How to Use the Best Book for Learning Music Theory

By Sidney Williams

As a PhD student I’m learning ALL OF THE TIME. Whether it’s how astrophysical gas accretes onto a star, or how I can possibly cook effectively on a student budget and a PhD time crunch. Granted, neither of those examples are learning for my hobbies. I want to fix that…at least a little bit. I love music, and I used to be in a cover band which played a couple local shows in high school, but my main downfall was never learning how to compose, or really even how music works. This means that I can alternate pick on my electric guitar at 160 bpm, but I cannot even hope to compose my own riff, let alone a song to put it in. I want to remedy this. I want to learn music theory.

If you have been following along with my articles for BookPeople you’ll have noticed that learning, or drawing inspiration from books is a main focus for me. In fact, doing these articles has made me realize that this view on books makes me a little unusual in the booklovers community. It may seem that even though I could read purely to relax and enjoy, I choose to add even more work to my plate…and although that is true, I find a huge amount of joy in doing so. And as this tendency is a little uncommon in my little booky community, I want to try to display hands-on how I use books. There are tons of books sold at and by BookPeople that you can use to learn new things. I have already showcased popular science, cooking, and even straight up textbooks, but that was all garden variety overview, I don’t want to pull weeds, I want to get into them. So to start that off, I’ll focus on one of my less niche interests: music and how to make it. I will be primarily using Music Theory for Complete Idiots, which can be purchased from us here I’ll also list some other fun books on music at the bottom of the page with the hope that they inspire you to take the plunge and learn with me. 

I don’t have the time to learn my whole music theory book cover to cover, and I assume that you probably don’t either. So, I will set myself an achievable goal. Setting such a goal is often quite difficult, especially when you’re new to a subject. My strategy is to ask myself what I want to gain out of working through the book. For me, I want to learn enough music theory so that I can compose a bit on my guitar. From here, I can try to think through what I’d need for that. I know that I’ll need the very basics, so, what scales, keys, and modes are, additionally, I’ll need to learn something about composition, and a couple guitar specific things. With that in mind, I will work/skim over the first three parts Tones, Rhythms, and Tunes, I’ll also look into the Harmony and Counterpoint section of part 5, and part six Arranging. This is actually a huge number of pages and work. But I am sure as I get further into the project, I will get a better idea of what I actually have to do, and scale down my expectations as needed. Additionally, since this article is really designed to show you my work flow from the book, and not a complete music theory walkthrough, I’m only going to talk about my experience with the Tones section and how I got started.

I find a mixture of visual and written instructions is most helpful for me when learning new things. So first, I’ll find videos for guitar specific theory that I need. I really only want the basics right now, so I’ll choose this video ( to try to get myself to finally learn the fretboard, and this video ( to learn some more about one of my favorite genres: Math Rock. The first of these videos is one that I am going to use every day, whereas the second one is only going to be used near the end of my journey as an icing of sorts on my toolkit. 

With my plan solidified, I started reading and taking notes on my Idiot’s Guide. I did this by physically writing down notes as I read. There have been several studies showing that taking notes helps a lot with retention, so in the spirit of not having to repeat this exercise, I tried my best to take good notes.


Taking good notes for me usually boils down to writing down what I find nonobvious, or what seems to be repeatedly emphasized in the text. Fortunately for me, I already have some idea of what is important in music, so I tried to take notes specifically on things that I had seen a lot but I still didn’t understand. A specific example is the idea of a “music staff” and “clefs”. I took my time (as you can see in the pictures I’ve taken of my notes) to thoroughly explain what each of those terms meant, and what place they had in reading and understanding music.

Another technique I really like utilizing is a sort of “diet Feynman” where I try to develop a concept from the ground up through clear descriptions. An example of this can be seen from my notes when I describe what perfect intervals are (interestingly enough, there’s a robust mathematical backing for this which would be fascinating to explore once I have ingrained the basics a little more). Finally, and probably my biggest note-taking tip: don’t be too thorough. You may notice in my notes that there are a couple of times I wrote out the intervals between the Tonic, Second, Third etc. degree, I felt this was necessary the first couple of times I saw this sort of notation, but the Idiot’s Guide was FILLED with these sort of charts, and although super useful for trying to memorize everything, it would have massively slowed down my reading.


These sort of slowdowns absolutely kill your momentum and can make it where you can only slog through about three pages an hour and that will make it nearly impossible to find the desire to continue. So, don’t over notetake. Only write what is really confusing, or seems to be really integral to the rest of the material (information which is really integral to the material can usually be determined by seeing that it is mentioned over and over again, for example “intervals” in music theory). By being selective with what I wrote down I was able to condense about 50 pages of almost textbook-style book into 6 pages of notes, and I feel like I learned and retained the most vital information. 

Of course, good note-taking can only take you so far. To really ingrain the material, you need to USE it. I am still in this process, but I want to try to start using the information about intervals, the circle of fifths, scales, and modes in my guitar playing, and really practice messing around with these concepts so I can remember them and truly integrate them into my playing. 

In summary, when I pick up a book to learn something, I start by devising a plan and gathering resources, I then start reading while taking (not too thorough) notes, and finally I practice the material that I have taken notes on. What I did not mention above is that you really should break your note-taking into chunks so you can start practicing as early as possible as practice really is what cements the knowledge in your brain. Anyway, I hope that my notes were helpful in providing a basis for music theory, and my advice useful for your own self-teaching adventures!


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Availability: Estimated arrival to store from West coast warehouse: 2 days. From East coast warehouse: 8 to 10 days.
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Music theory doesn’t need to be complicated, and this guide will show you how to make it simple.

Idiot's Guides: Music Theory, Third Edition, is a concise and clear guide that teaches any budding musician or experienced musician how to read musical notation by navigating the basics of reading and composing music. Here’s what you’ll find:

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Published: Twelve - October 26th, 2021

HIP-HOP (AND OTHER THINGS) is about, as it were, rap, but also some other things. It's a smart, fun, funny, insightful book that spends the entirety of its time celebrating what has become the most dominant form of music these past two and a half decades. Tupac is in there. Jay Z is in there. Missy Elliott is in there. Drake is in there.

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