I know nothing about music theory, but I have been playing the guitar for over 5 years and have been only working with tabs. I want to learn music theory from scratch, fundamentally and meticulously. Then I want to move on to orchestration and composition. I really want to gain a very in-depth understanding of music theory.

I want to be a complete autodidact in learning music theory, composition, and orchestration. However, my ultimate goal is to become a composer and possibly apply for a Bachelor's/Master's of music at a university.

Few of my favorite composers include; Frank Zappa, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, La Monte Young, Krzysztof Penderecki, Anton Webern, Terry Riley, Arnold Schoenberg, etc.

So far I have found MANY books and that has actually made me so confused as where I should really start, another thing that bothers me is that I am not sure if the books I have found are flawless! Few of the books I have come across include:

  • The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis, and Listening, 3rd Edition. by Steven G. Laitz
  • The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis. by Jane Piper Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin
  • Music Theory for Dummies Book. by Holly Day and Michael Pilhofer

Are there any books out there that can be particularly helpful in my case, teaching me everything from scratch and build it up towards the advanced and complex concepts?

Any book recommendation and/or guidelines on how to kickstart the process of learning music theory fundamentally will be highly appreciated.

  • As a person that's taught Music theory at a few colleges for 14 years, I want to enthusiastically agree with Richard's answer. Ive taught a lot from Clen/Marv in particular and think it's an excellent resource for tonal music for someone trying to learn outside of class. However, their treatment of post-tonal music is pretty lacking, and I agree with Richard that the Straus book is the way to go for that. But mostly, if there's any way you can get your hands on some scores, especially of pieces you like, that might be some of the best education of all. – Pat Muchmore Jul 9 '16 at 11:59
  • The only thing that gives me pause is that you say you're looking to also perhaps study composition for a Bachelors/Masters. Understand that the Laitz and Clen/Marv are undergraduate textbooks, the things you would study in college, not things you'd be expected to already know. You might get to test out of some earlier theory classes—which can be a mixed bag—but it's not necessary. Mostly, what you want is a portfolio of 3 or 4 scores that you've written (although I went to college with no portfolio at all, and still managed to get a PhD one day). What you mostly need to learn is notation. – Pat Muchmore Jul 9 '16 at 12:03
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    As @PatMuchmore says, your first task is "learn staff notation" but I would strongly suggest you do that in a practical way, and learn the basics of keyboard-playing at the same time. If you want to learn both of those at things once using music, not just technical exercises, try imslp.org/wiki/Mikrokosmos,_Sz.107_(Bart%C3%B3k,_B%C3%A9la) – user19146 Jul 9 '16 at 12:38
  • I want to be a complete autodidact - There's your first mistake. You're not a "complete autodidact" anyhow, because you're using books. So why not get a teacher? Half an hour with a good teacher can clear up confusion you've had for years. That's the best guideline for you. Besides, if you want to go to school, what's the point of being a complete autodidact now? is your goal is to learn music or to carry the title of complete autodidact? If your goal is to learn music, unless you're a gifted genius, you'll learn music much better and much faster with a good teacher. – Stinkfoot Sep 23 '17 at 20:14

12 Answers 12


No textbook is flawless. Even ignoring the occasional typo, every student is different and learns in a different way, so the best textbook for one student might be just "eh" for another. (And don't even get me started on cost...)

I've worked extensively with both the Laitz and Clendinning/Marvin textbooks, and I can enthusiastically recommend both. They both approach music from a more linear perspective (as opposed to the strictly vertical "let's slice up the music and find chords wherever we can" approach in the Kostka/Payne/Almén book, which I do not recommend), and they both do a nice job of integrating topics like form and counterpoint.

I can't really give a firm recommendation either way, so I'll try to give you the simplest distinction between them:

  • The Laitz book is a terrific resource, but it's also just big. Really, really, really big, and really wordy. It can be tough to start on page 1 and read through it beginning to end. On the other hand, once you know the topics, you'll be amazed how much detail his book can add to your knowledge. If there was a music theory encyclopedia, this would be it. Everyone on this site could read one of his chapters and learn three new things from them, but that can be overwhelming for beginners.
  • The Clendinning/Marvin isn't quite so wordy, so it's much easier for a self-learner to work through. The repertoire it uses is also much more varied; you'll find plenty more pop music, etc. in their book than you will in Laitz's.

You can't go wrong with either one. Laitz and Marvin both received their PhDs in Music Theory from Eastman and have taught there for decades (though Laitz is now at Juilliard). They're titans in the field of music theory.

If you do end up pursuing a career in music, I hope some day you will own both. Whatever you do, buy an older edition. Don't be duped into dropping $100+ on the newest edition when you can snag last year's edition for $15 on eBay. The differences between versions aren't that big. I just recommend staying away from the first editions just to steer clear of the silly errors that inevitably happen the first time around. The Laitz is currently in the 4th edition; see if you can find a cheap 3rd edition. Clendinning/Marvin just published their 3rd edition; see if you can find a cheap 2nd edition.

I don't have any experience with the "Music Theory for Dummies" book, sorry.

Lastly, your favorite composers are all twentieth-century folks; that's great! Once you have the basics of music theory down, you may want to check out Joseph Straus's "Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory" and/or Miguel Roig-Francolí's "Understanding Post-Tonal Music." The former will clearly lay out the basics, but the latter will extend the techniques to much more of the twentieth-century repertoire, including Xenakis and Penderecki!


I have been playing guitar for more than 10 years, and the only book I ever needed was this one, which I was recommended by many people on the Ultimate-Guitar.com forum.


You can read the first few chapters for free on the Amazon website.

It's not just for playing jazz, but covers all the theory you need to know such as intervals, chord construction, chord progressions, circle of fifths, scales, modes, improvisation, etc.

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    As a teacher and player for 50+ yrs, I am reading this book now. (better late than never), and as a sceptic I'm finding quite a few questionable things. Silly things, like C7b9 written with C#, not Db, but generally, it's a good book. – Tim Jul 10 '16 at 7:08
  • It's good point readers should be aware off, @Tim, usually Jazz books, even excellent ones like Levine's, show less concern with formal theoretical correctness and more with simplicity of writting. I don't have my copy at hand but I recall Levine even saying something to that effect in the preface or introduction. – José David Jul 14 '16 at 12:20

Your use of the word 'meticulous' reminded me of my first theory teacher relating this stern instruction in best school marm fashion: You may break any of these hallowed rules of musical composition only after you are totally familiar with all of them, because by then you will know enough to strictly contain yourself until you thoroughly understand WHY these rules exists. Her treasure was THE classic tiny textbook by Horwood.


I honestly think that at an absolute beginner level, one of the best places to search for instruction is the internet. I always think that many people underestimate the power of the internet, and often look towards paid instruction, which a lot of the time looks more professional. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that books are a bad idea in any way. I'm just pointing out that lots of what you want can be found on the internet for free. For example, just go to Youtube, search "beginner music theory", and see what comes up. One really great instructor that I admire is Michael New at https://www.youtube.com/user/Rhaptapsody. A good video to get started with is

, which just happens to be by him as well, and came up when I did that search. Take note that even though the video is presented with a piano, it can be applied to any instrument. In short, I guess my point is that you don't necessarily need to spend money to learn a lot about something, because there might be a place you can learn it for free. :)


First ports of call ought to be the examination boards, ABRSM, Trinity, LCM and RSL spring to mind. Their syllabi contain most that you'll need to know and learn. ABRSM goes down the rather classical route, while LCM takes a more modern approach, and maybe puts things in that are not relevant to your needs.You don't need to take the exams, but I recommend taking at least grade V. To get into uni., you'll need at least grade VII in practical playing of an instrument, too.All this assumes you are from U.K. Different parts of the world also use some of these boards, and other parts will have their own exam systems, thus syllabi.

You could do a lot worse than check out q&a from this hallowed site, too!!

  • Grade 5 ABRSM is pretty basic. You would probably want to go a bit further if you were applying to Oxbridge's musicology programs. I would not let any pupils of mine apply to the RCM with at least a grade 8 theory. – Neil Meyer Oct 26 '16 at 13:15
  • @NeilMeyer - not strictly necessary. Last pupil of mine to get to Uni. had grade VIII guitar, but no official theory, apart from what we'd done till then. Oxbridge didn't provide a suitable course... – Tim Oct 26 '16 at 15:36

Well let's go step by step 1- I know today we have lots of information available on Internet, but do not make the same mistake as me in the beginning, when you choose a lots of book u can ready none so firstly. Take one book and start reading. It's cool get opinion for other people about books but sometimes they can be wrong or a book that is good for me may is not for you sou start one and finish it. 2- Do not rush your studies keep calm and go for the next page just if you are really sure that you got the previous one. 3- I study by myself as well and now I am degree and highly suggest less is more do not out too much food in or plate if you cannot eat it at all; take your time bud you can do it. Read one of those book that you have mentioned and let me know your conclusions. All the best


I cannot comment on the books you mention, as I have not used them, but I do have some recommendations that might be useful.

There is a series of books (published by Schott) and written by Paul Hindemith which would seem to fit the bill. They are incredibly thorough and do start from the very beginnings.

The first is Elementary Training for Musicians, which starts at a very elementary level with music notation, and goes very thoroughly through all the details of music notation you are ever likely to need, as well as having masses of exercises on rhythms.

Following on from that, you might look into his book The Craft of Musical Composition: Theoretical Part - Book 1

I can also recommend his book A Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony: With Emphasis on Exercises and a Minimum of Rules, Book 1

There are other books by him which I have not yet read, but I would expect them to just as thorough as the three I have mentioned.


As you look for the very beginning basics, I would encourage you to pick up the simple Keys to Music Rudiments book which, when I began teaching, was the go to and I still use for absolute beginners, including adults. It does not presume you have any background to fall back on and there are six accompanying workbooks. When you are through these, which could take as little as a few weeks of intensive study, you will have acquired thorough basics and be ready to study harmony. The 'Keys to Music Rudiments' book covers 3 levels: preliminary, grade one, and grade two, written by Berlin, Sclater, and Sinclair. It was the rock for the royal conservarory of music in toronto for many years.


Start with the "Dummies" book. It's basic, but you NEED the basics. Also obtain sample Music Theory test papers from the ABRSM, and the associated textbooks. When you're absolutely confident you could sail through the Grade 5 test (Grade 8 would be better) you'll know the language, and can think about some more "modern" approaches.


As someone who has had piano lessons with a private teacher since I was very young, I might be a little biased, but I am convinced that learning to play the piano is imperative if you want to go to college for this. I'm in the process of figuring out college myself, and everything is new for me, too, but if there's one thing I've seen is that you need to be able to play a little bit at least and show them a good knowledge of music theory.

However, I've heard that it's harder for guitarists to switch to piano than the other way around, so I don't know how difficult that might be for you. But definitely learning to play piano will throw you right into the theory pool because the first things you learn are the basics of reading music and how notes work together. Professional teachers tend to be expensive, but look around for some newer teachers who are teaching on the side--they won't help as much when you get a little more complex, but they're great if you just want to learn the basics with little pressure to be 'perfect' or anything.

As some other people on here have been saying, the internet is a GREAT resource for basic music theory, and I've found a great website called www.artofcomposing.com that has free video courses on the theory and musical understanding needed to compose music. Hope that helps!

  • Another brilliant site is Music: Practice and Theory... – Tim Sep 24 '17 at 10:39

No one has mentioned http://www.musictheory.net/ yet. I use it with my students and love the exercises for reinforcing theory skills. There are some great exercises that are applied to the guitar fretboard, which would be great for you.

And it's completely free unless you want to buy their iOS app, which is pretty slick.


If you are serious about continuing on to a university you will want to also study ear training (aural skills) and keyboard skills and also be open to learning music history. These classes are part of the core curriculum for any music degree. For ear training I used a packet written by the professor, but we also used a green book called Music For Sight-reading by Robert Ottman. Keyboard skills was usually taught by grad students who also just used packets they wrote. For music history I used a few different versions of the Grout and Palisca History of Western Music books, but I think those may be out of print now.

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