Can someone recommend 1-2 books that introduce music theory but also give historical context? It is easy to find music theory books but many lack discussions of history. I'm looking for books that would introduce concepts such as pitch, timbre, scales and chords, and music notation, but would also address questions such as:

  • Where does the notion of pitch come from? What is the justification for twelve note instruments and when did this arise historically?
  • Can all music be described with twelve tones and using the language of scales?
  • How did the concepts of "major" and "minor" scales come about, and how did music notation evolve through time?

It's okay if the books focus mostly on Western music theory as long there are some cultural comparisons and references forms of music that are not easily explained using concepts familiar from Western music such as "scales" (e.g. Raga in Indian music).

  • Not exactly what you are asking for, but Fux "The Study Of Counterpoint" is an interesting, entertaining and rewarding study. – danmcb Nov 6 '19 at 21:32
  • 1
    Great question. I feel like I know the answers to your questions but cannot think of a single text for all. Theory books that I know just teach the mechanics of music as it is. Other books may be related to culture, history, and physics of instruments. But I don't know where it's all in one place. I'll follow this Q. – ggcg Nov 6 '19 at 21:34
  • I doubt you'll find a good source for this. There are basic theory books that address a few of your questions in a very brief way as a digression, but I can't think of one that explains the history of music theory in detail in an intro course. The reason is that historical music theory worked very differently from modern music theory, so to really understand the answers to these questions, you'd need to take a deep dive into stuff that's completely unrelated to learning modern music theory. So there are good reasons this is usually treated in separate books on the "history of music theory." – Athanasius Nov 6 '19 at 22:51
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because requests for off site resources is off topic. – Dom Nov 8 '19 at 16:24
  • @Dom that's absolutely ridiculous. Clearly this question is topical and drew a lot of interest and discussion. Don't enforce superficial rules without thinking. – user64296 Nov 9 '19 at 17:35

The book that immediately comes to my mind is "Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century" by Knud Jeppesen (1892–1974). However it is not a 100% match to your requirements, it still covers many of the topics, you are interested in. Although I am quite sure it does not contain any comparisons to non-"Western" music, it has a very profound discussion of the development of counterpoint starting the ninth century, as well as a non-historical part which can be used for learning counterpoint.


Kit Kitson has some books (rather old) that do discuss some ideas historically. Thomas Christensen's The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory also discusses some ideas in context.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.