Ben Burnes: How I Learned Music Theory

How I Learned Music Theory

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Two years ago, I decided to finally buckle down and actually learn the basics of music theory. For over a decade, I had been writing music by “feel” rather by implementing any kind of knowledge about my process. While that method worked, it often led to frustration and extremely long spans of time picking at notes on a keyboard trying to get the progression and mood that I wanted.

Learning music theory can be scary. It seems that you could spend your entire life studying music theory and still not know everything. There is so much information out there and it’s difficult to sift through it. I wanted to explore and explain my process of learning in the hopes that it will help others start their own journey.

I should preface the rest of this by saying that I am by no means an expert. All of my study has been self-directed, which means that it took longer and is probably not as comprehensive as formal classes on the subject. If you find ways to streamline this process or know of resources I didn’t mention, please let me know in the comments and I’ll work on adding them.

Many people question why it is so important to know music theory, especially if they are already successfully writing music without it. Depending on the type of music you write, knowing theory certainly isn’t necessary. However, knowing music theory can be an incredibly versatile tool in your music writing arsenal.

Also, when referring to music theory, people tend to think it refers specifically to harmonic theory, which focuses on the harmonic and melodic aspects of writing music. However, it’s difficult to teach harmonic theory without a basic understanding of music theory as a whole.

I can only speak from personal experience, but when I started grasping even basic concepts of theory many things changed for me. I was able to produce music much less hesitation. I went from throwing away 90% of my song ideas to only maybe 10%. I knew how to spice up boring sections of songs. I was even able to sketch out complete songs very quickly.

This was because I understood how music worked on a more fundamental level rather than feeling around in the dark for what I wanted. Before learning theory, I knew what I wanted to write in my head, but I simply didn’t have the tools to translate the music I imagined into reality on my computer.

One of the biggest arguments against learning music theory is that it will kill your creativity and yes, I admit that can certainly be true. Much like any set of rules, this limitation stems from relying too much on theory and not enough on your own creativity and intuition. If you learn theory and then only apply what you learn, offering no personal creative input, your music will end up bland and dull. The secret to using music theory is learning to only apply it when you want or need to.

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Starting out

The start of my journey began by borrowing some books. Specifically The Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory as well as Music Theory for Dummies. These books both have a lot of overlap with each other, but it seems that the shortcomings of one book is often detailed pretty well by the other.

I read both these books and followed along on my tiny MIDI keyboard. Having access to a piano or MIDI device is exceptionally helpful in understanding how everything is related because it can give you immediate feedback.

During this time I was also supplementing my knowledge by browsing through  MusicTheory.net and their free online content. This helped reinforce knowledge from the books with more interactive examples.

At this stage, most music theory lessons are about reading and writing sheet music. Much like learning any language, it can be frustrating and difficult. However, even though you may never play a song through sheet music, having this fundamental understanding of how to talk the language of music is absolutely vital in not only learning more advanced techniques, but collaborating with other musicians.

There is also a book entitled Music Theory for the Computer Musician which does a great job at teaching the basics without going too heavy into the sheet music side of things. EDMProd.com also has a series of articles called Music Theory: The TL;DR Version, which are brief, but detailed. Think of these like learning how to speak a language, but not write in it.

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Digging In

After better understanding the fundamentals of the language of music, I was able to take on some of the more advanced classes available. I spent a considerable amount of time on Coursera.org with the music programs they have available:

I started with Introduction to Music Production, which didn’t really talk about music theory that much, but was still incredibly helpful. The course explains how to get your studio set up, ready to write and record music. It also goes into great detail about how both digital and analog sound works along with sound effects like chorus, EQ, and reverb.

I then attended a class called Developing Your Musicianship, which focuses both on basic music theory as well as ear training. This course is incredibly friendly and accessible. This is also where I discovered how important ear training can be.

The final class I attended was Fundamentals of Music Theory, which did an great job instructing students at an aggressive, but not overwhelming pace. Each week is taught by a different instructor, which offers variety between weeks.

While browsing reddit’s /r/musictheory for various things to learn, I also discovered a huge repository of wonderfully designed PDF files that cover all aspects of music theory. They worked as a great supplement if I was searching for information on a specific topic and musictheory.net didn’t shed as much light as I’d like.

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Honing Knowledge

After learning how important ear training was, I become obsessed with Hooktheory.com, specifically Hooktheory’s daily ear training challenge. I did the beginner challenge every morning until I was able to get 100% accuracy every time. After that, I did both the beginner and intermediate challenge for several months. This approach helped me learn chord progressions and intervals much better than simply reading about them.

I also spent a lot of time on YouTube searching for various videos on music theory. While the content and accuracy of YouTube channels can vary wildly, there is still tons of information out there. This video on major and minor scales blew my mind at the time.

Then, it is a lot of practice. I sat down at a piano nearly every day and applied what I learned. Being self-taught, there really isn’t any kind of homework in the traditional sense, so you have to be diligent with yourself. Don’t just accumulate all this knowledge without actually applying it. Repetition is very important.

Finally, make music! Especially bad music! As long as you sit down and use what you learned. Over time, you will understand how things fit together and make connections on how to make your music deeper and more interesting. After all, this knowledge is useless without the wisdom to know when to apply it.


I hope this guide helped get people off the ground. It is by no means an extensive list of the resources available, just a map of my own path. If you are thinking about starting to learn music theory and have questions, do not hesitate to ask. Likewise, if you are a veteran and have corrections or want to include more resources, please let me know and I’ll check them out!

You can reach me on Twitter @ben_burnes

– Reblogged with permision from Ben Burnes @ abstractionmusic.com

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