book that inspires you to make beautiful music!

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