I am a computer science major and have been practicing music (as a hobby) for the past 4 years now. I started digging into the basics of Music Theory a year ago and now wish to advance my knowledge so as to better understand and analyze the works of maestros such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel etc. However to my disappointment the resources are sort of scattered everywhere and I could not figure out a proper progression path. I wish to make this thread into sort of a map that shows how to reach an expert level of understanding from little or no understanding. To clarify, I am not looking for a shortcut or easy way out, I am looking for a path that enables a thorough understanding of the subject and am willing to put in the time, effort and practice it requires.

The kinds of answers I would enjoy would be somewhat like:

  1. Read this this and this.
  2. practice till you achieve this.
  3. then read about this this and this.
  4. then tackle these compositions and analyze them
  5. then move on to this.
  6. (you get my point)

I really care about knowing your opinion on what exactly one should pay attention to, at various stages, in order to progress CONSTANTLY (with due efforts, of course). If you come from a specific field of expertise, discuss the path you see as appropriate in this field. (please try to be as instrument agnostic as possible)

  • Lookup Tonal Harmony by Kostka. Read through that and you'll be pretty proficient Commented May 9, 2017 at 3:16
  • Reached this Thread with the exact same feelings . How has been your journey? Did this help you? Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 12:20

6 Answers 6


I actually studied music composition and computer science myself. Great combo!

It sounds like what you are really looking for is a formal music composition program, so, first of all, I would say that if this is something that really interests you, and you have the time and the means, you should look into trying to study music through your school, either by taking some harmony classes, taking on a music minor, or even considering a double major.

If this isn't really a possibility for you, or if this just isn't the direction you want to go, you can certainly do some studying on your own. The Walter Piston Harmony textbook is a standard of the field, and I'm sure you could get a fairly inexpensive used copy online. You can also probably find it in your university library. This book would give you a great foundation in theory.

If you get through that book and are hungry for more, you'll want to look into Counterpoint. Piston also has a Counterpoint book, although it's less standard than his Harmony book. You may want to check and see what textbooks the program at your school uses and go with those.

If you get through Harmony and Counterpoint, you will have a very strong foundation for any musical studies you want to pursue, and you'll have a much better understanding of the works of the "masters". There are a number of different ways you can go from here, but my suggestion, if you are still studying on your own, is to just find music that you love and sit down and listen to it while look at a score. The best way to practice analysis is to try to better understand some of the music you already love.

Hope this gives you a little direction. Best of luck!

Edit: "hungry for more" not "hungry for me"...


It isn't entirely clear from your question whether you're fluent in reading Western music notation and if you're conversant in the (relatively) standardized vocabulary for Western harmony and melody. If not, a first place to begin investigation might be Joseph Straus's Elements of Music. It begins with how to read notes, then moves on to keys, scales, meter, rhythm, triads and seventh chords. Although it's written for beginners in music theory, it's aimed at college students and doesn't feel like it's talking down to you.

If you already have that background—or if you finish that—I think the best way to truly start to understand the music of the composers you mentioned is to study the rudiments of counterpoint in much the same way that they did: species counterpoint. You could go more or less straight to the source with Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum, but these days I think the gold standard in such study is the Salzer/Schachter textbook Counterpoint in Composition. Instead of the modal universe of Fux, the text is mostly centered on the major/minor tonality of the common-practice era. The second half of the text moves on from species counterpoint into a study of how these principles manifest in the more elaborate world of common-practice composition. Admittedly, it can be difficult to progress through species counterpoint without a teacher to judge your own work, but if you are thorough and pay careful attention it can still be eminently worthwhile.

If you're looking for a thoroughly academic grounding, I would recommend diving into the Aldwell/Schachter textbook Harmony and Voice Leading next. It's well-loved by most of my theory teacher colleagues, although it's often considered to be a bit too dense for early-level college students. Textbooks like Kostka/Payne's Tonal Harmony and the relatively recent Clendinning/Marvin Theory and Analysis are a tad more approachable and will give you a thorough grounding in the subject as well.

After that, I think the best path is serious score study. Get scores of your favorite pieces and follow along with quality recordings. Do some harmonic analysis of passages you particularly like. Some (relatively) straightforward scores to start with are the Prelude in C Major from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and the second movement of Beethoven's Grande Sonata Pathetique. If you get interested in the possibilities of post-tonal theory, you might check out Joseph Straus's Post-Tonal Theory textbook.

Good luck! Let me know if you'd like any clarification or further recommendations.

  • Well, score study will become more and more a part of your study as you progress through counterpoint and harmony. The texts I discuss are absolutely full of score examples from the literature, but they're curated so that you'll have fewer open-ended questions. I would say that doing your best to follow along in a score while listening to music should be part of your study from the very beginning, but you probably won't have the knowledge to pursue extensive, open-ended score study without curation until you've learned more basics. Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 3:10
  • Unfortunately, I don't know of any way to consolidate answers either. But all the answers should remain visible on this page unless someone deletes them. Vote up all the ones you think are helpful! Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 3:11

A guru is characterized by broad knowledge acquired and tied together by an individual's urge for exploration not matched by others.

It's somewhat like asking for a list of past and future games you should be watching and bullet points to address in order to become a raging fanatic for a particular soccer team.

Now even if you ask a particularly raging fanatic he'd probably be at a loss.

I don't think that there is a king's road to the degree your question implies.

  • +1 - To become a Guru requires more than just following a particular set of instructions. It requires innate talent and a strong urge to explore and exploit that talent. Beethoven, for example, had a considerable amount of formal training, but his teachers all remarked (to paraphrase): The rules don't mean anything to Beethoven.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 4:04

If you are looking to be an expert or guru, change your major from Computer Science to Music. Why do people think that music theory is something you can achieve without the same dedication one would put into any other subject? You mention all these great composers and how to analyze them. Change your major at school. This question is similar to someone else who again thinks they can just find a different path then others who have spent 4 to 6 years at University. You really brought this upon yourself by using the work 'guru'.

Look into Coursera for a class if you want more info, they have a Berklee classes there https://www.coursera.org/


OK, would you like an autodidact's viewpoint? I started teaching myself composition over 40 years ago. For becoming adept in music theory, @user18957 is entirely correct: there isn't a king's road. Even growing up on King's Road didn't help. (Joke, but that really was the name of the street on which we lived.)

There isn't going to be a systematic way of going about it. You need to be driven by a burning curiosity - when you research in one area, you'll necessarily follow up on matters that pique your interest that you run across while doing so... any matters. You aren't going to stop with Piston's Harmony; you will lay hands on historical books like Rameau's Traité de l'harmonie and exploratory ones like Schoenberg's Harmonielehre. You may pick up things like Hindemith's Unterweisung im Tonsatz and George Perle's Twelve-tone Tonality. You may well pick up books on atonality and/or the twelve-tone method by René Liebowitz and George Perle. You may pick up Messiaen's Technique de mon langage musical.

You won't just stop at Piston's Counterpoint: you'll get Fux's book and any others that catch your fancy. You might pick up Gedalge on fugue. You will pick up a score of the 48.

You will probably pick up collected essays by people like Schoenberg (Style and Idea), Roger Sessions and Béla Bartók. You might pick up Charles Ives' Essays Before a Sonata and Ferruccio Busoni's Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music. You will pick up books that analyse the works of a period or of a composer, books like Jarman or Perle's books on Alban Berg, like Charles Rosen's books on the classical style and the romantic period, and so forth. I have a book in my library analysing Arnold Schoenberg's music before Verklärte Nacht - the contents of your library will necessarily differ according to your tastes and interests, but you should have room for books that are equally specific.

And you will collect scores and read them. You will, in fact, have scores coming out the wazoo. (IMSLP, IMSLP, IMSLP! You are so lucky to have resources like this available. I had to buy all my scores as a young man, and they weren't cheap.)

Now, I have or have had all of the books I have mentioned in my library, and I've barely scratched the surface. Your library will necessarily differ as you follow your nose. The point, though, is that you must follow your nose. You cannot become a "guru" without arriving at a deep understanding and viewpoint that is entirely your own, and you can't achieve something that is entirely your own without following your own interests where they take you, revising your views as you go. The process never stops.

And you know something? In another 30 or so years, you will know less with certainty than you do now, you will have more questions without answers, and that's how you will know that you are finally starting to understand music.


Not a musician, but like you coming from computer science and playing ( sort-of ) with DAWs. I think this book you surely will find useful: http://www.amazon.com/Harmony-Fifth-Edition-Walter-Piston/dp/0393954803

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