How to self-study music theory

MIT OCW has online resources from MIT courses, such as a course syllabus, readings, and assignments. I’ve been following the course 21M.301 Harmony and Counterpoint to self-study music theory. I’m about halfway through, and I’ve learned a lot so far.

This piece is on why I think it’s important to learn music theory, how to learn music theory, and how to approach self-studying a course. I reference music theory as an example, but I hope you can think about this piece in the context of any topic you want to learn.

Why learn music theory?

You can enjoy listening to music and learn to play music without knowing any music theory. However, learning music theory helps you understand music at a deeper level. You can learn to see a song’s structure and see similar patterns between songs. You gain a vocabulary for describing songs, which helps you communicate with other music lovers. Learning music theory has helped me love music more and learn music faster.

When learning music theory, it’s worth thinking about the theoretical concepts and concrete notation in music theory separately. Think of music notation as a tool to help explain theoretical concepts. For written Western music, the notation looks like a bunch of dots, lines, and squiggles. This can be confusing and overwhelming if you haven’t learned to read music before.

You don’t need to learn to read music to get started learning music theory. Instead of starting with notation, first learn the basic theoretical concepts (e.g. what is a pitch, note, chord?). Then, at a high-level, you can think of notation as a way to precisely represent different notes through time. You can learn the details of exactly which pitches and durations are on the page later.

How to learn music theory?

There’s many resources for learning music theory. If you Google “learn music theory”, you will get a lot of options. I think the best choices are online courses. Online courses provide a structured learning framework so lessons can build off previous knowledge. They also include assignments, which are good for hands-on practice. On the other hand, if you’re watching Youtube videos on music theory, there’s often no particular learning order and no opportunities to practice applying concepts you’ve learned.

What course to choose depends on your preferred methods of learning and your musical background. There are several interactive online learning platforms (e.g. Coursera) that offer classes in music theory. If you learn well through watching lecture videos, this could be a good option. However, I prefer reading versus listening as a learning method and find the up-sell reminders on these platforms distracting. This led me to prefer MIT OCW, which provides a reading schedule and has no distractions.

If you’re choosing an online course on music theory, make sure it’s at the appropriate level. The course name is often not that helpful in determining a course’s difficulty. Instead, take a peek at the first lesson of a class. For instance, 21M.301 Harmony and Counterpoint is not a good course for beginners because it assumes proficiency in reading music and playing music - the first reading includes piano sheet music. If you’re looking for a MIT OCW course with fewer prerequisites, see 21M.051 Fundamentals of Music or 21M.065 Introduction to Musical Composition. For me, 21M.301 was the right choice because I had the prerequisites and wanted to learn more about how music fits together.

How to approach self-study?

Once you’ve picked an appropriate course, here’s a framework for how to approach self-study:

  1. Review all required materials.
  2. Create a schedule for yourself.
  3. Understand the scheduled tasks.
  4. Follow your schedule.

Review all required materials

Learning a course is easier if you have all of the required materials. Read the course syllabus to understand what materials are explicitly required (e.g. textbook) as well as any materials that are implicitly required. Then, acquire the materials.

For example, here are all the required materials from the 21M.301 syllabus:

Create a schedule for yourself

Self-studying a course is a big project, so I recommend creating a schedule for yourself. That way, you can pace yourself as you go through the materials. A schedule also helps you break down the problem. If your goal is to read through a textbook, it’s less daunting to approach it by reading a chapter every week.

For example, To create a schedule for 21M.301, I started by looking at the course calendar. I copy-pasted this into Google Sheets and added two columns to track target completion date and completed on date. For reference, here is the schedule I’m using. I also made a revised schedule for 21M.301 based on my experience.

When adding target completion dates, consider:

For example, I targeted learning the course in about 3 months and set a goal of going through 2 rows a week.

Understand the scheduled tasks

Before you start following the schedule, take some time to understand what tasks are involved in the context of self-study. What is the primary way you’ll be learning the material? At a high-level, classes consist of several learning resources: lectures, readings, assignments, exams, and projects.

If you’re self-studying, you may have limited resources. Depending on the class, you may not have lectures to watch or feedback on assignments, exams, and projects. Be prepared to work around these issues. If you don’t have lectures, you can teach yourself by carefully reading the textbook. If you don’t have feedback, you can go over completed assignments and do a self-review.

Follow your schedule

Now all that’s left to do is to follow your schedule. However, even looking at the tasks for one week can be daunting. To approach this, you can further break down the problem. For example, here’s a few techniques for reading a textbook:

As you go through the schedule, don’t worry too much if you temporarily fall behind. Think about why you fell behind and adjust accordingly:


I hope that this piece provides a useful framework to think about learning. The core idea comes from the book Start with Why:

  1. Start with why. Why do you want to learn a topic? It’s useful to write down your reasons here. I want to learn music theory to be a better musician. Maybe you want to learn Spanish for an upcoming trip to Spain.
  2. Think about how. How can you learn a topic? This is where you can find what resources to use and figure out a high-level plan.
  3. Execute the what. This is the nitty-gritty of exactly what you need to do. For self-studying a course, this includes reading the textbook and completing assignments.

Once you learn how to learn, you have a good foundation for acquiring any new skill you’d like.