I love music theory. Every adult piano student I’ve had the pleasure to teach has asked the same question: “Do you teach piano theory?” Piano theory, more accurately called music theory, explains why music works the way it does. For those curious souls, learning just to play the piano would be an incomplete education without music theory.
Music theory is such an important aspect of learning to play the piano. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language without learning any vocabulary. Learning to play any instrument without learning music theory would be similar. Playing the piano is much easier when you understand how and why everything works the way it does and how the musical elements relate to one another. Learning music theory helps everything fit together.
There are hundreds of thousands of theory resources online. But if you’re like me, you like to have physical, paper pages to study from and to write upon. Writing down the things that you learn helps the brain encode the information. Using the things you learn at the piano further helps to incorporate those information bits into the brain.
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The Best Piano Theory Books
Let’s look at seven really good music theory books and the things that they offer a beginning or continuing student. Here is the list:
- Alfred Adult All-in-one Course, by Amanda Vick Lethco and Morton Manus
- The Jazz Piano Book, by Mark Levine
- Accelerated Piano Adventures for the Older Beginner: Theory Book, by Nancy Faber and Randall Faber
- Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: Complete, by Andrew Surmani, Karen Farnum Surmani, and Morton Manus
- Berklee Music Theory: Book 1, by Paul Schmeling
- Music Theory, 3E (Idiot’s Guides) 3rd Edition
- 5200 Chords: Explained, Illustrated and Alphabetized, by Albert Gamse
Alfred Adult All-in-one Course
I have used this course the most for my adult piano students. This book is actually three books combined into one volume—a lesson book, a theory book, and technic (technique) book. It saves money combining them into a spiral volume and keeps the books together as well.
I like this book, written by Amanda Vick Lethco and Morton Manus, because it presents the material without fuss and in a very linear fashion. It begins with note names, quickly introduces the important theoretical explanations of intervals, and then presents chords for the adult learner.
This book combination is fairly fast-paced without causing the learner to feel rushed.
The book includes plenty of theory, and it also includes many familiar songs that an adult enjoys hearing and learning to play. There is a mixture of pop, folk, and light classical material, as well as a few blues pieces to capture the attention of a beginning learner.
One disadvantage it has, however, is that there are no answers to the theory material provided in this volume. It is ideal for the beginning student who sees a piano teacher once per week, or if the student has someone more advanced who can help them process the material should they encounter difficulties.
The Jazz Piano Book
“Won’t I learn jazz theory at the same time I learn piano theory?” you may ask. The simple answer is: yes and no. Jazz piano uses a great deal of the music theory concepts you would learn from any of these music theory books, PLUS the additional information that jazz musicians need to know. The Jazz Piano Book, by Mark Levine, builds on basic piano theory and quickly introduces important elements of jazz music that a jazz pianist must know to play jazz music.
Utilizing the so-called ‘jazz chords’ gives a piece of music remarkable tone color and texture. This book introduces these jazz chords, such as 7th’s and 9th’s and all their variations. Suspended chords receive a good explanation, as well as how to use these interesting and ‘spicy’ chords. Tritones and tritone substitutions get their share of mention and explanation using excerpts of well-known jazz pieces.
If jazz is your thing and you want to learn how to play it, give serious consideration to this book.
Accelerated Piano Adventures for the Older Beginner: Theory Book
Nancy Faber and Randall Faber wrote this theory book to complement their Accelerated Piano Adventures series of books, which includes the theory book, a lesson book, a technique and artistry book, and a repertoire book of pieces that incorporate the coordinated theory concepts presented in the lesson and theory books.
This is not your mother’s Faber collection. This book series, published in 1998, features updated illustrations and, as the title states, accelerated materials for an older beginner. Colorful enough for an preadolescent and challenging enough for an adult beginner, this book leads a student through the basic elements of music theory. As you move from level to level, the theory offers more complex ideas coupled with the increasingly challenging musical materials in the lesson book.
Some teachers prefer this book series to the Alfred All-In-One Complete. I like the rapid presentation of chords in the Alfred, but I also believe that this Faber series would lend itself better to a student who is trying to teach himself (or herself).
Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: Complete
We’re back to the Alfred publisher again! This book consists of just music theory with practical applications in a combination of three volumes of theory. These three volumes are bound in a spiral binding and cover a huge amount of theory.
Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: Complete manual, written by Andrew Surmani, Karen Farnum Surmani, and Morton Manus, presents many theoretical concepts in ways that I really like and recommend. Some of these concepts include whole steps and half steps, how to build major scales by using a tetrachord formula, chord structures, understanding the circle of 5th’s and why it is so important to become a solid musician, inverted chords, 12-bar blues progressions and so many other important and fascinating theoretical concepts.
Finding a book that covers so many varied musical theory concepts helps save money. This particular book retails for about $35, which may sound like a great deal. However, it is three volumes bound together, which saves the student money and keeps everything in one place.
This book is pure theory and receives very positive reviews. I’m not sure how it would lend itself to a student trying to learn theory on their own. But even if a beginner bought it as a reference book, it would be worth the money and could be an excellent resource, even for someone who employs a piano teacher.
Berklee Music Theory: Book 1
Berklee College of Music is one of the finest music education institutions in the United States. This textbook, Berklee Music Theory: Book 1, by Paul Schmeling, is a surprisingly affordable music theory book written for Berklee’s Music 101 course. The course is available online, so it stands to reason that the textbook was written for the course. I have never seen a course material textbook sell for such a reasonable price, however!
The course itself is pretty pricey at $1,250 for a non-credit course and $1,497 for 3 credits. This theory text is considered by some authorities to be one of the finest music theory texts out there, and it retails for less than $16 through Amazon. I suspect it would cost considerably more at the school’s bookstore, so if this music theory text interests you, shop around before you buy.
This book is Level 1, but keep in mind that it is a college text. So it moves rather quickly through the materials. A CD comes with this text, featuring lessons and examples for listening.
If you want theory materials presented on a college level, this may be the text for you. At $16, it could be a valuable addition to your musical library.
Music Theory, 3E (Idiot’s Guides) 3rd Edition
This book, published by the folks who publish the “Idiot’s Guides” books, also receives good reviews for its clarity of language and presentation of musical theory concepts. Music Theory, 3E (Idiot’s Guides) 3rd Edition, by Michael Miller, begins with the most basic musical concepts and explains them precisely, then proceeds to layer theoretical concepts most logically.
If a student wants to learn to arrange or compose music, this book provides information and examples on those topics. Music Theory 3E is suitable for beginning musicians or experienced musicians trying to upgrade and improve their skills, or even to try their hand at a new skill.
Michael Miller began composing and arranging music at 14 years old. He has written more than 150 non-fiction books, many regarding music and ways to compose and arrange for multiple instruments.
He was accepted into the prestigious Indiana University School of Music, which is not an easy program to gain acceptance. Although this text makes no claim of association with the Indiana University School of Music, I believe that a graduate of its program and its Jazz Studies program could help any musician hone the art/craft of music.
This book retails for about $25, which is a bargain, especially if you wish to learn arranging and composing. This book offers music theory exercises with answers in an appendix and leads a budding musician/composer through the processes of preparing a composition for performance by an orchestra or other musical ensemble.
5200 Chords: Explained, Illustrated and Alphabetized
5200 Chords: Explained, Illustrated and Alphabetized, by Albert Gamse, isn’t exactly a theory book. You’ll find no exercises or simple basic information in this reference-type book. However, it is the largest and best reference book I have ever seen when it comes to chords. Not just piano chords, either; this book includes chords for guitar and ukulele as well.
Published in 1965, I believe this book is no longer in print. You can still find it online, but be careful: the lowest price I have found is $69. The most expensive price? Believe it or not, $1,600. (Don’t pay 1600 dollars for this book!) I bought my copy around 1975 or so. It is bound with a plastic ‘claw’ that allows the book to lie flat.
Of all the theory books I’ve ever seen or used, I believe I have used this book more than any other. My favorite section in this book allows the user to string together random notes and look them up in one of the indexes. The book names the chord produced by those random notes. Amazing!
I have never seen one book so chock full of theory material—useful, practical theory material—for a working musician. As someone who reads music, reads lead sheets with chords, and plays by ear, this has been by far the most useful music book I have possessed over the 55 years I have been a musician.
If you want to learn about chords, how to play them, how to use them in relation to one another, this is a must-have text. It may be expensive, but if you buy it, you’ll be glad you did!
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