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I know some basic stuff like scales and how to construct chords, but I don't know much about the roles notes play in melody, what kinds of melodies there are, how to do chord progressions, and so on.

Can someone suggest a "topics curriculum" for teaching yourself music theory?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Yes, you'll need to buy books and read them, and work through the exercises.

I'm going to describe how it was taught to me in a music college in the United States. I'm sure different schools have different approaches.

Things basically fall into four categories:

  • Ear Training
  • Classical music theory
  • Form and Analysis
  • Jazz Theory

Ear training and classical music theory are taught simultaneously. They take about one and one half years of classes. Form and analysis finishes out the second year. Many schools encourage jazz musicians to complete the basic two years of classical theory before they start studying jazz theory, although after the first year, jazz majors are most likely playing plenty of jazz as well whether they understand all the theory or not.


Ear training

  • Intervals and Chords
  • Temporal Acuity (rhythms)

The principles of ear training are straightforward, but actually learning the techniques takes a lot of practice every day for a long time.

Tonal Harmony (taken from the table of contents of a college textbook)

Fundamentals

  • Elements of Pitch
  • Element of Rhythm
  • Triads and Seventh Chords
  • Diatonic Chords in Major and Minor Keys

Diatonic Triads

  • Principles of Voice Leading
  • Harmonic Progression
  • Triads in Inversion
  • Cadences and Phrases
  • Non-chord Tones

Diatonic Seventh Chords

  • Diatonic Seventh Chords

Chromaticism

  • Secondary Functions
  • Modulations Using Diatonic Common Chords
  • Other Modulatory Techniques
  • Binary and Ternary Forms
  • Mode Mixture
  • The Neapolitan Chord
  • Augmented Sixth Chords
  • Enharmonic Modulations

Tonal Harmony in the 20th Century


When you've gotten a grounding in all that, then you'll want to look at classical form and analysis, and then jazz music theory.

Wikipedia has a music theory section. This should be helpful as a reference and an overview. But you will still want to purchase a college-level textbook and workbook and work through the exercises.

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2  
Hmm, nice well-rounded answer, but if I was just starting to learn theory, I'd be too scared of it to ever learn it. I propose you split it into steps with the simplest and most foundational things first. Then list the things that would be the "next step up" and so on. When you just list everything one should know, it is quite intimidating. –  American Luke Oct 25 '12 at 18:33
    
Excellent answer that outlines a typical music theory curriculum (very similar to one I followed in school). OP should benefit from such a thorough overview. –  Kristina Lopez Oct 26 '12 at 3:06
    
+1 Wheat. That lets me see just how much of that I have hardly touched on - excellent guidance not just for a beginner, but for someone with over 25 years in music –  Dr Mayhem Oct 26 '12 at 7:39
    
@Luke any good book (in general, not just music) will split the topic into steps as you describe. –  slim Oct 26 '12 at 10:31

Buy a book. It's really as simple as that. Oh, and read it.

"The AB Guide to Music Theory" is well regarded, but there are plenty more.

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Get a teacher as well. –  Neil Meyer Apr 4 at 8:54

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