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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 3.7 out of 5 by 65.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Cool course An amazing mixture of theory and beautiful music. Thanks for carefully selecting the pieces and organization of the course.
Date published: 2023-08-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Valuable overview of basic concepts This was a valuable course to have in one organized place some of the bits and pieces of music theory I’ve picked up over the years, mostly from early piano lessons and from Robert Greenberg’s lectures. It’s a challenging and time-consuming course – you would have to study and do and re-do the exercises to get the most out of it. That’s one option. Or, you could just listen to the lectures and move on, without a lot of memorization and drills, so at least you would have some idea of what the basic concepts are and have a reference for later freshers. Either way, this is best taken with a keyboard in front of you, and either way, Prof. Atkinson is clear though a bit stiff. It was helpful to hear some of the pieces while the score is displayed, although sometimes the piece moved too fast to make it easy to follow. And while I enjoyed the music being played, I’m not sure of its pedagogical value. Surely some simpler pieces might have been more appropriate.
Date published: 2023-07-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor Religious Choice! Why did you create a course about Easter and Christ when it's music theory? Bizarre and unfair choice for the millions that do not follow this path. Teacher made an error as it was supposed to be about music not all about his accolades that total strangers have no desire to hear. Very misleading! Poor choice of instructor.
Date published: 2023-06-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Drinking from a fire hydrant? I've been listening to music (mostly "Classical") since I was ~4. I've sung in choirs (poorly, but with enthusiasm). Played bass drum in the marching band. My wife plays piano very well. We subscribe to the local symphony. Etc. I'm not exactly a novice, but I always wanted to sharpen my understanding. My wife speaks of musical theory on occasion, way over my head. Hence, my hope for this course. But after watching scores similar to the attached appear and disappear at three second intervals, while the music plays sotto voce beneath the instructor's voice, as he explains... well, what's going on, I guess. Between the scores flashing by with their tiny notes (1920 x 1080), the music (new to me), and the instructor's arcane descriptions, trying to put them all together in real time, my tiny brain was about to explode. And this is the First Lecture? I think it was also my last.
Date published: 2023-05-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The Structure is Absurd I really wanted to like this course, as it has some information that I need. But the structure of assigning you to work out a notation question while simultaneously listening to one of the professor's colleagues play or conduct a piece of music is just weird. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I can't work out a notation problem while also listening to a separate piece of music. My brain just can't do that. I bailed somewhere during the fourth lesson.
Date published: 2023-04-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good, But A Lot Of Waste The first thing that I noticed about Sean Atkinson's course is that it is for complete musical novices. If you were in a school band or orchestra, you can probably skip a lot of the first half of the course, since it deals with very basic knowledge that one would learn in the first few weeks of band or orchestra participation, e.g., clefs, notes, scales, beats, time and key signatures, dynamics, and tempo. If you have had any musical experience, I would recommend leafing through the included book to see what you can skip and thereby avoid wasting a lot of time. After having taken the course, I must say that there is a lot of waste. For example, the course is often interrupted with performances by TCU musical groups. These performances don't seem to have any relevance---they don't help in understanding the material. I found them to be a waste of time. There is a lot of Music Theory that could have been substituted for these performances. I also must complain about the examples Atkinson used. Most were very complicated Classical music examples. I have some musical background, and I found that I learned very little from the examples because they were so complicated. I can't imagine a musical novice getting much out of these complex examples. So they are a bit of a waste too. I would think simple examples focused on the music theory ideas being discussed would be much more beneficial. Another example of waste was in the book included with the course. 105 pages of the book contained the complete score of a complex Classical Music Overture. I can't imagine anyone gaining much from this. What a waste of trees. Having said this, there is still a lot of worthwhile information in the course, if you can wade through all the waste.
Date published: 2023-03-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Might be useful for patient novices These lectures review the theory I learned when taking private piano lessons in grade school, and so they would be appropriate for novices. However, while I hope Professor Atkinson is more engaging in a classroom where he is speaking to live students, his presentation for the camera is dull and lifeless. I also found the preponderance of performances by TCU faculty and ensembles unhelpful. They were sometimes used to illustrate a point, but clearer examples could often have been chosen. At other times, the segments were "filler," serving no essential purpose and leading me to entertain the idea that the university might have paid a subvention for the publicity. However, I'm certain this is not the case.
Date published: 2023-01-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good Stuff, But Not for This Beginner This course has a great deal to offer. Regrettably however, I am a 75-year old beginner. I'm pretty good with math and physics, but have zero musical knowledge. The very first introductory lesson has me trying to figure out what the orchestral score has to do with what is being played. An orchestra (!) for goodness sake. If I could keep up, I would have no use for this course. I need a course that has one musical instrument playing the music on one staff. Then later adding in a second. Then a third. A full orchestral score may be appropriate by the end of the course but I got so lost in the beginning that I never was able to learn enough to catch up.
Date published: 2022-12-10
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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

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