Books on theory and composition

I'm learning music theory and composition on my own at home.  I find that I understand little of the specific technical aspects that composers here talk about.  I learn mostly from books as well as what I pick up here and other online resources.  I'm really drawn to Baroque era music at the moment though I like the complexity of Mahler as well as other Romantic composers.

Some of the books I'm using/learning from are:

1 - The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis (by Clendinning & Marvin) - This is a thick, heavy college level (I think) textbook with workbook and anthology included.  I almost think I would learn better from this if I were in a classroom setting as it is very in depth and technical.  

2 - The Study of Counterpoint (by Johann Fux) - I like that it's written as a conversation between teacher and student, but since it was written in 1725 it doesn't help in understanding it in a modern way.

3 - Counterpoint, the Polyphonic Vocal Style of the 16th Century (by Knudd Jeppesen) - This teaches the same material as Fux, but is written by a modern musician/composer in 1939 who explains it in a much easier to understand way.  

4 - Treatise On Harmony (by Rameau) - This is another book written centuries ago that is tough to follow and extremely detailed.

5 - Modulation (by Max Reger) - Simple as this books look, I'm not at this level yet.

I have several other books about music history as well as several Dover scores and other sheet music collections.  I find that there is no one single book that tells all, but I would like to know if there are any specific books that may be learner friendly for the at-home amateur musician/composer.

Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated. 

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  • Alot of the more recent theoretical texts regarding harmony are basically student-friendly interpretations of Rameau's work, so I'd recommend picking up those (for example, Matthew Shirlaw's The Theory of Harmony, available in its entirety here: ). I'd also recommend Treatise on Instrumentation (sometimes referred to as Treatise on Orchestration) by Hector Berlioz (and later revised by Richard Strauss), published by Dover:

    I also use two highschool/academic level textbooks regarding harmony by Croatian composers Fran Lhotka and Natko Devcic, but I don't believe they have ever been translated to English.

  • Hi there Kevin, I think I can help or atleast share some experience with you! For a while I’ve learned these subjects on my own at home aswell and I’ve tried many different books in the process. The perfect textbook that you can work out on your own sadly doesn’t exist so I’d definetly advise you to get a good (and only a good and enthusiastic) teacher to help you out, to do things together. That said, I did find some good (and not so good) books.


    A good basic overview of everything (definetly recommended):


    Exploring Theory with Practica Musica

    You can order this as a full bound book or as an interactive html manual (all examples contain audio in that case). The language is very clear and leaves little room for misunderstanding. The book can be used in conjuction with Practica Musica (software for ear training and theory including writing counterpoint and fugues) or alone. Again, it works really good alone because of the clear language (so important!).




    Harmony & Voice Leading by Edward Aldwell & Carl Shachter

    This is a good deep clearly written textbook on harmony with audio discs for the examples. However there are sadly no answers given for the excersises (also counts for the workbook that you can buy with it). Still best to work it through with a teacher or someone else to make sure you really understand everything. I like this one the most!


    Tonal Harmony by Stefan Kostka & Dorothy Payne

    This book is badly written leaving a lot of questions unanswered. It doesn’t tell you why or how come things are the way they are. It’s very frustrating to read but a plus about it is it has lotsof excersises with answers so you can sort of deduct the meaning from trying out and reading the answers. Still, I would certainly get another book that really explains things in depth as a supplement since it can be so frustrating when a text is this vague and bland. Also had an optional workbook (without answers) and audio cd’s for the examples.



    (counterpoint is also harmony, just a different approach to it than building with blocks of triads)


    The Study of Counterpoint by Johann Joseph Fux

    This is the book you have and personally I think this is still one of the best texts on counterpoint. It teaches counterpoint beyond modality and I like the way it’s written!


    Counterpoint in Composition by Felix Salzer & Carl Schachter

    I think this is the best book on counterpoint in existence with an extremely well written and in depth text that leaves zero room for misunderstanding but it’s years of study (all of these books are really). It has clear excersises and big long chapters explaining everything down to the smallest details. No answers to the excersises though. I think it’s best not to look for shortcuts or quick methods but to really dedicate to a full deep and rich study!



    Structure & Style by Leon Stein

    This is really the only book on form I have. The quality of the paper itself is really bad but the text is good with excersises and a workbook. It covers everything from song forms to sonata and even a chapter on modern forms in the 20th century. I believe Leon Stein was a student of Schoenberg.




    I think it’s best to work with a teacher! Things are just more fun and become more clear when you work these books through together. Ofcourse even better would be to get yourself applied to a conservatory!


    I think you can learn a lot though on your own from these books and also on the web by trying things out and asking questions.


    Right now I work with a private theory teacher several hours in a row, 1 day in the week. We analyze Bach chorales, Beethoven sonatas, Mahler symphonies, modern pieces by Unsuk Chin and Crumb and more. You could ofcourse also analyze a song by The Beatles or Radiohead – you should especially analyze what you love or what you find interesting! Since I get constant feedback from my teacher and I can ask anything that’s unclear to me I learn faster and deeper than I would from a textbook on my own. We also do composition excersises with a set of rules to try everything out in practice. For example to write a simple song without parallels or a little piece for a band in ABA form. We also do ear training dictations and orchestration!


    Oh! Also, it’s best to preview these books somewhere if possible so you can get an idea if it’s something for you. Often you can preview some pages or even chapters on


    Hope this helps!

  • Thanks Leo & Victor.  I've downloaded the pdf of Shirlaw's Theory of Harmony already.  I'll shop around for others as well.  Dover prints a lot of great books.  You're right, there is no ONE big to learn from.  I've found that if I don't understand a certain topic in one book, another book may explain it differently and I get it.  

  • Hey Kevin, that's exactly what I found too. It's frustrating.

    Also, analyze and imitate your favorite works is some of the most important method of learning!

  • I'm looking for some books to help me study and progress as a composer, I'll check some of these out!

    Any others that could be recommended would be great!

  • I would highly recommend Classical Form, by William Caplin. The subject matter is form focused on Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, but the concepts can be used in many other styles.

  • Thanks Jon.  The more books on hand that I can read and study, the better.

  • I like Kent Kennan's text Counterpoint. It's not too thick, but very solid. His Trumpet Sonata is a great mid 20th Century Sonata as well. Plus, you can't go wrong studying Mahler's scores over and over. I would start with the fourth movement of his 5th Symphony, but save the 4th movement of the 9th for last, it's a beast!

    I just start Schoenberg's A Theory of Harmony, but it is dense, very dense.

    God's Peace,
  • I studied a book of Palestrina motets years ago that was very helpful:

    Ten Four-Part Motets for the Church's Year (Edited and Translated by Alec Harman, Oxford University Press 1964)


    Also, this for sure:

    The String Quartets of Bela Bartok (Boosey & Hawkes, 1945)

  • For 4-part writing, I like to look at Bach's chorales.

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