Anyone who has ever attempted to learn music theory or is currently in the middle of learning it has probably asked how long it will take. It’s not exactly a finite thing because it happens to be a never-ending discipline. Music theory is a fairly complex subject with a lot of moving parts.
However, once you start unweaving the web, it becomes easier and easier to understand, especially if you’ve taken a structured approach using some of the resources that I’ll discuss in this article (and in some of my other ones too). That said, there is a time frame in which I think you can learn a good chunk of it.
To understand and apply music theory, it takes around 6-12 months to learn basic rudiments, and then approximately 3-4 years after that to learn intermediate and advanced concepts. Enrolling in a music school, taking an online course, or investing in private lessons will help speed up the process.
Music theory is how musicians communicate theoretically with one another and it’s an attempt to explain why things sound the way they do. The basics can be learned mainly by memorization and by application, so if you can memorize things quickly, you probably won’t have a hard time with the basics. Also, it’s better if you apply what you’ve learned, so learning on a musical instrument will help a lot too although it’s not 100% necessary.
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How Long It Takes to Learn Music Theory
How Long Will It Take To Learn the Basics of Music Theory?
To learn the basics of music theory, it will take you about 6 – 12 months of daily practice.
Learning the basics of music theory won’t take you that long with focused practice. In my other guide on how to learn theory, I walked you through some of the best ways to learn this, and I also came up with a full-on lesson plan for how you would go about learning music theory.
Punkadelic’s Jason Allen has the best and most comprehensive course on how to learn theory on his site (and it goes for a crazy-good price). Get the All-Access pass to the entire site and everything it has to offer and then start with Part 1 of the Comprehensive Music Theory Course.
That said, there are a few online resources that you can take advantage of if you want to get your feet wet, so to speak. MusicTheory.net is a great one as is LightNote. The basics include everything I’ve listed below and it shouldn’t take longer than 6-12 months to learn it.
What Are The Basics of Music Theory?
There are only seven natural notes, and they each have correlating sharps or flats (these are called accidentals). It should only take about two weeks of daily practice to memorize where each of the 7 notes is on your instrument.
Although, figuring out where they are at different octaves or in different positions will take longer. Memorizing all the notes on the fretboard of the guitar can take more than a year to learn (in fact, many people never learn), but 7 notes in one position will take much less time. There are many methods for learning this which could be explored in entirely separate articles.
This staff is the foundation on which the notes are drawn. A staff has five lines and four spaces. All of the information you need for a song can be found within the staff. You can find out the tempo, the key as well as each note, which all have a specific place on the staff. With daily review, the symbols and notes can be memorized in a few weeks.
Treble and Bass Clef
The first symbol that appears on a staff is called the Clef Symbol. The most used clefs are treble, and bass clefs, which are very important because they tell you which note is found on which space or line by giving you a starting note of G or F to find all the other notes.
The treble clef is also known as the G clef because it wraps around the second from the bottom line that represents a G. The bass clef is also known as the F clef because the line between the two dots is F. The treble clef is always found above the bass clef.
Middle C is located directly in between the treble and bass staff (there are other clefs too, but the treble and bass are all most need to know). Clefs aren’t terribly complicated, and there are many useful anagrams you can use to memorize the notes of them (some of these I’ve listed in this article on Traveling Guitarist).
Quarter Notes, Whole Notes, Half Notes, Eighth Notes, Sixteenth Notes
Knowing the note names is one thing, but learning how long to play each note and at what point comes down to understanding the symbols and their time values. Symbols for the quarter, half, and whole notes, etc., will give you a firm idea of when to play them if you can read them properly.
A whole note is (usually) the longest note duration in modern music, and a half note is half the duration of the whole note, the quarter note is half the duration of the half note, and a sixteenth is half of the eighth note
Eighth notes, quarter notes, and sixteenth notes all have flags on the stems of the notes, which cuts the note’s duration in half. I.e., an eighth note looks the same as a quarter note but with a flag that cuts the duration in half. A sixteenth has two flags, and its duration is half of an eighth note. It should take you just a few weeks to memorize the flags and what they mean.
Dots and Ties
We use augmentation dots and tenuto ties to change the time value of a note using its own value as a reference. A dot increases the duration by one-half, meaning a dotted quarter note is the same as three eighth notes. A tie merges notes, so the note’s duration travels across the barriers of other notes, extending the duration. After you learn regular note duration, dots and ties should be simple to remember.
Rests cause periods of silence within a measure. Each rest symbol has its duration that it shares with a specific type of note. A quarter rest is as long as a quarter note. Just as a whole rest occupies the same time as a whole note. Eighth and sixteenth rests have flags just like their note counterparts.
Once you know the note duration, memorize which rest goes with each one. Most of the rests follow a similar pattern as the notes except for the quarter note which is its own thing.
Semi-Tones and Whole-Tones
Semi-tones and whole-tones refer to the distance notes are from each other. A half-step is a note right next to the other, and a whole tone is two frets (on the guitar) or keys from each other (although, it depends on the keys). Just remember that a whole step is the equivalent of two half steps. You’ll start using these rules once you start learning scales.
Accidentals are used to raise or lower the pitch of a note. A b or flat symbol flattens the note by a half step, while a # or Sharp symbol will raise the tone by a half step. These are the most important and most used accidentals. There are also symbols (bb and x) to double those durations of flat and sharp or a natural sign to cancel out an accidental.
The Major Scale
A scale is a selection of notes within an octave that sound a particular way. The formula we use for finding a major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H, which will sound like a major scale no matter what key you are in. Using the guidelines above for half and whole tones, you should be able to find any major scale by building this pattern off a root note.
Try going through the musical alphabet from A to G# while playing out the major scale in each key. Do this every day, and in a few days, you will have memorized the Major Scale in any key.
Every major or minor scale has a basic triad chord. To find it, you have to know that it is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of the scale it is being derived from. For example, the type of triad played can be named from the choice of the 3rd note that is played.
A major 3rd is a major triad, a minor 3rd is a minor triad, a diminished triad has a minor 3rd with a diminished 5th. This should take a few weeks to memorize all the basic triad combinations. My songwriting tips article has a big list of chord progressions you can use in your songs.
Basic Time Signatures like 4/4
Time signatures define the amount and type of note that each measure contains. A basic 4/4 time signature is essential for you to know because this is how you’ll keep time with most songs. Practice each time signature, so you’ll have a better understanding of them. It should only take you a couple of weeks to get them all down.
Simple Time Signatures include:
4/4 = Each measure will contain four quarter notes
3/4 = Each measure will contain three quarter notes
6/8 = Each measure will contain six eighth notes
3/2 = Each measure will contain three half notes
Intermediate Level Music Theory Concepts
How Long Will It Take To Learn Intermediate-Level Music Theory?
To learn these concepts where you can apply them, it will take you 1-2 years of consistent practice.
Key Signatures – There Are 30 Key Signatures (15 Major and 15 Minor)
Key signatures represent a collection of every accident found on a scale. Instead of writing every flat or sharp that correlates with the key next to each note, we write them at the beginning of the staff, next to the clef, and that tells us what key the music is in.
Write them down every day to jog your memory, and in a few weeks, you’ll know them by heart. Key signatures were made so that composers wouldn’t have to write every single accidental on the staff. If you knew what key you were in, you could just assume that F’s would be sharp, for instance, if you’re in the key of E Minor.
The Circle of Fifths
The circle of fifths is a chart that musicians and composers use to illustrate the relationships between key signatures, and it has many useful purposes. There are 12 notes and they’re organized in fifths so the key that it’s most related to is right next to it.
Usually shown as a circle, this diagram is organized clockwise from C and divided by a sharp side and a flat side. From C, we count up five diatonic tones to G, then to D, and so on. Starting again, on the bottom of the other side but with Gb, then Db, and so on.
With a little practice (but mostly comprehension), you will not only learn how to understand the circle but also use it for composing, harmonizing, and moving between different keys within a composition (also called modulating). It is the perfect cheat sheet for a songwriter, so make sure you know it.
Major Scale and the Modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian
The major scale, explained above, has three modes that tend to sound major. They are found on the 1st, 4th, and 5th diatonic notes of the scale. They still use the same W-W-H-W-W-W-H pattern, but you have to start the pattern with its correlating degree.
The 4th degree would be the Lydian Mode, and its pattern would start on the W in the 4th position of the major scale, turning the pattern into W-W-W-H-W-W-H. Mixolydian Mode, however, would start with the W in the 5th position.
At first, this concept is difficult to understand, but within a few weeks of daily practice, you’ll be able to recite the intervals. My article on the modes does a great job of explaining what modes are and how to use them, so make sure to check it out.
Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor
There is the natural minor scale which is based on the 6th note and triad of the major scale, however, there are two other main ones. This will take a little more time to learn, but the differences in each scale can improve your ear and your playing.
The Natural Minor is the major scale starting from the 6th note, ie, A Minor is the 6th degree of C Major
The Harmonic Minor is a natural minor scale but with a raised 7th degree
The Melodic Minor is a major scale with a raised third degree
The harmonic and melodic minor scales are pretty cool and definitely worth learning if you’re trying to get away from just regular major diatonic harmony or the minor blues scale, which is what most guitar players, for instance, use. While both of them have many different applications, the harmonic minor is usually more associated with classical music and the melodic minor is more associated with jazz.
Intervals Like Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished, and Perfect
Intervals are the spaces between two notes. There can be a unison interval where there is no space between two notes up to the octave and more. Once you get up to the 9th, however, they start flipping.
Each interval has a name that designates its tonality, for instance, Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished, and Perfect, etc. It takes a few months to learn intervals but a majority of that time will be spent just drilling them. The Music Theory website has a great set of exercises to drill them.
How To Build and Name Chords
Chords are made from playing more than one note at a time. Once you know basic triads and how to form advanced chords, you’ll be able to start naming and building your own chords. This will be a lot easier when you already have a good grasp of intervals, note names, modes, scales, and triads. In fact, understanding intervals is essential before you can start naming chords.
Arpeggios are chords that are broken down and played note by note rather than all at once. They are played in a descending or ascending pattern, spanning over one or more octaves. You can practice arpeggios all you want whether you understand the theory behind them. Just know what an arpeggio is. It’s when you play the notes of a chord one at a time and not together.
Chord Inversions Like 1st Inversion and 2nd Inversion
Chord inversions are when you rearrange the notes of a chord so the root note is in a different place. Chord inversions are a great way to change up chord dynamics in a song, but learning them takes a decent amount of practice after you already have a good grasp on basic chords and triads, where the root note is the bass note or lowest note of the chord.
Odd Time Meters and Polyrhythms
Odd time meters like 7/4 and 6/8 are rarer in music, but because they exist and are still used, it’s a good idea to learn them and practice them. Practicing to a metronome will help you understand them better. You can also find music that is in an odd time signature and play along with it for practice. Some good examples of odd-meter time signatures are the following:
5/4, 7/4, 7/8, 9/8, 5/4,10/4, 11/8, etc.
Commonly found in Jazz music, polyrhythms are when contrasting rhythms meet in a single composition. It will take some time to get used to playing these types of rhythms, so it is advised to spend time every day on them if you wish to master them.
Regarding the odd-time signatures, the one that stands out in my head is “Them Bones” by Alice In Chains which is in 7/4 time. The chorus reverts back to 4/4 but the introduction and verses are in 7/4.
Advanced Level Music Theory Concepts
How Long Does It Take to Learn Advanced Level Theory?
For advanced skills like these, it will take you 3-4 years of practice and application although the practicing never ends because a lot of the things are fairly abstract.
Counterpoint is the contrast or interplay of melodies. When studying counterpoint, there are many guidelines you can follow. The melodies are independent of each other but the idea is for them to sound great when played together.
Simply put, the study of counterpoint is figuring out how to have two separate melodies play at the same time while sounding good. They’re independent melodies with separate ideas and motion, but they’re created with the knowledge of the other melody, in mind.
It takes most musicians a lot of time to understand and utilize counterpoint which makes sense considering the difficulty of the task. It’s not easy to have completely separate melodies without sounding too busy or muddy.
Consonance is just a music theory term that describes the way musical notes sound good together. All music creates tension, consonance, or dissonance. Both consonance and dissonance are used all of the time to create particular feelings, for instance, a Diminished 7th creates a lot of tension before it resolves nicely back down to the tonic (the I chord – or the first chord of the scale).
Just as consonance refers to the pleasantness of harmony, dissonance refers to the disharmony in notes. A dissonant combination of notes sounds stressful and tense as if it needs to be resolved immediately before it can start to sound good again.
Advanced Harmony is an advanced-level theory practice. To learn advanced harmony, you will focus on things like modal mixture, altered dominants, chordal extensions of dominant 7th chords, and 4-part writing, to name a few.
Understanding these concepts and how they work together is great in theory, but you’ll need to have some experience to grasp them. It can take a long time to learn music theory concepts like this because they’re fairly dense and subjective.
Voice leading refers to the way a note moves throughout a song or the “voicing” of the song. Most people who are great at creating melodies and compositions probably don’t practice voice-leading per se, but they rather just have a good idea of how certain notes and chords lead well to others.
Learning what modes are and how they work is something you’ll learn in intermediate-level studies, but as you get more advanced, you’ll learn more about modal modulations. Essentially, modal modulation is when you move around the circle of fifths in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, removing and adding sharps where necessary.
This is a cool music theory concept that can give you a lot of interesting and creative ideas. Rick Beato has some great videos on modal modulation.
Advanced Chords Like Augmented Sixth Chords
Augmented 6th chords are a category of dominant chords that contain the interval of an augmented sixth that is formed by stretching a major 6th interval by a chromatic semitone. After you have a good grasp on how to make basic chords like triads, 9ths, 7ths, and basic scales as well, you’ll move on to more sophisticated harmony like augmented sixths.
Cluster chords contain three or more notes bunched up together in a cluster. When they’re written on the staff as standard notation it’s clear why they’re called cluster chords. They are formed with adjacent notes of a scale that are played in the same chord. Knowing what they look like and how to identify them is one thing, but learning them is quite another.
Diatonic and Chromatic harmony
These terms in music theory are often used to characterize scales and are applied to instruments, intervals, chords, notes, and musical styles. They mean two different things, respectively. For instance, diatonic refers to the order of half steps and whole steps that make up the major scale.
Chromatic is one note after the other, consisting of all semitones, unlike the diatonic scale. Understanding these concepts will come naturally as you explore advanced harmonies. Ben Eller has a great alternate picking exercise on his YouTube channel that uses chromatic scales.
Modal mixture is when you take notes from a natural minor scale and its parallel major scale to create chords, sounds, and progressions that wouldn’t normally exist in the main scale itself. This is a great way to get creative and to invent your own style and sounds. This is one of those concepts where you could practice it into eternity because, again, there is no finish line.
Because I didn’t explain it well the first time, I’ll say it again. Using the example above, there is a D minor chord (iv) in the (I-IV-V) progression, but the thing about it that makes it a “modal mixture” is that the D Minor doesn’t actually belong to C Major which is the key signature of the example shown.
D Minor is the iv chord of A Minor, which is the relative minor of C Major. It’s now an (I-iv-V) progression and not a standard (I-IV-V). As a result, it’s more interesting because the I-IV-V is pretty basic.
In music theory, a sequence is when you take a series of notes, a melody, or a motif, and you repeat it but at a lower or higher pitch. There are many examples of this tactic in all kinds of music. The reason for that is that it’s pretty easy to do and it sounds good, but you can get pretty creative with this kind of thing as well because you could slightly embellish the sequence to make it somewhat different.
As a matter of fact, I used a sequence in my song “Airway” which you can check out on my Soundcloud. The primary piano melody repeats itself an octave higher at one point (at the 00:30 mark).
Important Things to Note About Learning Music Theory
1) There Are More Elements to Music Theory Than Listed Here
…but they fall under these umbrellas for the most part. This is a rounded-out answer to how much time you need to dedicate to learning and practicing each element of music theory in order to execute them properly. Most exceptional musicians never stop learning theory or stop using it in their daily practice.
2) You’ll Always Be A Student
I mentioned earlier that music theory is the type of art (and science) where you can be a student forever because there is no finish line. For example, at what point would you say that you have mastered arpeggios, modal mixture, or scales? It could go on forever.
3) It’ll Take Longer If You Don’t Follow A Structured Program
While 3-4 years of studying music theory for one hour per day is enough to learn the vast majority of the most useful music theory concepts, it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that you’ll learn it in this time because it depends on whether you follow a structured program or not, or if you get a great teacher.
If you can’t afford a traditional music school or a private teacher, I couldn’t recommend Punkademic’s Comprehensive Music Theory course enough. It’s very affordable, dense, organized, well-taught, and all parts of it including parts 1 to 21 are available if you get the all-access pass from my link. Once you’ve gotten the All-Access pass, you can navigate to the first part here.