Musical theory books for self-learning

  1. Hi!

    I'm a physics bachelor and amateur oboist. I started a formal education in a conservatory, but I left it a few years ago and I've just been attending oboe classes.

    A music career is already out of discussion for me, but I'm interested on learning on my own the most "theoretical" side of music (that is, everything they teach you at conservatories apart from how to play). However, I have no idea on how to start.

    Could any musician here recommend me any books on harmony, analysis, composition, music history and anything else you think would be necessary?

    I understand a physics forum may not be the best place for this kind of question, but I guess you guys have a mindset and a background that resemble mine, so that your suggestion will be useful.

  2. jcsd
  3. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
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    Ignoring "music history" and focussing on the other three:

    There is a long tradition of books with the basic objective of teaching people how to pass exams, at all levels from grade school up to music doctorates. IMO avoid them like the plague. Many of them were written by people who couldn't harmonize, analyze, or compose their way out of a paper bag. There is a fatal attraction to the idea that everything can be reduced to "rules."

    On the other hand there are a smaller number of books written by people who (a) are or were acclaimed as working musicians, and (b) can also write.

    A gpod book that explodes the notion of "rules" is Charles Rosen's "The classical style." For harmony and counterpoint, pick anything by Hiindemith. He starts from the beginning, but writes for an undergraduate-level readership.

    There is a huge free online resource of written materials on composition: Learn how to figure out what the notes of the page sound like without depending on the crutches of audio recordings, then read whatever your own inclinations lead you to. Like physics, composition is basically an experimental science: the way to find out if a hypothesis is worth calling a theory is try it, and see what results you get.

    You will learn a lot more by figuring out for yourself how Haydn or Scarlatti put together a couple of pages of actual music, than by reading a book about what somebody thought they did. (And there's no reason why you can't deconstruct Scarlatti in the style of Elliot Carter, if that floats your boat).

    (The only reason for my choosing Haydn and Scarlatti is, they are a reasonable starting point for exploring western music from about 1750 to 2014. But if you want to start somewhere else, that's OK!)

    Just my (iconoclastic) two cents worth...
    1 person likes this.
  4. atyy

    atyy 11,191
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    I too like Rosen's books, but unlike AlephZero, I think they are all about rules.

    A short and sweet introduction to music theory is Marjorie Merryman's "The Music Theory Handbook".

    You can always break the rules if you truly know what you want. But even Bach tried to follow the rules, such as in his attempt to correct parallel octaves in his 5th Brandenburg concerto.

    Some interesting examples of following rules are and .
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  5. Pythagorean

    Pythagorean 4,483
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    I never really used books, but the internet. I later took a two-semester music theory class at my college and I pretty much had learned everything there from the internet. Of course there's a lot more to learn beyond two semesters, but it's something you can learn on your own.

    So my suggestion is to start by learning scales and chords and how they fit together (chords are constructed from scales). Then start learning about harmonic function (dominant, sub-dominant, tonic). Since you're also a physics student, you might want to learn the (musical) harmonic series and how the major scale (western music is "major scale centric") is constructed from it. Then look into more applied concepts like secondary dominants and chord substitutions.

    By the time you've found most of that information, it will have you led you to many good sources of information. Reddit also has a /r/musictheory subreddit with lots of helpful people and information on the sidebars (including textbook suggestions and FAQs).
  6. f95toli

    f95toli 2,473
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    "Harmony and Theory: A Comprehensive Source for All Musicians" by Keith Wyatt is very good for basic (and some not-so-basic) music theory.
    It focuses on practical music theory, i.e. things that are good to know if you are actually playing an instrument (different scales, chords etc)
  7. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
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    IMO Cope is a good demonstration of why "rules" don't work. His software is very good at imitating the short-term "tactics" of a particular composer, but there is no "strategy" of where the music is going. If you listen to it with a short attention span it sounds OK, but there's no sense of long term direction. It just wanders from one thing to another.

    Bach's original versoin of the mp3 file dissected and then performed:

    And the original of the other video (start at about 3L45)
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  8. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
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    An interesting thing is to look at the history of writing about the "classical" period. The "rules" of sonata form (which includes symphonies, quartets, etc as well as solo sonatas) only started to appear in print after the event. The first composer to follow the accepted cook-book recipe for making a sonata was probably Schubert - certainly not Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. The theorizers then started to elaborate the idea with concepts liike the principle theme being "masculine" and the secondary one "feminine", and such like. By the end of the 19th century the recipe as published in any number of textbooks doesn't bear any relation to what the classical composers actually wrote.

    I first discovered that fact aged about 12, having started working from one of those textbooks at the same time as playing the actual music, and feeling distinctly confused that there didn't seem to be any connection between the two. It took me another 20 or 30 years to get to the simple explanation: the textbooks were wrong. Age 12 is a bit young to pick a fight with your teachers!

    The same applies to Bach's fugues. The "rules" for writing fugues were first formalized by the Italian (by birth) or French (by adoption) composer Cherubini, who was born 10 years after Bach died. His objective was to write a textbook for composition students at the Paris conservatoire, which listed 8 "essential" features of a fugue (and of course to get an A grade in the final exam you had to include all of them in your work).

    The only problem is that many of the best fugues by Bach only score between 0 and 2 out of 8 against Cherubini's checklist. Oops.....
    Last edited: May 12, 2014
  9. Vanadium 50

    Vanadium 50 18,488
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    My background is in commercial, not classical, but I really like Bill Russo's books.
  10. Thank you all, you've given me enough literature for some months :-)
  11. atyy

    atyy 11,191
    Science Advisor

    Regarding Cope, yes I agree the large scale structure is unsatisfactory. But I don't agree with what you say about sonata form and fugue, in the sense that those were precisely the examples I thought you had in mind as arguing against rules. But what you say is not iconoclastic, and everyone agrees with it. I believe your "counterexamples" are in fact the textbook counterexamples against rules. So it just means that the rules you mention as not being rules are not rules.

    More generally, do you think Bach really had no rules? Wouldn't it be easier to explain how he produced masterpiece after masterpiece if he had rules (whose explicit statement we don't know)?

    On a more practical level, as far as I know Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven all studied some rules. No one expects that one is going to produce masterpieces by mechanically following the rules written in a textbook rather than truly having something meaningful to say and an accurate inner ear. But they are good to start off. It's like scales and arpeggios - they are not music, but it is the rare musician who can learn his craft without them.

    I guess my complaint about what you write against rules is that it is like saying that they are no rules because Ohm's law is not a law.
    Last edited: May 13, 2014
  12. Pythagorean

    Pythagorean 4,483
    Gold Member

    It's always appeared to me that such rules are limited to a specific era and sound.

    Give me any series of notes and, with the right rhythm, emphasis, and timbre, I can make a palatable riff out of it. The pitch order (which is generally what the rules go to) is always subject to the rhythm and emphasis. Stringed instruments have more versatility in this regard (because there's so many different ways to shape the attack/decay/sustain of the same pitched note).
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