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What Are the Best Tips for Learning Music Theory?

By Anna B. Smith
Updated May 23, 2024
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The best tips for learning music theory are to begin with basic concepts, translate those concepts into more easily recognizable common names, and understand those concepts in practical terms by learning to play a musical instrument. Basic theory lessons can be taught from a textbook for beginners or through online programs. Comparing technical music terms to common words and sounds helps students learn them quickly while providing fun ways to remember each one. Music theory also acts as the foundation for playing and enjoying music, and serves to enhance mastering an instrument.

Individuals interested in learning music theory should begin with basic concepts on which to build future knowledge. Understanding this discipline is similar to learning mathematics. Every note in music is assigned a numerical component that indicates to the musician how long to play a note or hold a rest. The notes are placed within individual segments known as measures where each measure can only hold a predetermined number of note values. Each note and rest value must add up together to equal one whole measure.

Students can find lesson materials online that teach music theory for beginners, and can also order books on the subject from music websites and local book stores. The best resources available for learning music theory will provide areas for the student to duplicate what she has just learned on blank musical staff paper following the introduction of new concepts. For example, if one chapter of the material focuses on understanding quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes, then the end of the chapter should guide the student in drawing several measures that include each type of note in a basic 4/4 time signature. This methodology mirrors math textbooks which provide practice problems that challenge a student to use newly learned problem solving techniques at the end of each new section.

Some students may find it beneficial to assign common names to musical technicalities to help them remember each concept. Music shares a similarity to everyday speech in that they are both rhythmic. Just as music notes have assigned values, so can words be broken down into individual syllables. Most children learn to speak long before they begin learning music theory and can pick up new musical concepts quickly when they are structured within a framework they already understand.

Using syllables and common words to teach note values is one example of translating music into more easily understood terms. One quarter note is equivalent to two eighth notes. A new musician may have difficulty understanding what two eighth notes followed by one quarter note will sound like when rhythmically clapped correct with the hands. They are more likely to be familiar, however, with the word "butterscotch" which, when clapped according to each syllable, will produce a rhythm identical to two eighth notes followed by a quarter note. This type of instruction can be found in some music theory textbooks for beginners.

Learning music theory should be combined with learning to play a musical instrument. The purpose of music theory is to better understand the concepts which guide music, and the way it is written, and the way it is played. Students can take the facts they learn in a theory book and discover their practical application by playing them on a piano, flute, trumpet, or any instrument they prefer. This technique trains the ear to identify musical values based on their roles in different melodies and harmonies. Soon the eye learns to translate two measures of straight sixteenth notes for the mind's ear as a section of music which will be played lively and fast.

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Discussion Comments

By Melonlity — On Feb 21, 2014

Strangely enough, a good, working knowledge of math is also helpful. Knowing how to play an "E chord," for example, is one thing, but understanding how it is built is quite another. Knowing the math behind how various guitar chords are constructed will allow students to understand why they are formed how they are formed and how to build chords of their own.

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