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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 3.8 out of 5 by 39.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Everything You Need to Know This was not only a great review for what I know but there was much more that I learned.
Date published: 2022-01-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Quite indepth I am only on the third lesson. All of the content is new to me. As a result, I need to cover the lessons a few times to comprehend and learn. Very well written and explained. The workbook is a big help. So far, I am glad I bought the DVD set.
Date published: 2022-01-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too technical for most Wanted to learn more about music, but did not want to be taught all the finer points of musical notation. This will be great for those who have a need to learn to read music.
Date published: 2022-01-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interim Impressions Having got to lecture 6, I feel I have to vent about a few things: Firstly, the musical examples (including videos) are completely misaligned with the course material. In particular, rather than using simple pieces of music to illustrate a facet of theory, the lecturer insists of complex (sometimes long) snippets of symphonies or similar which are (a) impossible to follow and (b) completely hide the thing that we're trying to look for! It's almost like he's trying to impress us with his (and TCU's) breadth of musical skill. Secondly, the lecturer's exposition style is sloppy. He introduces a concept (eg. Circle of Fifths) and then starts to explain elements of it assuming that we already completely understand what he's talking about. For example, when talking about the "flat" side of the circle, he says that we should "go down a 5th". Having just understood the position of a perfect 5th relative to the start of a major scale, what does "go down" a 5th mean? It's ambiguous and leaves one confused, and hence not able to listen to the next thing he's saying. There are multiple instances of this type of thing. I want to like this course... I really do. I have enough prior knowledge to understand it and I'm going to persevere, but it's difficult to cut through the issues described above. I may post another review when I'm done. Oh...and by the way... having errors in the answers to the exercises in the guidebook (eg one of the major scales answers is incorrect) doesn't help!
Date published: 2022-01-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Over my head Glad I bought this because it shows me what I don't know about music. I'll stick to playing trombone!
Date published: 2022-01-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Frustrating and Disordered As happy as I was to see a legitimate course in theory on Wondrium, I started Music Theory: The Foundation of Great Music with tempered hopes due to what I would describe as a bad experience with TGC's first major music course Understanding the Fundamentals of Music. [That professor showed a shocking ignorance of electronic elements in music for 2007 (when it was produced) that I would've honestly been embarrassed to distribute were I in TGC's shoes. Not that I'm a personally offended EDM DJ or anything it's just that by 2007 I'm pretty sure even the London Philharmonic was running Pro Tools and this dude was acting like electronic elements in popular music were a long dead fad. Reference: page 5 of that guidebook, paragraph 3. It's aggressively embarrassing. If it were a tweet he would have been ratio'd by other music professors until he deleted it. It was the single biggest reason TGC didn't get another dime out of me until TGC+ happened.] And I was right to be a little cautious. Things started off a little weird. The TCU talent show that we're subjected to every lecture seemed oddly self-serving. I want to assume it's their way of getting around rights issues but, as someone who was in rock bands and has run a venue, I know what hyping your buddies looks like. He uses some of it ostensibly as a substitute for the Final Jeopardy theme (which we don't need, I might add, because of this fancy little thing called the pause button). It would be one thing if it was just the audio but the video is distracting, taking up much more of the screen than the actual teaching materials, and frankly most of the pieces so far have been barely applicable to the lesson in the first place, even muddying things on occasion. I can look beyond that stuff though (it's hard out here for all of us after all and sometimes you gotta hustle for your homies) and focus on the quality of the course excepting its academically incestuous eccentricities. So moving on I'm not a fan of this professor's teaching method at all. He leaves a lot hanging, he's not very consistent about telling the viewer what information is relevant to the topic at hand or what may be relevant later. He uses some terms interchangeably without clarifying whether or not he is even doing it on purpose and if you have even a passing familiarity with the vocabulary of music theory you know there's a lot of potential for confusion there. Ironically, for all his talk about how important it is for a piece of music to resolve, I would argue he ends every lecture on the narrative equivalent of a minor 2nd. It is very frustrating. So Lecture 4: Intervals. Now my background, as I said, is primarily in rock bands where music theory is optional at best but I know the basic fingering patterns on bass and guitar and I know what determines those fingering patterns is the intervals in their respective scales, right? Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half. You don't need to know that a 5th is perfect to count and play it. But I wanted to know so here I am. I've already got a few problems before I get to the final exercise. First of all he never states whether or not these things are only relative to the major scale pattern. He was never really clear about that in the 3 lectures leading up to this one either and again he's been using "interval" "step" and even "tone" without any consistent logic so we're practically flying blind on specificity. We've been using C Major for pretty much all of the examples so are we to assume when calculating 4ths and 7ths that those intervals are reached via the whole whole half etc pattern I referenced earlier? He doesn't really say. I'm pretty sure the answer is yes but, again, this fellow's teaching method is incredibly presumptive. So I decide to proceed on the assumption that if he meant anything else he would have brought it up. Major scale is the base, everything else is relative to it. But there's still many ways it could go. As I said, we're sticking with the C Major scale for all examples but then, and I cannot stress enough how much he assumes you've sussed out of his lack-splanations, he says go from a C up a Perfect 4th, then up from there without telling the viewer that he means "you're in E Major now and should proceed relative to that" which is the difference between a half step at G#/A or one at E/F, right? He shows it on the staff but doesn't state it explicitly. As a musician I am used to music being explained to me poorly by stoners who sort of remember what their 7th grade guitar teacher taught them so I power through. But then I get to the final exercise. Start on D, go up a Major 2nd, up a Perfect Fourth, up a Minor 2nd, up a Perfect 5th, up a Major 3rd. "If you got A congratulations, if you didn't don't be discouraged." Fade to black. That's it. End of lecture. No elaboration, no clarification. Just pass/fail, moving on. So full disclosure here; I didn't get A the first time and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. Okay, not the biggest deal, that's what the guidebook is for, right? It's weird that he didn't show his work onscreen and actually instead "treated" us to another TCU performance over a mostly blank staff but fine. Oh wait, it's not in the guidebook. Instead only single interval exercises are in the guidebook without a single reference to the final much more complex exercise in the video. Did I find a mistake? Or did I get it wrong? I don't know. Can't know because he just made a statement, didn't bother supporting it, and bounced. You know: how instructors do. Now I did eventually get A and that's great (although I'd feel better with some confirmation I had gotten there the right way) but I feel less like a student and more like an anthropologist trying to pull meaning via gestures and inferences from an easily distracted man who doesn't speak my language. I'm going to keep giving it a go but it's not a particularly pleasant experience. I may go back to the piano course instead because that instructor was doing a fine job of explaining the applicable theory. I just wanted to get a more solid foundation before proceeding because I'm a one man band and was concerned that I was over-focusing on one tool rather than the whole trade as it were. I know this course gets more in depth with theory than the piano course will, but it was clear from the first few minutes of each course which is better articulated throughout, and this one isn't it. I say a do over is warranted.
Date published: 2022-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from well done the music lessons are excellent, but the learning is difficult
Date published: 2022-01-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Decent, if unspectacular As a musician I would not recommend this course to the very beginner. If you have a musical background or are currently studying music and need a supplement or refresher, this course might prove helpful. If, however, you have no prior experience with music or cannot differentiate a whole from a half note, I would recommend a number of texts on the rudiments of music and most certainly a good teacher to help guide you. And I have no idea why the first lecture begins with Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Russian Easter Overture' and provides a complicated score to follow which does the listener absolutely no good if s/he can't read an orchestral score. A competent and enthusiastic instructor, overall, but too much complex material in only 18 very short lectures.
Date published: 2022-01-03
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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
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