Music Theory: The Foundation of Great Music

Learn how to read music and understand musical scores through a step-by-step system that makes music theory accessible to anyone.
Music Theory: The Foundation of Great Music is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 18.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good for newcomers and a good refresh of theory This covers the basics of music well and was a good refresher of the little bit of music theory that I already know.
Date published: 2021-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very helpful I am in my late 60's with zero musical experience (I was the one who "couldn't sing" and got shunted away from instrument classes growing up). I have been taking the Great Courses piano class and felt that I needed to know more about music theory to understand what I was doing and get a better grasp of where my clumsy hands needed to go next. The piano teacher gives bits and pieces but that is not, of course, the focus of her class. Seth Atkinson's course has filled that need. There is a lot for a beginner and I will have to spend time with my notes to begin to retain it all, but that meaty content was what I was looking for. The material is well-presented and interesting. I particularly enjoyed the lecture I listened to this morning, on lead sheets, showing how jazz musicians decide where to go in improv or semi-improv. I also like the occasional exercises - learning happens best, in my experience, when we solve problems for ourselves.
Date published: 2021-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent explanation of how music works Very happy I bought this course. It's an excellent presentation of how music works and written.
Date published: 2021-04-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from There is without a doubt a wealth of knowledge here, but it's heavily weighed down by the weight given to the promotion for Prof. Greenberg's own school. As a non-American viewer, I can't even begin to describe the absolutely cringe-inducing feelings I got when being sat down to listen to hokey American patriotic songs. Should I expect more from a school in Texas that outwardly identifies itself as "Christian"? Probably not, but hey, why listen to and study the foudnations of Western musical tradition in Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi or Elgar when we could be listening to the might of the American tradition - a literal Vaudevillian and gun enthusiast that wrote nationalistic marches, John Philip Sousa.
Date published: 2021-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Covers a lot of ground This course was mostly a review for me and it was a good one. From "this is a quarter note" to "how to interpret a lead sheet" is a long journey and I thought he did it well in just a few lessons. Thank you for this course.
Date published: 2021-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Music Theory: The Foundation of Great Music I am very impressed with this course. I have been studying music theory for the past 3 years and this course filled in and made clear somethings that others courses haven’t. I hope the instructor considers doing a level 2, because I would like to know more about composing in 4 parts; as far as the layout of this course it was more than I expected. I play several different instruments with and without frets. Piano was my first instrument growing up. I especially enjoyed the music score analysis because I play in a community orchestra and learning more about conducting and compound meter, and hyper meter was very useful. You can’t watch this course just once. It is worth it to watch it over and over and practice what is being taught. For those who felt like the course was a little advanced, I would recommend the “How to Play the Piano” course after this course taught by Pamela Pike.
Date published: 2021-02-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good course for expanding musical knowledge! I recently retired and decided to take up clarinet after a long hiatus. This course seemed like a good thing to augment my practice. I never had a very good grasp of theory since I was not a music major and my studies were limited to lessons and playing with groups in college. I learned theory on a need-to-know basis and always had a lot of gaps! This course filled in a lot of those for me, especially analysis of pieces the way chords relate to one another in a piece of music. I was pretty excited to see that Prof. Atkinson chose one of the Brahms clarinet Sonatas as a sample piece since that is what I have been working on for a few months now. I really found it enjoyable. I remember that music majors at college were always complaining about their theory courses so I was happy to find this one so agreeable. And I really enjoyed all the performances by the TCU faculty and students and I loved being able to follow the scores. I don't understand why people found that aspect of the course unpleasant. One of the things I like about the Great Courses is that they move right along with no repetition and there is a good handbook to go with them. The pause button is really a boon! If you think this course goes too fast with too much material, compare it to the one on Nuclear Physics! Oh and I really like Caleb Nei 's section on jazz improvisation. That was an unexpected bonus and really interesting and fun.
Date published: 2021-02-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course! Excellent review of music theory with clear, easy to understand explanations. Scores are shown on the screen, so there is no need to fumble around with the guidebook to find what he is describing. He uses performances of the faculty and orchestra of TCU to demonstrate his points. The score is highlighted as the performance is played. I can't read music fast enough to keep up with the performance, at least not the first time. But I can replay the video until I can see what he is trying to describe. Prof. Greenberg also has a course, "Fundamentals of Music " which covers similar material. However, Greenberg's course does not teach how to read music. If you complete Prof. Atkinson's course, you will fully understand music notation and you will be able to read any piece of sheet music. Performing proficiently is another matter, which can take hours and hours of practice. Greenberg's course is directed more towards a listening audience.You don't need to know how to read music to enjoy listening to the symphony. Prof. Atkinson's course would be more useful to someone learning to play an instrument, such as piano. In fact, this would be an excellent companion to Prof. Pike's "How to Play the Piano" course. In Prof. Atkinson's course, I particularly enjoyed the lesson with Caleb Nei on lead sheets. The ability to play by ear and to improvise is not a skill which is taught by traditional piano teachers. It was fascinating to hear him improvise a beautiful composition from a simple lead sheet. I wish I could learn to do that! Overall, I would give this course my highest recommendation, particularly for someone trying to learn to play an instrument.
Date published: 2021-02-22
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In Music Theory: The Foundation of Great Music, you'll delve into the inner workings of Western tonal music through 18 enjoyable and revealing lessons taught by Professor Sean Atkinson of Texas Christian University. Professor Atkinson, an eminent music theorist and teacher, makes music theory refreshingly clear and accessible, demystifying the skill of reading music as well as the principles of musical analysis. Using a highly interactive approach, he orients the lessons to an understanding of how music creates its remarkable effects, both formally and expressively, and how this understanding benefits us as listeners and instrumentalists.


Sean Atkinson
Sean Atkinson

Most music follows a similar set of rules. It’s the grammar of musical language.


Texas Christian University School of Music

Sean Atkinson is an Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Texas Christian University School of Music, where he teaches courses on topics such as music theory, aural skills, and form and analysis. He also teaches graduate seminars on music analysis and musical meaning as well as a media studies class for the university’s Honors College. Prior to joining the faculty at TCU, he taught in the Department of Music at The University of Texas at Arlington. He holds a BM in Music Theory and Trombone Performance from Furman University and earned MM and PhD degrees in Music Theory from Florida State University.

Professor Atkinson’s research, which broadly addresses issues of musical meaning in multimedia contexts, has been published in journals such as Music Theory OnlineIndiana Theory Review, the Dutch Journal of Music Theory, and Popular Music. He is also active in the growing field of video game music (ludomusicology) and has presented at the North American Conference on Video Game Music and the Music and the Moving Image Conference at New York University.

Professor Atkinson is a cofounder of No Quarters, an on-campus video game lab at TCU committed to the interdisciplinary research and teaching of video games. Housed in the library, the lab allows students and teachers to explore a growing number of games and consoles, including virtual reality.

By This Professor

Music Theory: The Foundation of Great Music


Learning the Language of Music

01: Learning the Language of Music

As an introduction to the language of music, delve into the Russian Easter Overture (1888) by composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Explore how Rimsky-Korsakov achieves the work’s expressive effects, through the textures of different instruments and variations in volume (dynamics), speed (tempo), rhythm, and harmony, to capture the emotions of Easter in the Russian orthodox church.

23 min
Staff, Clefs, and Notes

02: Staff, Clefs, and Notes

Learn to identify the pitch (frequency) of a musical note, expressed by the letters A through G. See the pitches on the piano keyboard and observe how they’re written on the five-line “staff” of musical notation. Note how the symbols called clefs are used on the staff to indicate whether the pitches are in the upper or lower register, and practice reading notes on the treble and bass clefs.

23 min
Major Scales: Notes in Context

03: Major Scales: Notes in Context

Musical scales—ordered patterns of the notes A through G—are one of the basic structures of music. See how scales are built using half steps and whole steps, terms which describe the sequence of notes within the scale. Focus on the major scale, grasping how this familiar pattern of notes is created, and learn the function of each note within the scale. Listen to music using the major scale.

28 min
Intervals: Distance between Notes

04: Intervals: Distance between Notes

Look closely at intervals in music, the distances between pitches (notes). Practice listening to intervals, such as the third (a distance of three) and the fifth (five) and see how they appear on the written staff. Then look at the “quality” of intervals, such as major or minor, and how these qualities create expressive effects. Hear how intervals are used within familiar pieces of music.

26 min
The Circle of Fifths

05: The Circle of Fifths

Begin by defining the key of a piece of music, which is simply the musical scale that is used the most in the piece. Also discover key signatures in written music, symbols at the beginning of the musical score that indicate the key of the piece. Then grasp how the major keys all relate to each other in an orderly way, when arranged schematically according to the interval of a fifth.

25 min
Meter: How Music Moves

06: Meter: How Music Moves

Learn how the pulse or beat of a piece of music is organized in the written score, within small segments called measures, with the meter signature indicating how the beats are grouped within the measure. Observe how written musical notes have a rhythmic value, indicating how long each note lasts in time. Practice clapping musical rhythms, to understand how a piece of music moves through time.

28 min
Simple and Compound Meters

07: Simple and Compound Meters

The way musical beats (pulses) are subdivided fundamentally affects the character of the music. Discover simple meter, where the beat is subdivided into two equal parts, and compound meter, where it’s subdivided into three. Listen to music by Schumann, Haydn, and Bach to hear the difference, see how these rhythms are written, and do clapping exercises to get a feel for compound meter.

25 min
Downbeats and Upbeats: Performing Rhythm

08: Downbeats and Upbeats: Performing Rhythm

Practice rhythms that are typical in different genres of music, beginning with the rhythm from Queen’s famous “We Will Rock You.” Read and perform rhythms from music by Sousa and Schumann. Study features of rhythm such as rubato (flexibility with the tempo); musical notation such as ties, which combine notes together; and explore the musical style known as “swing.”

20 min
Minor Keys

09: Minor Keys

Take account of what distinguishes a minor key from a major key, and the associations of minor keys with tragedy and sad emotions. Learn to transform a major scale into a minor one by altering three notes in the scale. See how major and minor scales are related, using the circle of fifths from Lesson 5, and study commonly used variants of the minor scale, called harmonic and melodic minor.

24 min
Dynamics, Articulation, and Tempo

10: Dynamics, Articulation, and Tempo

Here, delve into three important elements of musical expression. Take a deeper look at dynamics (volume) in music-making and see how dynamics are indicated in the score. Then study articulation, variations in how individual notes are performed, and finally tempo, the speed at which music is played, noting how musical notation indicates both the tempo and occasional departures from the tempo.

26 min
Counterpoint: Composing with Two Voices

11: Counterpoint: Composing with Two Voices

Grasp the fundamentals of counterpoint, the basis of most western classical music, where two melodic lines are written to be played at the same time. First study the rules of counterpoint, using four types of melodic “motion,” where the two musical lines must relate to each other in very specific ways. Then compose a two-part counterpoint melody, to see how a piece of tonal music is built.

33 min
Musical Harmony: Triads

12: Musical Harmony: Triads

Harmony, where two or more notes sound together, lies at the heart of tonal music. In this lesson, study the structure of chords, combinations of three or more notes heard at the same time, focusing on triads, a group of fundamental three-note chords. Learn about major and minor triads, and the lesser-used diminished and augmented triads, and observe harmony in action in a Bach chorale.

22 min
Musical Harmony: Seventh Chords

13: Musical Harmony: Seventh Chords

Seventh chords are another essential component of Western tonal music. Observe how seventh chords (four-note chords) are built on triads (three-note chords), by adding another interval of a third. Learn how seventh chords “resolve” or propel the music forward. Study the five types of seventh chords, how they are used in different musical genres, and hear seventh chords in context.

21 min
Musical Harmony in Context: Progressions

14: Musical Harmony in Context: Progressions

Building on your study of harmony, observe how harmonic motion works, where one chord or tonality leads to another, forming a progression that we hear as a coherent harmonic sequence or event. Study the example of the tonic harmony, the “home” tonality of a piece, as it leads to the predominant harmony, the dominant harmony, and resolves back to the tonic, completing the progression.

22 min
Musical Phrases and Cadences

15: Musical Phrases and Cadences

This lesson discusses the phrase structure of tonal music. Discover how music unfolds in phrases, segments of musical material that end with a sense of rest or pause, often using a harmonic event called a cadence, which concludes the phrase. Hear how musical phrases operate, and how they are organized into larger units called periods and sentences, which create a musical narrative.

23 min
Hypermeter and Larger Musical Structures

16: Hypermeter and Larger Musical Structures

In listening to music, we sometimes hear the meter differently than the way it’s written on the page. Learn how the concept of hypermeter helps explain this, by showing that when measures of music are grouped into phrases, we often hear a pulse for each measure in the phrase, rather than the pulses within the measure. Explore examples of hypermeter, and how we perceive music as listeners.

22 min
Understanding Music Lead Sheets

17: Understanding Music Lead Sheets

In jazz and popular music, a lead sheet uses only a melodic line and chord symbols to indicate how to play the song. Listen to a jazz pianist improvise from lead sheets in three popular songs and investigate how chords are written on lead sheets as opposed to classical music scores. Hear the performer talk about the process of playing from lead sheets in spontaneous improvisation.

31 min
Applying Music Theory to Great Music

18: Applying Music Theory to Great Music

Conclude the course as it began, with an encounter with a great piece of music. Hear Clara Schumann’s “Three Romances for Violin and Piano” and test yourself on some of the concepts you’ve studied in the course. Revisit the elements of meter, rhythm, harmonic motion, cadences, key changes, and musical phrases that form the inner structure of great music.

28 min