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?

3 Answers 3


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)


  • 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


  • 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.

  • 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.
    – Luke_0
    Oct 25, 2012 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. Oct 26, 2012 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
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Oct 26, 2012 at 7:39

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.

  • Get a teacher as well.
    – Neil Meyer
    Apr 4, 2014 at 8:54

If I were you I would buy many different books on Music Theory for guitar and consider maybe even taking lessons for a few weeks or months (however long it takes). It doesn't take long to learn the basics and the basics alone will really spark your creativity and curiosity once you understand them. Books on harmony, scales, and even some chord books that demonstrate harmonic function of each chords could help a lot as well. Once you learn the basics you can begin to experiment with different ideas and that will lead you to more advanced theoretical discoveries, and never forget the internet is a great place for any theory topics you want to explore. Read and learn from many different people because everyone has a slightly unique way of explaining things and plus its always good to see a topic from many different points of view. I hope you continue your journey to learning Music Theory to better your musical understanding and broaden your horizons:)

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