Having an understanding of music theory means you have the tools needed to compose your own music and better understand and appreciate music in general. With these apps and services, you can learn music theory online and start your own musical journey.
While you don’t have to know anything about music theory to be a good musician or have fun with music, learning theory has many benefits and you don’t need to enroll in music school to study it. It can shape you into a more well-rounded musician, help you learn how to read sheet music, make it easier to compose your own music, and help you comprehend and appreciate the music you listen to every day.
Theory can help you understand why jazz musicians fear John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, why band Radiohead struggled to play simple chords over a syncopated beat in Videotape, or explain why your snooty musically-inclined friend hates pop songs with a passion. Heck, a knowledge of music theory helped classical composer Mozart debase Salieri, his rival, in front of their peers in the movie Amadeus.
What to Look for in Online Music Theory Lessons
Essentially, every piece of music consists of two fundamental things: pitch and rhythm. Learning how these concepts work and build upon themselves is critical to mastering theory. The best courses for learning music theory cover fundamental and advanced concepts alike and use plain language and helpful diagrams or audio examples to teach. Here are the main things you should expect to see in any music theory teaching resource:
- Pitch Training: The best music theory teaching apps and websites should explain what a pitch is, and thoroughly build upon that with topics like scales, intervals, chords, inversions, keys, harmony, modes, and progress naturally towards more advanced pitch elements like seventh chords and Neapolitan chords.
- Rhythm Training: Rhythm helps give shape to notes and determines how long each one lasts. Every program should teach you about all of the durations, rhythmic structures, and tempos, as well as the time signatures that keep things organized. Some programs may even teach you rhythm symbols and values, and have you practice tapping out rhythms and polyrhythms on your own to build your proficiency with them.
- Composition: This builds on both notes and rhythm, putting them together and making music. Good theory courses study proper (and more … creative) composition elements like common progressions and cadences, form, creating a melody and harmonizing it, moving to a different key, and so on. Excellent courses might also cover compositional ideas and techniques used by Impressionist and modern-era composers, orchestration, and other tangential yet still relevant concepts.
- Ear Training: This is exactly what it sounds like, training your musical ear, and it’s a crucial part of learning music theory. In this process, you’ll learn to identify things like intervals, chord types, modulations, and cadences by ear, just from hearing them be played and without looking at your notes. Likewise, some programs may also teach sight-singing, which has you sing a few notes (not an entire song), which helps you improve your accuracy of pitch and rhythm, which in turn improves your understanding of music theory. Understandably, this may seem weird or unnecessary, but it truly goes a long way to helping you quickly identify elements, spot errors, and come up with stronger ideas (like in the Amadeus clip linked above).
- Exercises & Quizzes: Good music theory programs should also provide plentiful opportunities to practice and be tested on what you learn along with each lesson to help cement the concepts in your mind before moving on to the next one. It’ll be beneficial for you to have a physical or virtual keyboard, along with some manuscript paper for jotting notes down during these lessons, and even for experimenting on your own.
Free Video Lessons: Dave Conservatoire
When learning something new, it’s nice to not have to stress about it being expensive. Luckily, the folks running Dave Conservatoire (Free), believe music education should be free for everyone. This site is a great place for beginners to jump in, learn the basics, and work their way up through intermediate-level material. The thing that’s great about Dave Conservatoire is that instead of handing you dry material to read through and figure out on your own, it offers video lessons with a knowledgeable instructor (and a digital keyboard) that do a solid job of explaining concepts and providing helpful examples.
The site even covers additional topics like timbre, articulation, texture, and types of instruments and ensembles. A few lessons include playlists and videos of musical numbers for you to listen to. The only real downsides of the site is that it doesn’t include any exercises or homework, which might make it difficult to retain or apply the material, and it’s only available on the web—there’s no mobile app. Overall, though, it’s a nice place to begin your music theory journey.
Animated and Easy to Use: Theory Lessons
With Theory Lessons ($2.99 for iOS only), you can progress through the 39 lessons first created for musictheory.net in their original animated form. The app has a clean well-organized look and is easy to use. Lessons start with beginner-level topics like “The Staff, Clefs, and Ledger Lines” and “Steps and Accidentals,” and progress up through more advanced lessons like “Seventh Chord Inversions,” “Composing with Minor Scales,” and “Building Neapolitan Chords.”
Each topic in Theory Lessons includes helpful animated diagrams with bullet points underneath covering all relevant information, so it’s easy to reference. The toolbar at the bottom of the screen makes it easy to access settings, adjust the volume, and switch between lessons.
Simple and Thorough Tutorials: Teoria
Teoria (Free) is a simple, straightforward site full of informational resources for teaching yourself music theory. You can jump in with tutorials for reading music, intervals, scales, chords, harmonic functions, and musical forms. Although the lessons themselves feel a bit dry, they are solid and succinct, with plenty of examples in each for you to listen for further clarity. It also has tons of exercises you can follow up each lesson with to put your knowledge to the test, along with plenty of helpful references and articles you can peruse if you have questions or are just wanting to round out your musical knowledge.
For more advanced theorists, Teoria also does a solid job of covering musical forms, from ternary and sonata form to contrapuntal compositional techniques, making it a stellar resource for those interested in becoming the next J.S. Bach. Its only real downside is that it’s only available on the web, not as a mobile app.
Some Knowledge Required: Theory Illustrated
If you happened to learn the basics of theory once upon a time and now want to continue learning, check out Music Theory Illustrated ($2.99 for iOS only). It covers the 10 topics all musicians need to know for composing or improvising music, and is designed to help you learn how to think about music theory elements properly and thoroughly, so you can more quickly see how they relate to each other and how they all fit together comprehensively.
Illustrated covers connecting scales and modes to chords, how the Circle of Fifths works, how to construct chord formulas and create progressions in minor and major keys, and topics relating to modulation and transposition. The app is rich with colorful and informative graphics and charts, which are great for visual learners, but keep in mind it isn’t for beginners.
For Well-Rounded Musicianship: EarMaster 7
EarMaster 7 (starts at $3.99 per month) is a terrific place for beginners to start if they’re looking to study more than just music theory. From ear training and sight singing, to rhythm training and music theory basics, EarMaster has the tools you need to develop critical skills that are essential for every serious musician and aspiring composer to have. It’s available to download on your Mac or PC, on your iPhone or iPad, so make sure you choose the one that works best for your needs.
The program includes a variety of courses, workshops, and exercises for you to work through. There’s detailed statistics and reports to help you track your progress. You can even connect your physical keyboard and microphone to the desktop and cloud versions, or use your device’s microphone along with the virtual keyboard for pitch and rhythm input. While EarMaster covers beginner music theory and would be complementary to weekly instrumental lessons, it isn’t a comprehensive resource for advanced students.
Narrative Infographic-Based Lessons: Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People
If you’ve tried to learn theory on your own without success, you probably found it to be daunting, expansive, and (let’s be honest here) a little boring. However, Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People (Free), takes a slightly more casual approach to teaching you theory, and concepts are generally broken down in simple infographics, making them far more accessible and less intimidating. It’s only available on the web, though, not as an app for your tablet or smartphone, however, you still easily view the PDFs on any device.
You can view these PDF infographics online, or pay to download and print one or all of them for future reference. They bring an element of casual fun to the learning of theory, with simple diagrams, the classic comic book font, and a straightforward tone that cuts out the overwhelming academic feel found in most other resources. The site covers basics up through advanced level topics, including part-writing, harmony, modulation, and seventh chords, so it sets you up to understand how to both analyze and compose music.
A Complete Course: Music Theory Basics & Music Theory Advanced
Patrick Q. Kelly has two apps covering the bulk of what can be learned about note, rhythm, and ear training, spanning fundamentals and low- to mid-advanced material. Music Theory Basics ($7.99) offers a professional and thorough approach to notation, key signatures, intervals, chords, and rhythms, complete with quizzes to ensure that you really understand the material. The app is especially noteworthy for teaching notation and so forth across treble, alto, tenor, and bass clefs; plus, its rhythm quizzes can be customized up to 16 measures long across duple, triple, and complex meters for those who really want to stretch their legs.
Music Theory Advanced ($9.99) picks up where its companion leaves off, helping you hone the same elements first seen in the Basics app, now at an advanced level with added emphasis on ear and rhythm training. Though the apps don’t have much focus on composition, both excel at teaching you the fundamentals needed to jump in and understand compositional theory whenever you’re ready to. Both are available for iPhone and iPad users, as well as on Mac, which you can get on his website.
Best Classroom-Like Experience: Coursera
For many people, learning is associated with a classroom setting complete with a teacher, syllabus, and homework. If that’s what works best for you, check out Coursera‘s (free without certification, $49 with) web-only course “Fundamentals of Music Theory,” taught by several professors together from The University of Edinburgh.
The course is designed for beginners, or perhaps even those with intermediate-level skills who need a refresher, and starts with things like pitch, scales, modes, and chords, and works its way up to functional harmony, inversions, cadences, and sequences. Lessons are in video form, and you’ll have weekly quizzes and readings. You can review your grades from the sidebar and participate in class discussion forums. And of course, once you finish this course, Coursera has tons of other intermediate- and advanced-level courses for composition, music production, songwriting, and more.