The 10 Best Music Theory Books | Top 10 Music Theory Books

Posted by Grant Patten on Sep 28, 2020 7:29:32 AM

The 10 Best Music Theory Books | Top 10 Music Theory Books

Let’s review Front Row’s top 10 music theory books. We’ll discuss:

(in no particular order)

  1. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
  2. How Music Works
  3. The Study of Counterpoint
  4. Hooktheory
  5. Silence: Lectures and Writings
  6. The Joy of Music
  7. Tonal Harmony with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music
  8. Harmonic Experience
  9. Theory of Harmony
  10. Music Theory for Computer Musicians


Musicophilia book cover1. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain | Best Music Theory Books

This interesting crossover of music and neuroscience – Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain [Amazon Link] – was a bestseller. Written by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition.

One user’s comment (Noman) on Amazon: “An eye opener into the world of music therapy, and a thoughtful work expressing the benefits of music with respect to neurology and neurological disease.”


How music works book cover2. How Music Works | Best Music Theory Books

How Music Works [Amazon Link] by famed Talking Heads singer David Byrne is a creative exploration of the musical art form and how music can be so powerful.

There are chapters on how technology (both analog and digital) shapes music, the power of curation, and the anthropology of music, among others.

One user’s comment (Michael) on Amazon: “As the book progresses, Byrne explains much about the technical processes involved in recording music and the business side of music.”


Counterpoint book cover3. The Study of Counterpoint

Many of the greatest composers, including Bach, have benefited from this classic [Amazon Link] – first published in 1725, and its concepts are still relevant to the modern musician.

This book explains in detail the concept of counterpoint (a melody played in conjunction with another).

Counterpoint techniques and rules are explained with clarity, and succinctly, as the book is a slim 160 pages. The book has a straightforward, analytic style.


Hooktheory book cover4. Hooktheory 

Hooktheory I: Music Theory [Amazon Link] describes itself as “an intuitive, modern take on music theory.” Examples are drawn from popular songs you have likely heard on the radio.

Chapters include “The building blocks of music”, harmony, melody, and inversions. The book includes skill-building exercises with an easy-to-understand music format that is an improvement on sheet music.

Anyone interested in music theory and writing songs should also check out the Hooktheory site.


Silence book cover5. Silence | Best Music Theory Books

Silence: Lectures and Writings [Amazon Link] by the revered experimental composer John Cage has influenced the thinking of many musicians since the book’s publication in 1961. Silence is a collection of essays and lectures Cage wrote during the period from ‘39 to ‘61.

Cage can perhaps be a bit inscrutable at times, but his ideas have remained important, especially his emphasis on the intelligent use of silence to create the perfect melody.

One user’s (SH) Amazon comment: “Even if you don't like Cage's music, reading this book will give you insights into what he did that may change your mind or at least instill a newfound respect.”


Joy of music book cover6. The Joy of Music | Best Music Theory Books

American composer Leonard Bernstein’s first book, The Joy of Music [Amazon Link], abandons the traditional academic style of books on classical music. The initial chapters are cast in the style of conversations about music between Bernstein and several imaginary people.

There are chapters on jazz, musical comedy, Bach, opera, and more.

One user’s (Tobin) comment on Amazon: “If you can't read music, you would enjoy getting CDs of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Brahms' First Symphony, and Bach's St. Matthew Passion before curling up with this book. It will enhance your enjoyment of Bernstein's exciting descriptions, and will make them come to life.”


Tonal harmony book cover7. Tonal Harmony

Since its publication in 1984, Tonal Harmony [Amazon Link] by Kostka (American music theorist) has been consistently praised for its practicality and ease of use for the practicing musician, music student and instructor alike. This textbook is widely used in music classrooms across the world.

Tonal Harmony contains chapters on the elements of pitch, rhythm, triads, diatonic chords, voice leading, harmonic progression, inversion, cadences, and more.

Now available in McGraw-Hill Education’s Connect® with SmartBook® format (a digital version of the textbook, with interactive exercises and assignments).


Harmonic experience book cover8. Harmonic Experience | Best Music Theory Books

Harmonic Experience [Amazon Link] by W. A. Mathieu (American composer and recording artist) is an exploration of musical harmony from its ancient fundamentals to its most complex modern progressions.

The book contains chapters on octaves, major thirds, harmonic relationships, mixed modes, chromatic pairs, triads, diesis, cadence, and more.

Mathieu’s theory of music reconciles the ancient harmonic system of just intonation with the modern system of twelve-tone temperament.


Theory of harmony book cover9. Theory of Harmony | Best Music Theory Books

Theory of Harmony [Amazon Link] by famed Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg delineates connections between music, theory, art, science, and architecture.

From this one book, one may well learn less about harmony than about form, about aesthetics, even about life. First published in 1948, it remains one of the most influential music theory books.

One user’s comment on Amazon: “This book is the ‘Teach Yourself Person's’ music theory bible. If you take the time to study it properly and reread any sections that seem a bit hazy, it will take you a while to get through it, but your understanding of music and harmony will be incredibly profound.”


Music theory for computer musicians book cover10. Music Theory for Computer Musicians | Best Music Theory Books

Music Theory for Computer Musicians [Amazon Link] is a more modern music theory book that focuses on DJs, electronic music producers and musicians who compose computer music.

The book contains chapters on musical sound, notes, scale, rhythm, score editing, meter, chords, keys, triads, root movement, diatonic modes, intonation, and more.

One user’s comment on Amazon: “Easy to read and a wealth of information. The diagrams of scales are especially useful for quickly coming up with new ideas.”


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