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The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory…

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory

by Michael Miller

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    The Elements of Music: Melody, Rhythm, and Harmony (Wooden Books) by Dr. Jason Martineau (elenchus)
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Michael Miller

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory

ALPHA Books, Paperback, [2005].

4to. xxii+314 pp. Second Edition. Introduction by the author [xvi-xxii]. Forewords by Harry Miedema [xiii+xiv]. Includes "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, Second Edition, Ear Training Course" CD.

This edition first published, 2005.

Contents at a Glance

Part 1: Tones
1. Pitches and Clefs
2. Intervals
3. Scales
4. Major and Minor Keys

Part 2: Rhythms
5. Note Values and Basic Notation
6. Time Signatures
7. Tempo, Dynamics, and Navigation

Part 3: Tunes
8. Melodies
9. Chords
10. Chord Progressions
11. Phrases and Form

Part 4: Accompanying
12. Transcribing What You Hear
13. Accompanying Melodies
14. Transposing to Other Keys

Part 5: Embellishing
15. Harmony and Counterpoint
16. Chord Substitutions and Turnarounds
17. Special Notation

Part 6: Arranging
18. Composing and Arranging for Voices and Instruments
19. Lead Sheets and Scores
20. Performing Your Music

A: The Complete Idiot’s Music Glossary
B: The Complete Idiot’s Chord Reference
C: Answers to Chapter Exercises
D: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, Second Edition, Ear Training Course CD



It's all Deryck Cooke's fault! He has proven a far greater inspirational force than I bargained for. After reading and re-reading I don't know how many times his masterpiece The Language of Music (1959), I have reached the conclusion that my complete ignorance of music theory is intolerable. Of course it is not essential for enjoying music to the full. Or so I keep repeating to myself. And yet! And yet it's galling to know nothing of the internal organization of something that affects you profoundly.

What is one to do when one needs a basic introduction to a subject one hasn't the least idea of? I can tell you what I do: the easiest thing. I go to Amazon and order the most highly rated and most favourably reviewed volume on the subject. In cases of specialized non-fiction, this is usually a disappointment-proof method. So is the case with Michael Miller's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory. I am now pleased to join the wealth of Amazonian praise lavished on this book. It is fully deserved.

If you are a "complete idiot" when it comes to music theory, which of course you should be if you're going to read this book, you needn't worry at all. The title of the series (there are hundreds of these guides out there) is spot on. The book starts with definitions of the very basics - pitch, intervals, major and minor scales, indeed music itself - and gradually becomes more and more complex, finally ending with writing full orchestral scores with Sibelius (the software, not the composer). Of course this is but a mere introduction to a vast and very complex subject. But for perfect beginners it does look quite comprehensive.

Perhaps it is best first to clear a naughty misunderstanding that creeps in some reviews. This is not a book about music itself, its history and diversity, its emotional impact or its mystery, the way it communicates the feelings of a composer to a receptive listener - all this, and much more, you can find in Deryck Cooke's The Language of Music. Michael Miller's book is a guide to music theory. It discusses the formal organization of music, the ways to write it down on paper in the form of highly specialized notation; it offers some tips how to manipulate it and even how to compose it. But this is no philosophical treatise, nor is it a history of music. Mr Miller makes this perfectly clear in the very beginning:

There are lots of different definitions of the word "music", some more poetic than practical. For example, William Shakespeare called music the "food of love", George Bernard Shaw called music the "brandy of the damned", and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz called music "sounding mathematics".

Interesting definitions all,
but not really what we're looking for here.
[My emphasis!]

But first things first. Why bother with music theory? Excellent question. There are two basic reasons.

(1) You are an aspiring musician. Even in this case it is not obligatory that you should be able to read music. The legendary Italian bass Ezio Pinza reportedly couldn't and had to learn his parts by ear, but that didn't prevent him from becoming one of the greatest stars of the New York Metropolitan Opera during the 1940s. It is most probably true that if you have perfect pitch, impeccable sense of rhythm and natural aptitude for playing an instrument - in short, innate musicality - you can afford to sneer at those hieroglyphs that "learned" musicians boast with. On the other hand, if you are a bit short of those precious qualities, or if you are a budding composer who's not quite on speaking terms with his Inspiration, solid knowledge of music theory may actually go quite a long way to compensate for those deficiencies. It can make you a decent if far from great composer, and an excellent all-round musician without being brilliant in any given department.

(2) You are a passionate music lover who is intensely curious how music is organized in theory and transmitted in practice. Of that company am I. The highly speculative paragraph above I wrote as an outsider. But in this one I speak as an insider. Whether knowledge of music theory would improve your appreciation of the music you love is, at best, extremely debatable. Probably it won't. And it certainly won't create appreciation where it is lacking, for this is basically an emotional phenomenon; no amount of knowledge can substitute for that. So we are left with sheer curiosity - and that's generally the best reason for doing anything.

Michael Miller has, however, supplied a third reason why we should bother with music theory. And it is a very fine reason indeed, maybe the best one after curiosity. It is so much fun! You find this hard to believe? So did I. Yet it has turned out to be true. Which is not to say that the subject is easy and can be dealt with without mental exertion. It is nothing of the sort. Yet it is fun.

As an ordinary music lover who has no ambitions to perform music on more than embarrassingly amateurish level, let alone arrange or compose, I have found the first three parts of the book much more stimulating than the second half. The latter, as you can tell from the contents, is more suitable for would-be musicians (although it does contain a number of fascinating details for the theorist as well, e.g. harmony and counterpoint). Let me try to explain why I have found the basics of music theory, as discussed by Mr Miller in this book, to be highly entertaining.

Take for example the so-called scales, a subject, by the way, directly related to the not unimportant keys. What is that strange animal "the C major scale" that you now and then hear about? It's really very simple. Go to the piano, sit down, choose one of the groups that contain two black and three white keys, and press the white key to the left. This is a C, a specific note with a specific pitch which is marked with a specific letter from the alphabet. (Music is a strange art indeed: quasi-mathematical yet capable of unimaginable emotional depths!) Now simply press one after another the seven white keys to the right of your favourite C. You will get a very nice row of notes (letters) that is but for one disruption in alphabetical order, and it looks like that:


And there you have it: the C major scale! The second C is the same note as the first one, but it's an octave (eight tones) higher.

(As you might have guessed already, it's very convenient to have some kind of instrument handy. Keyboard is perfect for the purpose; and you don't need a concert grand, not even an upright piano; the cheapest synthesizer with but a few octaves will do very nicely. So will an acoustic guitar, although this is - at least for me - a bit more confusing. But even with no instrument around, you can still have lots of fun with music theory.)

There is one very funny thing about scales: each major one corresponds to a certain minor one. How do you convert the one into the other? Quite easily indeed. For example, simply take the sixth note of the C major scale as counted from left to right - that is, A - and press again the next seven white keys to the right of this note. You will get another nice row of letters, this time even more perfectly arranged in alphabetical order:


This is the A minor scale. Like any other scale, it consists of eight successive notes, the two end ones being the same note with one octave between them. And what do you notice? Yes, that's absolutely right. How observant you are! The A minor scale contains exactly the same notes as the C major one! Only their order is different, of course.

If you are a "complete idiot" in terms of music theory, I can assure you that C major and A minor will be your two favourite scales for quite some time. Guess why? Yep, that's correct. Because they are the only two scales you can play on the piano using only the white keys. When the black ones come into play, the things become much more complicated - and much more fascinating.

Here is the first glimpse how utterly strange the whole system of Western music is. Each of these groups of twelve keys on the piano - seven white and five black between them - comprises one octave. For some (at least to me so far) obscure reason it is separated into twelve half-tones, or semitones. This means that the interval between each two white keys with a black one in between is one tone. But there are in each octave two anomalies - between E and F, and between B and C (of the next octave) - where the difference is a semitone: no black keys in between.

This is where the well-known, but generally cryptic, signs "sharp" and "flat" become really important - and no longer cryptic at all. The "sharp" (#) "sharpens" a note, that is it raises its pitch with a semitone. The "flat" (something like "b") "flattens" a note, that is it lowers its pitch with a semitone. Take a look at the C major and the A minor scales again, as they are on the piano, and note (pun intended) what intervals there are between each of their notes; use "2" for a whole tone and "1" for a semitone. You will get something like that:

C Major => C (2) D (2) E (1) F (2) G (2) A (2) B (1) C
A minor => A (2) B (1) C (2) D (2) E (1) F (2) G (2) A

The amazing thing is that these two sequences of intervals are valid for all major and minor scales:

Major => 2 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 2 - 1
minor => 2 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 2

Everybody has heard - and most probably felt, without knowing it - about the antithesis between major (joyful) and minor (sad). But did you know that it is a mere semitone that makes the whole difference. So it seems that Sainte-Beuve and Maugham were quite right when they claimed that "Only a trembling of a leaf separates the extreme joy and the extreme despair."

Play both scales and see - I mean, hear - how different in mood they sound. Why this should be so is a tough psychological issue. It's probably rooted in our Western unconscious since the dawn of tonality sometime during the Middle Ages.

(You can hear the difference with chords, too. Go to your favourite C again, press it simultaneously with the third and the fifth white key to the right, and there you have it: the C major chord (C-E-G). How do you get the C minor one? Just lower the second note with a semitone: C-Eb-G. Hear the difference? But one note was lowered with a mere semitone, yet the whole chord sounds "depressed", "sad", "melancholy", in any case rather different than its major counterpart.)

As I've said above, the amazing thing is that those sequences of intervals are absolutely the same for all major and minor scales. The only difference is where you start: this first, lowest and name-giving note is called "root". Then just play in ascending order, keeping the exact intervals, and you get the corresponding, say, major scale. Then start from the sixth note of this scale, play according to the other sequence of intervals, and you will get the related minor scale. You will be astounded to notice that both scales contain absolutely the same notes. Of course the order is different. And thanks to the imperfections of our (Western) ideas of octave separation, so are the sound and the mood of these scales. You don't have to believe me. Just play with some related scales, first on paper and then on the keyboard. For instance (omitting intervals for the sake of clarity):

D Major => D E F# G A B C# D
B minor => B C# D E F# G A B

E-flat Major => Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
C minor = > C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

F major => F G A Bb C D E F
D minor => D E F G A Bb C D

(Just to remember: # = sharp = 1/2 tone up; b = flat = 1/2 tone down.)

Do you find all this incredibly fascinating and a huge fun to play with? If yes, by all means do get Michael Miller's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory. There is a great deal more in it about modes, chords, chord progressions, perfect intervals, augmented and diminished intervals, accidentals, enharmonics, time, tempo, etc., etc., how all this is written on paper and how to work with it. Not all of it has the same degree of fun as the scales, I admit. But most of it really does.

So next time when somebody tries to impress you with modulation (change between keys) from E major to F major, you can tell him to go and shoot himself. You very well know that the difference between these two keys is only a semitone, so modulation is no big deal. And if somebody tells you that the C major and A minor scales are only partly related, you may tell him you are quite aware of that. Of course A minor is only the natural minor that's related to C major. There are also harmonic and melodic minor, you knew that stuff when the other guy was back in the kindergarten.

But leaving aside foolish showing-off, how can you really benefit from music theory? Truth to tell, I don't know. I can tell how I have benefited so far, perhaps not insignificantly considering that our relationship has just started. In short, I am ready to re-read The Language of Music yet again – but this time with a difference. For now I know many new things and the whole picture, I'm quite sure, will be far more coherent and revealing. In his magnum opus Deryck did strive for as wide a reading public as possible, but he naturally didn't have much time to discuss the basics of music theory and thus he assumed that his readers would have at least some background.

Now I know, for instance, what exactly all these major and minor seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths are. I also know why fourths are common to both the minor and major scale. I know why augmented fourth is the same thing as diminished fifth. I am much more familiar with terms like tonic, dominant, subdominant. I have a much better idea of chromatic scales.

All this will doubtless improve my understanding of Deryck's book. Parts I have all but skimmed before will now receive a great deal of attention. The only things in the countless musical examples that I paid any attention to were names of composers, years of composition, texts, instrumentation. But now I can actually look at the notes themselves.

Now back to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory.

I have tried above, rather pathetically, to imitate Michael Miller in order to give you some vague idea of his informal, chatty and charming writing style. True, sometimes he does take his readers for slightly bigger idiots than they are. What's bigger than "complete"? Well, "see those eighth notes, now do the math again, and what do you get - right - sixteenth notes" - things like that. But even in these fairly rare instances he never becomes obnoxious. It goes without saying, but nonetheless should be pointed out, that he writes with great clarity and precision, often enlivened by great sense of humour. The latter may not be the most subtle kind imaginable, but it's definitely hilarious. To give but one example, you should center the melody you're composing on a certain pitch, because:

You don't want your melodies wandering around all over the place, like a dog looking for a place to do his business.

This doesn't mean that the book is a light read. It means that it is perfectly comprehensible even for those who are completely ignorant of music theory - or at least were before they opened the book. I know because I am - I was - one.

The layout is also very nicely done. The font is eye-friendly, the titles of the numerous sections within each chapter prominent enough to attract your attention, all musical examples big enough and with generous "waste of space" so that you don't need to ruin your eyes while trying to discern all those sharps, flats, double sharps, double flats, rests, fermatas and what not. In the margins there often are helpful boxes like "Tip", "Definition", "Note"; the last ones are often big enough to spread the whole width of the page. All these boxes do repay careful reading.

Several charming examples. The bass clef is pronounced like "base", not like the fish. (That's also important vice versa, in case you try to buy one "base" on the fish market.) Although throughout the book Mr Miller uses the phrases "whole step" and "half step" for the intervals, he is kind enough to inform his reader that in some parts of the world these are substituted with "tone" and "semitone", respectively. Last and most charming of all, in the beginning of the section about harmony and counterpoint he points out that the present discussion is from a popular perspective, and that classical musicians usually discuss the same matter in a more formal way.

Speaking of this thorny separation - classical and popular - I am pleased to report that Mr Miller is no musical snob. He talks about and refers to all music: classical, pop, rock, jazz, blues, even world music on occasion. Then again, he lays great stress on melody and I wonder how he would appreciate hip-hop. Never mind. The complete lack of idiotic musical snobbishness is very inspring indeed. All too often have I encountered those "connoisseur of classical music" who have raised contempt and conceit to unheard-of heights. And I've met some, though fewer, hard-rock and heavy-metal afficionados who have tried to convince me that classical music is rubbish. And I've met those keen on arguing who/what is better than whom/what: Mozart than Beethoven, Horowitz than Richter, the piano than the violin, classical than jazz.

This is all tosh. Extending Oscar Wilde's famous epigram to the "sounding mathematics" (Leibnitz), we may safely say that music is good and bad. That is all. And the thick blood-red line in between is, for better or for worse, intensely personal.

Although the text is confined to Western music only, occasionally Mr Miller has some interesting bits about peculiar types of music from other parts of the world. For instance, at one place he mentions that some types of Indian music separate the octave to as many as 22 intervals, most of them roughly twice shorter than our semitone. Imagine that! Twelve semitones are already quite complicated. But 22! And how do you hear a difference of quarter of a tone?

Each part has useful exercises in the end. Here you can practice – provided that you don't cheat by looking at the answers in the end of the book – what you have just learned. There is also a nearly 70-mimutes long CD on which Michael Miller himself instructs you how to listen actively and sharpen your ears. As far as the book is concerned physically, a quarto paperback is not the most convenient thing to handle, but this one is fairly light and easy to hold.

Last and least, I of course have several complaints, all of them minor and perfectly excusable.

Sometimes the book can seem a little rushed and perfunctory, giving too much bare theory without any examples whatsoever. Indeed, Mr Miller uses very few examples, mostly ''Mary Had a Little Lamb'', ''Michael, Row the Boat Ashore'', Minuet in G by Bach, Canon in D by Pachelbel, and a theme from Dvorak's New World Symphony (which he doesn't identify clearly; it's quite an ordeal for the ''complete idiot'' to do that by the notes only). This is of course to be expected. In such type of basic manual the author has absolutely no time to give you examples of each and every note, chord, scale he mentions; it's enough to show how it looks on the staff. Much less is there space to talk about the contrapuntal genius of Bach, the melodic fecundity of Schubert, or the harmonic inventiveness of Liszt.

There are some instances where cross-references or additional symbols would have been beneficial to the "complete idiot". My favourite scales again present an apt example. Cross-references with the tables in which all corresponding keys - and their signatures - are listed would have been great for getting used to how they actually look not just on an isolated staff but as integral part of a score. The same goes for the letters of all those notes that form the scales; in most cases these are not given. They, too, would have made it much easier to know without endless counting which note on/between which line(s) is. But these are things the "complete idiot" can easily fix with a pencil (while doing the exercises in the end of each chapter, for example).

The only other drawback I can think of is that Mr Miller never mentions the German way of describing keys. Germans always insist on doing everything in their own way. So they have invented words that are unique for the German-speaking world (a small world, at any rate). In all major European languages the words for ''major'' and ''minor'' are recognizably similar: maggiore, majeur, mayor; minore, mineur, menor. Not in German, though. Here you have ''Dur'' (major) and ''Moll'' (minor). To make it even more complicated, even one note is marked with different letter (B becomes h). So if you want to say that some great masterpiece (e.g. Liszt's Sonata or Bach's Mass) is in B minor, in German you say that the piece is in ''h-Moll''. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Oct 24, 2012 |
Nice book for those who know nothing about music theory and a great refresher for those of us who have forgotten most of what we learned during those dreaded music lessons when we were kids.

I used this to brush up on my theory before I tackled the book on music composition. ( )
1 vote Canadian_Down_Under | Oct 27, 2011 |
I wanted a book that assumed I knew nothing, but in doing so also assumed I could understand (and am interested to know) any nuance or complication in theory -- and proceeds accordingly. This book does that. It appears also to be geared to musicians, which I respect but does not apply to me, so the exercises (which involve memorising and/or recognising scales, notes, key signatures, and so forth) are pretty useless.

What I find instead of a workbook is a systematic explanation of the basic framework of Western twelve-tone scales. Pretty much every page I find an "aha!" insight, such as: each minor key uses the identical notes from a major key, only the minor key begins with the 6th note of the major key's scale. Ah! -- that gives me some insight into why the minor feels different, yet retains a connection to the overall system. After all, without a system, what makes a "key"? Why not simply pick a random set of 8 (or is it 12?) ascending notes? (Answer: that would be a mode, which preceded scales and upon which scales are based.) This book helps make head and tails of such questions as these, though often I must read between the lines to get at my answer.

The accompanying CD fits in with the exercises, which is to say: not terribly useful to me. ( )
1 vote elenchus | Feb 9, 2009 |
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Solfeggio is a method of naming musical tones using a set of syllables - do, re, mi, and so on.  These syllables come from the initial syllables of the first six words to the Hymn to St. John; the seventh syllable (Ti) is derived from the St. John, in Latin. [7]
Solfeggio and methods of naming tones by number are relative; two people might call two different pitches  "Do", so fixed systems are used.  "The accepted way of naming specific musical itches uses the first seven letters of the alphabet.  [8]
Scientific pitch notation puts a number after the letter (e.g. C1 as lowest on grand piano) to designate which octave is meant. [9]
On a keyboard: F is the white key before the set of 3 black keys; C is the white key before the set of 2 black keys (C and 2 are lower in the alphabet / number line, F and 3 are higher). [9]
The lines you add above or below a staff are called ledger lines. [11]
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0028643771, Paperback)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory breaks down a difficult subject in a simple way-even for those who think they have no rhythm or consider themselves tone deaf. With clear, concise language, it explains everything from bass-clef basics to confusing codas.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:22 -0400)

Explains the technical fundamentals of musical terminology, concepts, and principles; offers musical examples of scales, chords, intervals, and rhythms; and provides aural exercises for ear training and transcription skills.

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