5 free music theory resources for producers

We’ve collected five of the best free music theory resources out there that can help you take your musical knowledge to the next level.

To be clear, when referring to music theory, I’m referring to what Adam Neely calls “the harmonic style of 18th-century European musicians.” There are, in fact, many systems of music theory that relate to various cultures around the world. However, most modern musicians who study music in an institution are indoctrinated in the twelve-tone system of harmony that was made popular by western classical composers. This system is in some ways antiquated and certainly limited when it comes to analyzing and understanding the expansive breadth of modern music, but there are still some basic concepts that are extremely important for producers to understand if they want to expand their musical vocabulary. With that in mind, here are some free music theory resources worth checking out.

1. Ableton’s Learning Music (Beta)

Ableton is the go-to DAW for many producers. However, many people don’t know that on Ableton’s website, there’s an entirely free course that goes over the basics of music production and music theory. Learning Music is a free eight-section series that covers the basics of rhythm, arrangement, notes, scales, chords, melodies, song structure, and more advanced topics. Although the course is taught using Ableton’s design interface, you don’t need the actual program to take the course – everything can be done right on your browser. This course is an extremely helpful resource for beginners who want to learn the basics of music theory as well as production.

2. Soundfly’s Theory for Producers

Soundfly is an amazing site that offers a wide range of online music courses. While many of their courses cost money, there are also a lot of free courses available. The free Theory for Producers course explains the basics of music theory by using popular songs. Unlike most music theory resources, this course is taught using DAWs as opposed to traditional instruments or music notation, focusing almost entirely on the piano roll. Engaging in this experience will provide you with the basics of scales and modes, and how to apply them to your work.

3. Good Ear

For most instrumentalists, ear training (the skill of being able to hear and identify musical structures without the assistance of an instrument) is an essential part of being able to perform with other musicians. If you’re on the bandstand and someone changes the harmonic structure of the song or whoever is playing the melody plays in a different key, having the ability to hear these things will help you adjust your playing and potentially save a song. As a music producer, having a good ear will allow you to easily collaborate with other producers and artists, especially if you’re in a situation where you’re creating something from scratch and need to figure out someone’s melody or provide harmony to an existing track.

While it might not be the most visually appealing site, Good Ear is one of the best free ear training programs available. The site works like a game – you pick a category (intervals, chords, chord progressions, or perfect pitch) and the site plays audio examples for you to identify. Good Ear keeps score of how many correct answers you get, and once you get a certain amount wrong, you have to restart. This is a program that’s always good to come back to, since there are also a number of more advanced ear training concepts that you can explore such as extended chords, symmetric scales, and cadences.

4. Lightnote

Lightnote is a great music theory resource for producers because it explains concepts by analyzing sound waves and frequencies, which are what most producers deal with in a DAW when manipulating audio samples. The free online course works directly in your browser, and most lessons can be completed in a minute or less. The course overviews harmony, basic scales and chords, and how keys and chords interact. There’s also a premium version that covers a wide variety of topics, but for most producers looking for a simple and easy introduction to theory, the free offering is a great place to start.

5. The Splice blog

Last but not least, we have the site you’re reading right now – the Splice blog! While we cover a wide array of topics in music creation from recording to music business, we also have an array of posts that dive into specific aspects of music theory; if you’re interested in learning about sheet music cheat codes, advanced rhythmic patterns, and more, be sure to check out our music theory category page.

Is there a free music theory resource you enjoy using that we didn’t cover above? Let us know in the comments below.

October 1, 2020

Charles Burchell Charles “BLVK Samurai” Burchell is a music producer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, and educator from New Orleans, Louisiana.