Ask HN: Tools to learn music theory?

321 points by pil0u 3 months ago

I started to learn the piano 1.5 year ago, as an adult who never studied music before.

It is a slow, peaceful journey and there is no silver bullet: practicing is the key for improvement.

I have a weekly class for music theory, which I enjoy a lot. What I seem to be a slow learner at is reading notes fast (treble and bass clef), and remembering the theory and logic behind the tones.

I don't practice much music theory outside the class. I consider building paper flashcards because music paper is quite specific.

What is your experience? What process or tool would you recommend to learn music theory?

PS: sorry if some words feel weird, music vocabulary is so different between French and English

tarsinge 2 months ago

For years I made the error of learning music theory without enough ear training. You have to hear and feel the theory, it's not only intellectual.

Then I found 2 exercises are all I needed for playing and composing music by ear:

- Functional intervals / scale degrees: If you start tone deaf like me checked "Fixed Key", learn all the intervals, then restart with basic intervals without fixed key.

- Melodic dictation: the advanced version of the exercise above once you are comfortable with each interval:

Once you can do melodic dictation you will be able to easily decode anything you hear, and map it to theory.

Edit: chord identification ( is obviously important but by then identifying basic chords should be easy, so it's for a more advanced level.

  • mtalantikite 2 months ago

    > You have to hear and feel the theory, it's not only intellectual.

    This is the most important part, for sure. The theory needs to get into your body.

    I'd also suggest to the OP to find a teacher that specializes in jazz, because the practice of improvisation requires you to embody that theory. A good teacher that focuses on improvisation will help you navigate through all the different building blocks you need, which happens to be theory.

    I studied your typical classical piano as a kid, abandoned it in college, and later in life came back to it with a jazz improvisation teacher. It's amazing how little you actually learn about music when all you're doing is reading sheet music as a kid. Now when I go back to play, say, Bach, I can see so many other things going on since I've spent so much time hearing and feeling the improv theory.

    There's also a great YouTube channel I've been watching, based around the teaching theory of Barry Harris:

    • lo_zamoyski 2 months ago

      > It's amazing how little you actually learn about music when all you're doing is reading sheet music as a kid.

      I would add that historically, most musicians did not read music or theorize. They were practitioners who picked up the skill by listening to others, practicing, and improvising. Improvisation was what historically characterized musicianship, not theory, not sight-reading.

      As the philosophical joke goes: anything you can do I can do meta. Theory is about music; it is not the practice of music. You can learn as much theory as you want, but theory is not practice. Theory can, of course, later sharpen or lead you to certain insights that can shape the music you produce, but practice is what produces facility, familiarity, and understanding, whereas theorizing produces knowledge. Learning theory too early is a pedagogic mistake. By analogy, consider speech. You don't begin to speak by learning grammar first. You begin by practicing. Only later can some knowledge of grammar help, perhaps. The way you become good at speaking is by practicing, and what is speech if not some combination of recitation and improvisation? Reading is entirely incidental and secondary.

      • wwweston 2 months ago

        > Theory is about music; it is not the practice of music.

        I'd quibble a bit with this: theory is language to speak of certain experiences and patterns one discovers in the practice of / play with music.

        Saying this to (perhaps) refine your point rather than contradict it. I quite agree that practice is key and theory was dead for me until one summer as a teen where I noodled freely enough in front of a piano and suddenly noticed "oh, this is what they're talking about." Everything up until you have enough up close and personal experience with the music to notice doesn't matter.

        And then once you notice it becomes a name you can call it with.

        • yadingus 2 months ago

          The gist of it is that music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.

          • fuzzfactor 2 months ago

            In the beginning there was no theory.

            The instrument itself is all you basically need to make music. People spent thousands of years just trying not to hit the wrong notes without knowing the difference between a sharp or a flat.

            Theory was reductive to begin with, it codified what was already acceptable to qualify as music.

            With deeper understanding the theory can be built upon creatively on its own, and rewarding composition or improvisation achieved independent of a particular instrument. Even better documentation in many cases.

            Every instrument is different, but I do think it's a good idea if you're going to get into theory, you do it on an instrument where you have the greatest proficiency beforehand.

            If you concentrate on the instrument itself primarily, you might spend some time producing relatively unmusical passages, but each instrument only has so many notes. If you play each note every day for some reason or another, you can become more familiar with all of them than otherwise. If you succeed at making it sound better over time, by playing however you like more & more regardless of theory, that would be notable accomplishment.

            That's more like instrument theory rather than music theory, but if your instrument familiarity is good enough you can do your part and pull your weight along with advanced theorists who can cover the academic areas that are encountered. Once you're groovin' these are the ones to build up your theory about what you're already doing together.

            Edit: There's also the alternative approach of playing only a limited number of the notes available on any one instrument. Almost theoretically in a statistical way to completely limit the output to that which is proven most acceptable to the mainstream. For instance Irving Berlin only played on the black keys and became the most popular songwriter that way.

      • jdiez17 2 months ago

        Your last point is one of my long-standing pet-peeves about language teaching methods. It seems the universally accepted practice is to give students mountains of vocabulary to study, grammar rules that make no sense, and a little bit of speaking practice.

        It is no wonder that native speakers of language X have a characteristic accent when speaking in a different language. When they try to read a word in the foreign language, they default to their native language's pronunciation heuristics.

        That is completely backwards from how children learn languages. They are exposed to the sounds and intuitively figure out the rest.

        • mtalantikite 2 months ago

          After years of starting and stopping language learning via classes that take the typical vocab/grammar approach, I've found I'm actually progressing with confidence using Pimsleur and other listening based approaches. It just makes a whole lot more sense to me this way and I wish my middle school/high school foreign language teachers had just handed me this instead (at least at the beginning).

        • ROTMetro 2 months ago

          If you look at modern teaching getting it's root in nation formation in France/Germany where there was no 'national' language but regional dialects blending one into another it makes more sense. What if the original purpose WAS TO CREATE that 'characteristic accent'?

      • mtalantikite 2 months ago

        Totally agree. The practice is what's important. My teacher won't let you look at sheet music for songs at first, he'll make you listen to Donna Lee 1000 times, sing it and work it out yourself before you check your work with the sheet music.

        Which reminds me of an anecdote in Hampton Hawes' autobiogrophy [1] where some famous teacher convinces him to take a lesson, after which Hampton writes he didn't really care for all of that theory stuff, he learned from playing with people like Mingus and Charlie Parker.


        • analog31 2 months ago

          I'm a jazz musician, and have likewise learned very little theory. On the other hand, there is a lot of attrition in jazz, so watch out for survivor bias. And it depends on what you want to do. Everybody I know who is active in composition and arrangement is fluent in theory. Being able to create original material is super cool and valuable. And there were certainly theory experts among the greats.

          • mtalantikite 2 months ago

            Oh absolutely, there's always the anecdotes of Coltrane carrying around Slonimsky's thesaurus, or George Russel claiming Miles used his lydian chromatic concept. But personally I find none of it really makes much sense until I sit down with the theory and practice it on my instrument. Memorizing theory with flash cards, like the OP mentioned, I don't find to be all that helpful.

  • normcoreashore 2 months ago

    Such a good point about needing to feel it.

    For intuitive interval training you can try this app (I built).

    Essentially it’s two tunable sine wave oscillators and a simple waveform visualizer. you can manually tune the oscillators to any interval, gradually slide things in/out of tune, select intervals from from scales and see the mathematical calculations generated by various tunings. You can also run it in binaural mode (pure tone in each ear).

    When I was teaching piano and music theory I used this tool to help students practice active listening for beat frequency and harmony. Maybe it can be useful to some of you.

    • rreichel03 2 months ago

      Wow I just played with this for a while - I've never had the opportunity to see and hear the waves at the same time and really enjoyed it. It was really neat getting the frequencies close in binaural mode and hearing the pulsing of the phases being slightly off. Thanks for sharing!

  • tarentel 2 months ago

    I used Earmaster a few years ago. It is not free but it covers everything from sight singing, which works fairly decently, to rhythm detection/dictation, chord detection, melodic dictation, interval training, etc.

    It was a ton of practice and for me not very fun. I already knew quite a bit of theory but after putting in the work it's helped a lot. Prior to this I had only done some sight singing, basic interval training, and some basic chord progression detection.

    I can pretty much play close to instantly anything I hear in my head. I can also play anything I hear in real life as well, almost, if the music is incredibly fast or complex I might not remember it well enough to do so. Even if I can't play something I hear though in real life I can break down the higher level parts and structures pretty quickly at the very least.

    Either way, if you're new to this or don't want to pay for software since you can probably do a lot of this for free, I would definitely start out with sight singing. It'll speed up learning intervals and melodic dictation much faster than if you don't learn how to do it.

  • raincole 2 months ago

    Tonesavvy looks like an ugly clone of

    • leetrout 2 months ago

      > ToneSavvy, the for-teachers version of this website

      On the page you linked

      • bajsejohannes 2 months ago

        I wonder why the for-teacher version uses chords to establish the tonic, and the other uses just a note. I find the latter much easier (but probably only because that's what I've practiced). I assume there's great benefit in being proficient in both.

  • bitcoinmoney 2 months ago

    I thought tone deaf was permanent. Can you link Fixed Key? Is it an app?

    • efficax 2 months ago

      anyone who can hear can learn relative pitch, although some people seem better equipped and a very very small number seem to have absolute pitch

      • unshavedyak 2 months ago

        To add to this, one of the seemingly better examples i was shown was that most of us who like music have a handful of songs that we can hear perfectly. We don't realize it, but that's one foundational tool to find the relative pitch of something.

        Ie despite not having absolute perfect pitch, we know can accurately hear a variety of notes by just remembering a song, chorus, hook, etc. In doing so, we can figure out those notes and then use that to help determine the relative pitch of something else.

        Works better the more songs you know. It's also not advocating learning songs for this purpose, but rather using songs you already know. Songs you grew up with, etc. Anything you deeply know.

    • kylecazar 2 months ago

      It's a setting in the 'Advanced Settings' section of the app OP linked.

  • skyde 2 months ago

    thanks I tried the first one "Functional intervals / scale degrees:" and cant even get 50% correct with a choice of 2 notes.

    What is wrong with me :)

  • wigster 2 months ago

    wow - i am terrible at that. i play guitar, keyboards and sing (ok) but i cannot do that.

    nice util tho. must practice more...

shirleyquirk 2 months ago

I grew up in a family of classical musicians, got a degree in music, and was briefly a professional classical musician myself. So my advice may be very out of touch with the experience of someone learning for the first time, but my experiences learning beyond European classical music theory left me feeling insulted.

The basics of music theory are presented as though they are the foundations upon which all subsequent music is derived. In fact, teaching scales and chords is like teaching that the electron orbits the nucleus - a 'simplification'. There _are_ real psychoacoustic truths, alongside equally fascinating historical forces, that underpin music theory.

Learn the language and idioms of music theory, by all means, but don't think of it as being in any way true. Its a syncretist cargo cult of hacks and rules of thumb handed down by centuries of men with dubious motives.

I recommend Adam Neely on YouTube, he illustrates music theory concepts clearly, engagingly, and with an appropriate skepticism for received wisdom.

Here's his discussion of some more political criticisms of music theory:

I recommend Sethares' _Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale_ to anyone interested in the underpinnings of why some notes sound good together and others don't.


  • Aidevah 2 months ago

    The pianist Charles Rosen mentioned a longstanding error when most pianists play Chopin's B-flat minor sonata: when they repeat the exposition they begin from the Doppio movimento, instead of the very beginning. Rosen's argument is pretty persuasive, and it's really head-scratching why pianist continue to make this mistake for so long. My impression was that most classical musicians aren't very bright, at least the pianists are no smarter than tenors :). More seriously, it is lamentable that critical thinking is not exactly encouraged when learning an instrument, and many are happy to play what they were told to without thinking. Although I note with some optimism that after nearly 200 years things are looking up for the Chopin sonata, during the latest Chopin competition, all contestants went back to the very beginning when they played the repetition of the exposition.

    I find that at least the musicology literature is much more sceptical about received wisdom. Iconoclasts like Richard Taruskin (R.I.P.) have become mainstream figures, and I don't think you can possibly look at music theory (specifically for Western literate music in the classical tradition) entirely innocently after reading through some of his work, not least his massive tome on music history. Hopefully the average university student who took a music course semester or two are better informed now thanks to Taruskin and others like him.

    • smulloni 2 months ago

      I've never been persuaded by Rosen's account of that repeat. Most accomplished pianists are plenty bright and have read their Rosen, but don't necessarily agree with everything he has to say. (His preference for the early Schumann editions, for instance.)

      • Aidevah 2 months ago

        Rosen did mention that persistent error eventually harden into tradition, and we get used to anything, and what we are used to becomes what feels right. On the other hand I have never heard that Chopin sonata before I read Rosen's arguments, so starting the repeat from the beginning feels right for me.

        In any case the evidence seems incontrovertible to me. The majority of the earliest sources support the reading, Brahms felt it was correct. The end of the exposition prepares for the Grave perfectly both in terms of rhythm and harmony, and the Grave appears in the development so it's clearly not a separate introduction. Are there any evidence for the other reading other than "we've always done it like this"?

  • maroonblazer 2 months ago

    Also a classically trained, now jazz, musician and agree with all of this.

    Neely is good. I'd also recommend Music Matters on YouTube. His style is very easy to understand once you know the basics of notes and chords. He explains many of the different ways chords can fit together. His Bach 'tear downs' are absolutely fantastic.

    • Yeroc 2 months ago

      I second the Music Matters recommendation. The way he explains things and walks through the creation of various harmonies I find very illuminating.

  • jmiskovic 2 months ago

    Your experience is insightful. It reminds me of a section from The Principia Discordia (not that I wouldn't recommend the rest of the book):

    With our concept making apparatus called "mind" we look at reality through the ideas-about-reality which our cultures give us. The ideas-about-reality are mistakenly labeled "reality" and unenlightened people are forever perplexed by the fact that other people, especially other cultures, see "reality" differently. It is only the ideas-about-reality which differ. Real (capital-T True) reality is a level deeper that is the level of concept.

    We look at the world through windows on which have been drawn grids (concepts). Different philosophies use different grids. A culture is a group of people with rather similar grids. Through a window we view chaos, and relate it to the points on our grid, and thereby understand it. The ORDER is in the GRID. That is the Aneristic Principle.

    Western philosophy is traditionally concerned with contrasting one grid with another grid, and amending grids in hopes of finding a perfect one that will account for all reality and will, hence, (say unenlightened westerners) be True. This is illusory; it is what we Erisians call the ANERISTIC ILLUSION. Some grids can be more useful than others, some more beautiful than others, some more pleasant than others, etc., but none can be more True than any other.

  • LegitShady 2 months ago

    I think when you're advanced enough to have been a professional musician the criticisms of classical theory are more useful than when you're struggling to produce or reproduce music you enjoy, or even recognize what theoretical underpinnings other people are using. Learning about electron orbits is pretty useful to recognize basic chemistry stuff - going straight to quantum theory is probably not a good way to learn.

    but fair nuff.

  • k__ 2 months ago

    "they are the foundations upon which all subsequent music is derived"

    I had the impression music theory was used more to analyze existing music, and less so to create it.

    • ghostpepper 2 months ago

      For context, I was a casual guitarist for many years before deciding to finally start learning music theory through jazz piano lessons about a year ago (which I highly recommend btw).

      I think it's important to look at theory as descriptive and not proscriptive. Music is fundamentally heard, but having a common written/spoken language with well-defined terminology, structures, idioms, etc. allows musicians to communicate more clearly - eg. "sixteen bars of I VI V I in C major" vs actually playing it.

    • analog31 2 months ago

      It can be both. For instance you can choose to work within a particular framework when composing and arranging, and this will lubricate some aspects of the process, and give you the confidence that you can actually do it. I'm not a composer myself, but the two bands I'm in both play some original jazz compositions and arrangements. I imagine that trying to come up with a new chart, completely ab initio would be a phenomenal chore. And possibly unplayable. One that we played last night for the first time is about 50 pages of music all told.

      Perhaps another explanation is that in between analyzing and creating is the "trick" of borrowing from the past, that is a staple of virtually all creative endeavor.

      But people have told me that theory won't help you write catchy melodies. Those come from somewhere, and some people are just good at it. But filling out the 19 parts of a big-band arrangement involves that framework.

    • harvey9 2 months ago

      Introductory-level music theory is usually taught to beginners learning an instrument. Simple scales, chords etc. The YouTubers I've watched recently all add the caveat that this is 'western' music theory and other cultures have different preferences.

    • raincole 2 months ago

      > I had the impression music theory was used more to analyze existing music, and less so to create it.

      Of course it should be. But it's sometimes taught otherwise.

  • asimpletune 2 months ago

    Yeah it's a shame that music theorist haven't pursued more of a "natural sciences" approach. As Neely says music theory is more like music conservation of a specific style. But the harmonic series, Coltrane, Barry Harris, etc... they seem to be more making discoveries than inventions.

  • easyThrowaway 2 months ago

    I mean, it's useful if you need to quickly express something to a fellow musician, like, "just give me a I-IV-V Gm four bars loop".

    Everything goes quickly out of the window once you get into the production side of things, of course.

  • nickd2001 2 months ago

    Adam Neely link is fascinating. Thanks for that. The things one learns on HN eh? ;)

H1Supreme 3 months ago

Here's a few tips from a self-taught musician who couldn't read sheet music if you paid me to:

- Analyze songs that you like. While reading sheet music (as other's have mentioned) is certainly a good approach, take time to find songs you actually enjoy listening to. If the song is guitar driven (as many are in today's popular music), you can find "tabs" online. They're a little weird to decipher at first, but you'll be able to extract the notes, and transpose it to piano.

- Then take a melody, for example, and play it back. What scale degrees are they playing? Did they start on something other than the I (or i)? What part of the melody did you like, specifically? How did the melody change over the course of the song? Lots of little lessons to be learned. You can apply this to chords as well.

- Next, pay attention to the rhythm. I find this part left out of a lot of discussions surrounding music theory. When you play a note is as important, or often times, more important than the note itself. There's a seemingly infinite number of ways to play even the simplest set of notes.

- Finally, just play. Take whatever small lesson you learned, and improvise something. Over time, you'll commit all the little things you like to memory, and the music will just flow out of you (sorry if that sounds corny).

  • endymi0n 2 months ago

    Came to say that nothing really beats the bottom-up approach you mention, but there WERE some top-down tools over my career that really helped me too:

    - Understanding the circle of fifths (and just doing the exercise of playing a simple melody completely through it)

    - Understanding the natural tones scale and its mathematical properties (simpler intervals with low integer fractions -> „nicer“ sounding intervals)

    - Understanding Euler‘s Tonnetz for the multidimensional relationship of intervals

    These were the backings letting me understand a lot of the rationale behind what happens on the keyboard (by all means, a keyboard based instrument makes it SO much easier to grok theory). Though in the end, if you want to play and compose, 80% is building intuition by just trying to first copy styles and second disassembling the chords and melodies behind.

    • lmpdev 2 months ago

      Don't forget chord voicings!

      Absolutely vital for harmony and basic arrangement

  • haihaibye 2 months ago

    If someone asks about how to read sheet music faster, and you can't read it, it's ok to just not say anything

    • H1Supreme 2 months ago

      Did you read the title of the post? Or the last questions? Maybe take your own advice.

    • Mr-Frog 2 months ago

      Michael Jackson never learned to read or write sheet music.

      • jayknight 2 months ago

        Irving Berlin couldn't read music and could only play the piano in F-sharp, so he had a piano build that could transpose to any key[1] and had someone to transcribe his music for him for publication.


        • thorin 2 months ago

          Why F#? When I play blues on the piano I tend to play in C (first one I learnt) or Eb. I've noticed Stevie Wonder plays in Eb a lot presumably because he can more easily identify the black notes by feel and Eb blues is mainly black keys.

      • ocimbote 2 months ago

        Out of curiosity, is there any source to endorse that?

        I mean, it certainly takes a MJ to get to this level without music theory, but if the fact is confirmed... wow! (Tried to phrase it properly but "wow" conveys best that I'm speechless)

        • Lewton 2 months ago

          "without music theory"

          Reading sheet music is not music theory

          • lo_zamoyski 2 months ago

            Also, historically, most people who made music probably never read music. I'm thinking of everyone from troubadours to traveling musicians to that great uncle who plays the mandolin or grandfather who plays the fiddle or the aunt who sings in the local church choir. It was all learned by ear from others, memorized, and improvised. Indeed, historically, improvisation was what characterized the musician and musicianship, not the ability to read music. That is a recent development.

            If Michael Jackson indeed never learned to read music, then it would seem he is rather representative of the historical case rather than an exception. He grew up in a musical family and so he was always in an environment that constantly exercised the faculties involved. And we're talking popular music, after all, not some complicated orchestral work or composition.

      • BurningFrog 2 months ago

        Quincy Jones OTOH, had a very extensive musical education.

      • samsin 2 months ago

        Many vocalists won’t have a deep understanding of music theory

        • unwind 2 months ago

          That makes sense, but [1] lists 119 songs were Michael Jackson is the writer or co-writer. So reducing him to a vocalist [2] in this context makes little sense to me.


          [2]: I'm not trying to say that being a vocalist is somehow "worse" than being a songwriter, just that removing a skill he clearly had (writing songs) is weird.

          • kinghtown 2 months ago

            When artists buy songs they are given a credit for legal purposes (and I suppose vanity, too)

            • capableweb 2 months ago

              Do you have any sources for the claim that the songs written, composed and co-produced by Jackson were actually just bought?

              Most of the songs I went through from Jackson where he appear to be a writer, as the history of him writing and producing the song. Of course, he got plenty of help. But I don't think it's fair to reduce him as using ghost-writers/producers for his songs, people seem to be properly credited.

              • kinghtown 2 months ago

                Oh I’m not claiming that about MJ. He had written songs, even some of his hits, it is just that you can’t just always look at song credits to see what’s what. MJ had written some of his songs, collaborated, and also had songs written for him at different times. He wasn’t using ghostwriters as far as I know. I could have been more clear on that.

dtagames 3 months ago

Two books I'll throw in here: Foundations of Diatonic Theory [0] which gives the simplest, modern, math-based explanations of how notes and chords relate. It's a college workbook that you write-in for the exercises. Really terrific.

Also, not a theory book but the most important music learning book I've read: The Perfect Wrong Note [1]. Reading this permanently changed the way I approach learning the piano (or synth. in my case) and I my playing has vastly improved over the last couple of years because of it.



  • medler 2 months ago

    For ages I’ve been looking for a text that would help me understand the structure of the diatonic scale. Foundations of Diatonic Theory looks exactly like the book I was convinced must exist but haven’t been able to find. Thank you!

    • dtagames 2 months ago

      I always thought, "Why can't I get a straight answer on this?" And that book had the answers.

ofalkaed 3 months ago

Practice reading sheet music, which does not mean playing what is on the page but reading the page and understanding the harmonic structure in both the vertical and the horizontal. Starting out this means sitting down with some sheet music and a pencil and marking up the pages. This will also help you learn the notes and more importantly the intervals. And play those scales, circles of fifths, triads, arpeggios through the 7ths, etc. Sing the note names as you play them, it will really beat it into your head both the staff position and the sound even if you are not good at singing them at proper pitch.

Flash cards are not great here since you loose context, you want to study both the vertical harmonic structure of chords and how that evolves through time in the horizontal structure. Just download a bunch of sheet music and print it out or buy a notebook/pad of staff paper and write it out.

  • pil0u 3 months ago

    > Flash cards are not great here since you loose context

    That's exactly why I staled and wrote here, the flashcard system felt off to me.

    Thank you for your detailed feedback, it's really helpful. It's good to read that there is no secret sauce for theory either.

    • levicole 3 months ago

      I really think it depends on what level you're at. If you're still struggling to identify notes on the staff, then flash cards are just fine. If you're struggling to identify the intervals or triads, also still fine. If you can do that easily, then forego the flash cards and start analyzing Bach chorales.

      But I'll restate what I said elsewhere, I think ear training is much more important once you get past the basics. In that case, I'd learn the Nashville Number System (

      • bajsejohannes 2 months ago

        I'm curious; why would you recommend the Nashville Number System over Roman Numerals ( Seems like the latter is much more widely used. Maybe I'm in a different bubble than you...

        • levicole 2 months ago

          The Nashville Number System is faster to write down as you listen to a tune, has methods of indicating ryhthm associated with changes (underline means half a bar, diamond around a number means to play the note once and let it ring for a whole bar). It's just better all around for popular music. Roman Numerals are really only used in analyzing classical music as far as I know.

          Part of my education, in commercial ear training class, we had to write number charts and get it right the first time through. It sounds hard, but with practice it's really quick.

    • ofalkaed 2 months ago

      The problem with flash cards is they don't actually help you with your problems which are remembering the theory and sight reading.

      Sight reading is more than the note names, it is also the action of moving your fingers and not just finding the note on the keyboard but keeping your hands in the right position so your others fingers can do what they need to do. So you set your metronome nice and slow and play through your scales while singing the notes and get ear training thrown in for free. Flash cards will just add in an extra step here, you still have to learn those finger movements, sight reading and ear training. Just remember to speed up that metronome when things get easy. The Theory side is much the same.

      The single best thing you can do is make practice a part of your daily routine, an hour a day every day. If you are doing that or close to doing that then you need to talk to your teacher about the lack of progress and possibly find a new teacher.

      • smeej 2 months ago

        This is a super super super beginner question, but what's a good resource for learning the "correct" fingerings?

        I took 9 years of piano lessons, but I was very young (I quit when I was 12, 25+ years ago), so I have a vague memory that there's a "right" way to do things, but no idea where to go to re-learn it.

        I quit as soon as my parents would let me because I thought sight reading was supposed to be as easy as reading written words, and if I hadn't been able to master what I thought of as the most basic skill in 9 years, I must be hopeless.

        Now I understand that sight reading is actually a much more advanced skill, so I probably wasn't hopeless after all.

        • ofalkaed 2 months ago

          Correct fingering is determined by context, where is that hand coming from and where is it going next on the keyboard? So you read/play through a few times and figure out the optimal fingering to make sure you are not tripping over your hands. Teachers tend not to explain this until the student points out that the correct fingering for that chord was different in another piece.

        • NineStarPoint 2 months ago

          The annoying truth is that what the correct fingering is changes depending on your hand size. So the real thing to learn is “what’s the right way to hold your hand and body at a keyboard to not cause long term damage” and then see what fingerings come out from that for your hand size. Unfortunately, don’t have a good resource there.

lfciv 3 months ago

This is a bit of a less traditional way to learn, but I'm big on learning from chords. Find a song you love on Ultimate Guitar Tabs and learn to play the chords – play them in different inversions and experiment with tweaks (adding a 7 or 2). Over time as you get comfortable with those chords and their inversion start to fill in the gaps following your ear. Personally I find this style of playing new songs more motivating as I can play a variety of pop songs and I can play them quickly and make them my own. An unfortunate side effect – I'm not great at sight reading

wallstprog 3 months ago

You might want to give Rick Beato a try:

He does interesting YouTube videos on music topics, but also sells theory and ear-training courses online.

  • ergonaught 2 months ago

    I've followed Rick for years, love his content, he's very engaging and knowledgeable and all the things, but when it comes to teaching, most of the time I find him incomprehensible even when I do already know what he's teaching/demonstrating.

    Something in his approach and the way my brain works just short circuit.

  • levicole 3 months ago

    I agree, give Rick's course a try, with an emphasis on ear training. I think ear training is much more important than music theory. You'll learn theory along the way (intervals, chord quality, etc...) but it focuses more on hearing the difference. Most of music making is hearing a song and playing it back, or hearing a melody in your head and getting it into a daw in some way, music theory alone won't teach you that. Ear training will though!

    • oriolid 2 months ago

      If you listen to any of Rick's videos, he will tell you that ear training and music theory are so closely related that there can't be one without other. Of course, back in the day in music school theory was taught without ear training and that made it kind of useless. Or maybe it was more that listening was never taught, it was just put in exam and if you can't write down the chords you hear there you're not going to be a musician.

      • levicole 2 months ago

        This is true. The basics are required for ear training. But once you get past the basics (reading music, intervals, identifying chords), I don't thinking going much past that is necessary.

        I think I'm incorrectly assuming people want to take it past the basics when they say they want to learn music theory.

adamquek 2 months ago

I started piano about the same time too. I was a non-reading player of other instruments before though, and I wanted to use piano as the instrument to properly guide me along my musical theory path.

Yes, it's a slow journey. Repetition is key. And even though I still considered myself a slow learner, my teacher has been quite hands off these days whenever I am given a new piece. He would still put in the fingering, but he no longer put in what the notes are, like he would when I first started.

And the discussions also changed a lot, from the beginning, when I was struggling to even identify what the notes in different triad are, to now about how much tension different chord progression and how to resolve them properly.

I still have plenty to learn, but generally sticking with the ABRSM standards. Already on theory equivalent to grade 5 now.

Yes, I did try other learning tools, like flashcard, or even asking ChatGPT to come out with pneumonics. But I find repetition is still better. And plenty of rest.

The priority as an adult learner would never be about trying to be the next prodigy. Internalise the learning process and take it slow. Sometimes you need to slow down to move fast.

nickd2001 2 months ago

Depends why you want to learn the theory. If you play an instrument enough, you'll pick up lots of theory, probably enough for an average amateur, naturally, just by learning lots of pieces. Piano is better for this than most I believe as its easy to see what's going on and play chords (vs say, wind instrument that plays just 1 note at a time). If you wanna be a really good amateur (presumably not a pro, as people normally has to start as a kid to do that), or, want some knowledge to help with jazz improv, then I'd say aim for ABRSM Grade 5 theory, possibly do grade 3 or 4 first. If you google My Music theory, there's a ton of free stuff on that website. you can do ABRSM exams online. Good way of checking your knowledge and getting a certificate of proof :). I know some people say you don't need to study theory for jazz improv. Personally, cos I don't play piano or guitar, I found studying theory helps fill in gaps of knowledge eg on chords

klodolph 2 months ago

Without knowing any context, I would recommend getting a textbook. I have The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis (by Clendinning, Marvin). The book is well-structured, reasonably clear, and comprehensive. The main risks when you go self-taught are that you have gaps in your knowledge or that you learn things in an order which makes it harder to learn. Textbooks are great—they give you an order to learn things in, where each piece builds on previous pieces.

That said, it’s hard to give more specific advice without understanding your goals more. Are you trying to understand songs? Are you trying to write songs? Are you interested in specific genres?

I will give a few other tips:

- Don’t think too hard about the rules.

- Don’t get too distracted by modes and scales. Major and minor will carry you far.

- Many books cover counterpoint. You can skip it. Think of counterpoint as a learning exercise that gives you a set of techniques for dealing with multiple voices when composing music. The rules are there to teach you those techniques.

Rochus 2 months ago

> What is your experience? What process or tool would you recommend to learn music theory?

I play the piano since nearly 50 years and was working for some time as a professional musician and also composer/producer.

To just learn the piano and play classical literature from scores you don't actually need music theory; it's a nice to know, but not a need to know.

Some music theory is helpful if you want to compose music or to improvise on the piano. But then there is the question: what kind of music theory is helpful for you? There are indeed different kinds of music theory. In general different theories apply to classical, folk, jazz or pop/rock music. And a lot is just hot air packed into a framework that tries to be intellectual and sufficiently complicated to justify studying music. At its core, however, it is mostly about scales and harmonies.

I recommend you try to find out which style of music you want to delve into and then refine your search.

  • aidenn0 2 months ago

    Piano is, to a large degree, directly applied music theory.

    Recognizing scales, chords, and arpeggios is incredibly helpful for sight-reading.

    • Rochus 2 months ago

      Like it is helpful to know some details about your car engine for driving, but it's not a mandatory prerequisite.

      • aidenn0 2 months ago

        I think a better analogy is that understanding the physics of internal combustion engines can help you work on a car.

        If you work on a car for long enough, you will self-develop a model for the physics, and if you play a given style of music for long enough you will self-develop a model for the music theory of that style.

        • Rochus 2 months ago

          Right, here is a selection of examples to which this model applies:

          but that's likely not what the fellow had in mind; learning and playing piano literature is a completely different thing.

unc0n 2 months ago

What are you hoping to get from knowing music theory? It seems like many of the commenters are assuming a specific goal from this (etc being able to more easily understand/memorize what you are supposed to play or being easily able to transpose music). Perhaps that is not your goal. And I would offer that music theory might not be the magic bullet for being able to read music much faster (eg better sight reading).

I taught instrument playing to a number of people, and I would say that associating the written note to a logical note and then associating a logical note to finger movements to play can be done with little to no formal music theory. These two things are orthogonal, and at least for younger learners, I find that the former (going from written notes on a score to which tone it is) is the most difficult part. That is, if I were to simply call out the notes in turn, the student could play at a much faster rate than if they had to read it themselves and decide what note it was. I found that mobile apps and websites that present notes to you and ask you what they are, helps tremendously for making this process faster. That is, speeding up the whole process is nothing more than repetitive practice. Once single notes are easily and quickly decoded in the mind, multiple simultaneously notes actually come faster because you decide one note at first and then can figure out the others by looking at the relative distance. Music theory can help here by providing some heuristic shortcuts but honestly, I don't find it is necessary or that helpful.

Don't worry, the whole process takes time. I would say that if you were already a competent pianist, but one who struggles with reading scores for sight reading, it would probably take months to years to see satisfactory progress, focusing on sight reading alone. That was consistent with my personal experience as well. I would stay away from trying to transpose music, unless you have absolute pitch, in which case transposing music would be easier than reading it in the first place.

Perenti 2 months ago

I think a great tool for learning music theory is a stringed instrument. By having an instrument _you_ tune you get your ear in tune as well, and you can hear the difference different temperments make.

But ultimately it's about making the music that's inside you, and not everyone needs music theory to do that.

A problem I've seen with pianists and theory is they can get stuck because each key has different fingering, unlike stringed instruments.

ssttoo 2 months ago

I started learning music as an adult too a few years ago in the local community college. Especially initially I couldn't trust myself at all with playing, rhythm or anything, so I ended up hacking on some exercises, as new concepts appeared. See if you can find them helpful. They turned out pretty useful with students and teachers in my college.

Some are simple intervals and stuff that other more polished apps do better, but some are more advanced and I've not seen anywhere else.

E.g. ear training for more complex chords (9, sus, 6/9)

Or interval "strands", a regular interval training but with three notes, which looks like it should be simple but is a big jump from 2-note intervals:

globuous 2 months ago

A great tool is, believe it or not, Ocaml/Rescript!!

I was tired not remembering how to name intervals, construct chords, my arpeggios and scales and what not. So I coded it to help me figure all of that out. I also wanted a frontend to visualize all of this because notes on the guitar are all mixed up and it's hard to reason about when you have a terrible memory like I do:

- Theory.res: - Frontend:

I also have some notes on that repo that have helped me a lot where I can summarize my findings. But this exercise has been enlightening. Both from the coding and musical perspectives. Because Ocaml really forces you to model music and thus ensure that you understand the concepts which helps you remember them.

I can finally start soloing over chord progressions using arpeggios now! It's essentially comes down to playing a scale in thirds starting on the chord root note on chord changes! And I can finally understand my fretboard without having to look at my frontend's chord diagrams anymore. I still don't know the notes, but I understand their relations with each other.

I've also started learning jazz because it's a lot more theory based than pop/rock since you have a lot more exotic chords and solos are guided by the underlying progression. I really like Jens Larsen's YT channel. It's very hard to get into at first because he goes quite fast, but has some very accessible videos such as this one:

Hope this helps :)

arjvik 2 months ago

Lots of people suggesting great ways to get around reading sheet music!

But what's a way of getting fast at reading sheet music? I picked up the piano again after quitting several years ago, and one thing I'm really struggling with is glancing at sheet music and being able to play a phrase—I need to step out one note at a time. And I'm hopeless with ledger lines, I have to stick my face close and count the lines to see what note I'm playing. Sightreading exercises haven't helped because they're either too easy (I can easily follow notes across small intervals, from my music theory training) or too hard to make meaningful improvement on (I start doing the pause-and-name-each-note thing).

  • littlelady 2 months ago

    You probably won't like this answer, but the way to get faster at reading sheet music is to read sheet music. It's a skill and takes time and consistent practice to develop.

    Sight-reading exercises are great for improving, but it seems you are struggling to choose an appropriate difficulty. A piano teacher is very helpful in this regard and can recommend books/exercises for you to work through.

    If that's not an option for you, there are piano music grading systems that provide some orientation. For example IMSLP[1] has music by level, according to the Royal School of Music.

    Disclaimer: I'm not an avid piano player, so I don't know that much about these grading systems, other than they are used for exam and certificate prep.


  • adrianmonk 2 months ago

    > what's a way of getting fast at reading sheet music?

    I can answer because, while I'm a thoroughly mediocre pianist, I'm really fast at sight reading.

    First of all, realize that this is a slow process. You won't get quick results. You just have to practice it lots and lots over a long period of time. But if you do, you will eventually get there. It will gradually become second nature.

    Another thing is to regularly devote time to practicing the skill of reading specifically. One way to do that is to get a gigantic pile of sheet music[1] (of an appropriate difficulty level), grab something off the top, read/play through it ONCE, and then never look at it again[2]. Keep working your way through the pile as you have time to practice.

    Playing through a piece multiple times is great for other things, but if you want to practice reading, you need music that you've never seen before. Otherwise, you'll rely on memory, which is not reading. (Or if you've heard it before, you may rely on your ear, which is also not reading.)

    Yes, this process is going to feel tedious and annoying. Pausing and naming notes, like you said. But try to see that as a good sign. It means you're really focusing on the things that you're weak at.

    Once you've gotten the basics down through practice, there are two other things you can do to boost your ability to sit down and play through a piece by sight reading it.

    One is to understand the structure and theory well enough that, if you can't read every note, you can make educated guesses. If you think about the notes that you've just been playing and realize they form an Am7 chord followed by a D7 chord, then you can predict that the next chord might be a G or Gmaj7. Then you can just check that the notes you see now are in fact one of those. But, this trick has limitations. Sometimes music does clever and unexpected things, and then this trick hurts more than it helps. In those moments, you're better off just focusing on what it says on the page instead of trying to understand it.

    The other thing is to read ahead. As you're playing one measure, you look at notes which are a measure or two ahead. This requires a bit of multitasking and juggling stuff in your short term memory, but it's doable with some practice, and things are less likely to fall apart when you encounter a certain part that's a little more complicated.


    [1] There are lots of places you can get tons of free sheet music online. One place is .

    [2] Or do, if you want, but just be aware that that doesn't count towards practicing reading.

l__l 3 months ago

I would avoid flash cards. A few tangible steps you could take:

- Play and read lots of sheet music. Especially by sight. It will come, I promise :)

- Complete Ear Trainer is hands down the best aural training aid out there. Be warned, it is difficult (I got it while studying for my later instrumental grades and it was initially very tough) but I’ve never come across a tool as good. Think of it as being a bit like aural flash cards with harmonic context

- Transcription is a good idea. I’ll also suggest transposition; my main instrument is horn, and for grades (at least in the UK) you had to do sight transposition as well as sight reading. Once you’re comfortable sight reading, try doing the same thing but playing it up a fourth, or down a third, etc.

  • lp0_on_fire 2 months ago

    > Play and read lots of sheet music. Especially by sight. It will come, I promise :)

    Grabbing an old hymnal works wonders for this, even if you're not religious. Most of the pieces are short and simple enough to use as exercises for sight reading and learning theory.

automatom 2 months ago

I very much learn by getting my hands dirty, so if I were you I would find a project. Either write a a simple song and put in on paper, or incorporate concept you learn about music theory into a song or riff on the instrument of your choice. I honestly don't think reading music is 100% essential depending on what your goal is for learning theory.

I take piano lessons over Zoom (a byproduct of COVID, but I work remote so it's convenient to sign off of work and migrate over to my keyboard in my office for my lesson). I needed an excuse to practice more scales and expand my own knowledge of theory and be able to more intuitively find a key while playing or build cords. I ended up building this rudimentary scale-generator in Rust.

I did so because I primarily wanted to learn Rust but also wanted a tool to practice and memorize more diatonic major and minor scales.

This CLI tool is far from perfect or what I would call done, but I'm sharing in case you may find some use out of it or just as an example of what I did to expand my knowledge. In writing this I learned a lot about how diatonic scales are structured, and how Western musical notation was designed in such a way to make intervals easier to play on instruments such as the piano. It really forced me to understand how the major and minor scales are structured in order to be able to model it in the code.

bajsejohannes 2 months ago

I made my own tools, which has been both fun and useful. I haven't put too much work in making them easy to use for others, but maybe they can help? The two that are polished enough to at least share are: is for getting faster at recognizing note values in sheet music. I used this for about five minutes a day for some time and it really improved my reading. A musician friend of mine said it had limited use, since notes are always in context, and here it's just random notes. I think this is a good start, though, but the journey from there is probably some other tool. to practice intervals. For this one I recommend a MIDI-keyboard and the 'meander' mode. Start out with just a few intervals and take it from there. I found it absolutely crucial to pick some songs that represent the interval. See for instance

signaru 2 months ago

There's GNU Solfege [0], but I have not really used it (I was a casual piano player that realized theory just gets in the way of fun for me). It has ear training for music patterns and has some music theory practice in it. Not sure if it has a mobile version, but it's been around for a long time.


ben7799 2 months ago

Make sure your teacher(s) if there is/are at least one are actually teaching you theory along the way.

I had 2 piano teachers, and neither one really had much interest in teaching music theory much at all, especially in a practical way as it applied to what you were playing.

I think it may be a weakness with some piano training/curriculum that teachers fall into because Piano has such a strong reliance on "play the sheet music that is put in front of you."

In like 3 years of lessons I don't think any of them ever talked about what scales were in a chord or what the progression was in a song I, V, vi, IV, etc.. or talked about what the melody was doing versus that.

By contrast when I started guitar... that stuff is/was talked about constantly, different tradition. I had more than one guitar teacher too and they were all pretty heavy on it.

It sticks in your head far more when you sit there and practice something and are conscious of the theory behind it than if you practice pieces and then study a book/app/website in a disconnected way.

I guess what I'm saying is if you're trying to use tools the tools should be integrated where you learn a piece with an explanation of it's theory, and you practice that for a while. Versus a tool where you just plow through theory in a disconnected way.

I don't really play piano at all anymore, but the stuff I learned in guitar still carried over to the point I can figure out what's going on in a way I couldn't when I was taking piano lessons & practicing piano every day. Back then I could not construct a chord I didn't have memorized, now I can/could.

schwartzworld 3 months ago

Best way to get fast at reading music is transcription. Listen to melodies and try to write them down, either with or without the help of an instrument

Pompidou 3 months ago

Le logiciel gratuit et open source Pure Data permet de consolider ton apprentissage. C'est tout approprié pour comprendre comment et pourquoi les notes ont telle ou telle hauteur, tu pourras facilement recréer n'importe quelle gamme, notamment les gammes microtonales. Pure data est aussi intéressant pour comprendre et composer de la musique sérielle. Aussi, pure data étant une véritable appli audio , il pourra tout aussi bien gérer la sortie audio et midi de tes instruments, et t'accompagner dans tes compos et impros. L'interface est très déroutante, mais compte tenu du ratio 'potentiel du logiciel/prix', ça mérite le détour. Le seul bémol au regard de ton post original est que pure data ne suffit absolument pas a lui seul à appréhender ce qui fait l'essence de la musique. Sur youtube et autres plateformes tu pourras trouver des sons, des effets et des preuves de concepts proprement hallucinantes réalisées avec pure data, mais les compositions musicales estampillée 100% puredata sont souvent assez fades et décevantes à mon goût.

  • Rochus 2 months ago

    Pure Data is great software, but I don't think it is useful for the OP.

  • fdgjgbdfhgb 2 months ago

    Mec, pourquoi répondre en français ?

taopai 2 months ago

> What I seem to be a slow learner at is reading notes fast (treble and bass clef), and remembering the theory and logic behind the tones.

I recommend taking it slow. Reading music is not different from reading text. You have to get used to it. Don't be afraid to read absurdly slow, and also play that slow. You'll learn double fast!

Also try discovering chords and intervals by yourself. Sit and have fun exploring than in different keys. After that when you get bored do a chord with the left and improvise with the right playing only the belonging to the chord, that's how I started improvising and it's great!

What I mean is that some time you have to experiment yourself with music to be able to relate and really grasp the theory. They /key/ is to have fun and be curious.

Music theory is great and academic pieces are very important but I recommend you to print music you really like that is below your level so you can play a lot of music to enjoy and give you time to have fun and discover your instrument beyond formal practice.

scarecrowbob 2 months ago

If you are mostly wanting to play written classical music, you might consider just not learning "theory" per se. Much of what you might learn studying theory directly has little application for musicians early in their practice.

My experience (as a practicing musician who works in several generas) is that theory is great when it's explaining things you already kind of understand, and that gaining understanding comes from a lot of playing and performing things other folks have written.

That is, first we learn the music by ear or eye, then we have a feeling for what sounds "right" in some situations, then we find a theoretical explanation for that feeling so we can replicate it quickly.

If you're just wanting to get to where you read faster, more reading is the answer, and lots of sight reading easy material. The more you do this, the more patterns you'll see and the logic of what you're seeing will be easier to understand.

To your question, though, a jump start on "learning theory" can be had by learning to play songs off lead sheets (like the Real Book or (better) the Great Gig Book). This Django book is an example of what I mean:

It may seem daunting and it might seem like if you're just wanting to read faster or learn theory that it's a bad path.

However, the process of learning the chords in a tune, figuring out which inversions work for the progressions, having to figure out a bass line that work, and being able to play with ornamentation can be an excellent playground for generating the kinds of questions that music theory can help answer.

kingrolo 2 months ago

You might like Scaler 2

It isn't really for learning theory but more for wielding it to write chords.

I use it as a VST in Ableton but you can use it standalone.

I also started learning piano as an adult around 6 years ago and have mostly been trying to use it to understand the theory to compose and improvise rather than perform. The more theory I learnt the more bits of Scaler made sense and I think half recognising concepts from Scaler as my piano teacher was explaining them at the piano was a help.

Also one other thing that I want to stress as I see it - some of theory is based on fundamental truths to do with clashing frequencies but also some of it is just trying to put a framework around what we already know sounds good, and the ultimate rule for music I think is, if it sounds good, it is good. Good luck!

lmpdev 2 months ago

I learnt music theory informally from 19-21 so have a "mature student" perspective

I'm not a musician but can happily converse with musicians, play basic piano and bass, as well as use any DAW

For properly learning music theory the best approach IMO is learning to grok the Piano

The layout of 88 keys and adaptability of the piano will probably always be the best way to truly understand most western music theory concepts

You can explore every major aspect of music theory (rhythm, melody and harmony) in a very deep but approachable way

Beyond sight reading I'd pick up a fake book of basic lead sheets (I personally love The Real Book)

The biggest breakthrough for me was practicing as many extended chord voicings (inverting chords that have more than three notes) so you can begin to feel what music theory concepts work in different musical contexts

Music theory are tools for the toolbox, you can augment them and create truly novel works over time

JoeDaDude 2 months ago

The generally accepted way to learn music reading is to use the mnemonics like FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine for the treble clef. So, basically, you need memorization with drilling to get you to associate the lines and spaces with notes.

But there is an alternate method [1] in which you learn a small number of reference lines and spaces, and learn the remainder as being separated by so many steps up or down from the references. You'll still need to drill and practice, but maybe this will feel more natural to you. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I used the mnemonics for a very long time and still made occasional dumb mistakes, but then I used the reference notes method and noticeably improved my sight reading.


gspencley 2 months ago

It sounds like when you say "theory" what you mean is sight-reading. I'm not aware of any tools but there must be lots of options online. I learned from books and it's just a matter of practice.

There are lot of music theory books that I can recommend, but it sounds like your class has you covered. Sight reading is like learning to read a spoken language. You just need to do it every single day and it will come with time.

If anyone else is interested in books that I would recommend for theory:

- Elementary Rudiments of Music by Barbara Wharram (a good intro book)

- The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine (this is my "theory bible" and, despite the title, is not limited at all to only jazz music)

tastysandwich 2 months ago

Other than just "playing", two super important things to practice are ear training and transcribing. They both reinforce each other and improve every aspect of your musical abilities, including understanding of theory.

For ear training (eg intervals), I use the Perfect Ear app. [1]

For transcribing, I use software called "Transcribe!" [2]. You can repeat specific parts of a song, and also slow it down without altering the pitch (known as "time stretching").

You can also use Audacity for transcription but Transcribe! does tend to be a bit easier to use.

  - [1]
  - [2]
patchorang 2 months ago

I’m in a similar situation to you. I could never keep my chords types straight, so I built

  • bajsejohannes 2 months ago

    Nice. I built something similar. Apart from mine being much less polished, I also didn't include the keyboard; just the name of the chord. That way I could practice the chord shapes that I had learned (or look them up if I forgot).

    With the keyboard there, I feel like I'm practicing copying that, instead of learning the chords. Especially with the timer ticking. I'd be curious to hear about your reasons for putting it there. Possibly your goal is very different from mine.

gregjotau 3 months ago

I would recommend using something like and practicing ear training mostly. I played a lot of classical music when I was 14-15, my biggest regret is not focusing more on ear training :)

I made a (bad) video about interval recognition and how you can map to songs:

In addition to, I have used the functional ear trainer app and seen good results.

jb1991 2 months ago

For adults, the best way to learn to play piano and understand music theory is just to do it with a children’s piano book. I have a few friends that do this, and you learn everything at once, the way you’re supposed to learn it. Read music, train your finger muscles, understand basic theory introduced gradually, and for an adult you can get through the children’s books pretty quickly because you can learn a lot of these concepts more easily.

  • ChatPGT 2 months ago

    I second this, thats exactly how I was taught after my 30s. I play some intermediate tunes quite ok today

byproxy 2 months ago

For a traditional approach to common-practice music theory, I’d very much recommend the lessons at

It basically goes over what you’d expect to learn in the first few semesters of university-level music theory (though, that might’ve changed since my time…).

idontwantthis 2 months ago

I’m using to learn Piano on my own and I love it. Bite sized lessons slowly building up skill and theory at the same time.

seanhunter 2 months ago

The first thing I would say is that music theory is a very broad topic. You're going to have much better results if you study aspects of theory that you then practically apply in your musical life. So if you tend to play a certain style of music, learn the theory that applies to that first.

Eg say you play rock/blues piano (or generally play pop music). You might want to start with learning pentatonic and blues scales, first in the keys of the pieces you play a lot, then in all keys.

Say you like a certain player, you may want to look at a song they wrote/played, try to figure it out, try to understand how it works. So you could for example take apart the chord progression. Try to understand it harmonically, say there's a bit of the song that you like. Try to find other songs with a similiar progression. Then look at the voicings they use. Try to put those voicings into practise in your playing. Look at places you can use similar voicings for different chords.

Since you go to a class make yourself an exercise between classes to find in your normal music examples of the things you did in class.

There are very specific times when things like flashcards are going to be useful. For example, I made myself a deck of flashcards with different one-crotchet rhythmic snippets on them and used to deal myself out random bars of rhythms and then tap them out to improve my rhythm recognition for sight reading.

For theory in the mainstream/classical tradition, I would highly recommend getting the ABRSM guide to music theory by Eric Taylor. It comes in two books, and you can get "workbooks" of examples to just go through. It's a pretty solid intro to the basics and by the time you have done both books you are at the standard of "grade 8" in music theory.

From there, the traditional way to progress is to work on analyzing Bach Chorales (ie get that book which is just all the chorales) and then analyzing other major works from subsequent periods. Studying the chorales is a really excellent intro to most of the harmony that you will encounter until you get to the romantic period, and what I personally did is just work on Jazz harmony after that given that covers Romantic style harmony as well as the things that later 20/21C music does (eg if you can understand Miles you can understand Hindemith pretty much). For Jazz there are two books I would recommend, which are the Jazz Piano book and the Jazz Theory book both by Mark Levine.

  • taffronaut 2 months ago

    I second using ABRSM [1] material, particularly for classical music. It's graded and structured with workbooks (and even online theory exams if you want). ABRSM material and exams are for anyone and recognized for university/conservatoire entry at least in the UK. They start really gently at Grade I.


ToJans 2 months ago

I posted a comment a little while ago [1] where I explained how I started to understand scales etc.

While this might only cover a small part of the spectrum, it might make something "click". #FingersCrossed


rapht 2 months ago

The Beato Book !

  • datpiff 2 months ago

    The Beato Book is pretty bad. Mostly chord diagrams and wikipedia-level summaries.

    • altgeek 2 months ago

      Yeah, well while not bad, I found it to be more of a reference manual.

  • flint 2 months ago

    Rick Beato is the Sal Khan of music theory

kashunstva 2 months ago

While I suppose there are tools (as in software) to support learning music theory; and I’ve seen a few pop up here periodically, I would recommend a graded course in theory. The RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) course used here in Canada is excellent. The books and adjacent materials are widely available. It starts with very rudimentary concepts but by the upper levels ~ 9-10 gets into more advanced harmony and analysis.

I’m a professional collaborative pianist and do some teaching and coaching. There are comments about artist x, y or z not being able to read music, let alone understand theory. True? Plausible, but in some fields of music it’s not optional. There’s evidence that pianists with better theory knowledge are more accurate sight readers. Why? Because it provides information on probabilities about what _should_ come next.

In any case, when I’ve taught theory at this level, I’ve used the RCM materials.

bambax 2 months ago

> What I seem to be a slow learner at is reading notes fast (treble and bass clef)

I made this a couple of months ago to help with learning to read notes:

Hope it helps! ;-)

cadr 2 months ago

I liked the book "Edly's Music Theory for Practical People". It has silly cartoons, and I think it explains things well. But I'd look at a preview or something of it to see if it is your kind of thing.

bondarchuk 2 months ago

Read: Harry Partch - Genesis of a Music. Or: Meyer - The Musician’s Arithmetic.

They explain music based on fundamental acoustic/aural/sonic principles, instead of all the accumulated cruft of western music theory. You first have to understand that the ratio of 3:2 is, after the octave, the maximum consonance that two tones can have, before you can treat it as a "perfect fifth" which is so-and-so many steps on the piano keyboard. They explain that "modulation" is the process of treating identical tones in different senses to go from a context in which one sense is dominant, to a context in which the other sense is dominant.

This is the kind of stuff that you'll probably pick up anyway from standard western music theory, but putting the aural logic front and center is what really made things click for me.

junon 2 months ago

I would imagine the terminology is much the same, actually. Most vocabulary related to music in English is borrowed from Italian, French and German.

Good luck!

vermooten 2 months ago

Tenuto app is my favourite for this. I'm also a new adult learner.

f0ld 2 months ago

You don't have to learn theory to make music. Nobody uses (publically known)theory to make music. Learn to improvise.

  • littlelady 2 months ago

    I agree on your first point, but disagree on your second point. Lots of artists use theory-- jazz musicians use the circle of fifths and their knowledge of chords to give them a framework, from which they can improvise. That means practicing lots of scales, modes, etc, but also practicing licks and such in different keys.

    If you play saxophone, trumpet, etc.. in a band, you'll probably need theory, since you'll need to do some transposing.

    Theory without playing music is lifeless, but theory definitely makes things easier to communicate or understand.

cushpush 2 months ago

Color music theory stickers

HervalFreire 2 months ago

Is there any more universal theory of music that has scientific basis?

They call it theory but it looks to me more like a written music dialect.