The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, 2nd Edition

The best-selling guide to music theory — more than 250,000 copies sold!

Finally, an easy-to-understand guide to music theory for all beginning musicians!

Do you sing or play an instrument? Can you read music? Have you ever wanted to compose your own music? Have you ever tried arranging a song for a group of musicians? Do you know how to put three notes together to make a chord — or three chords together to make a chord progression?

Everything there is about music can be explained by music theory. Music theory presents the building blocks you use to play and write music, and details the rules you use to put all those notes and rhythms to good use. When you have a knowledge of basic theory, you’re the master of all things musical; without a solid grounding in theory, you’ll forever be on the outside, like in illiterate person in a library, all the wonders of music just out of reach.

Fortunately, music theory doesn’t have to be hard — or boring. It’s really all about tones and rhythms, and how you put them together to create chords and melodies and complete songs. If you think that something like a Dm7/G chord is hard, you need to learn your theory; music theory helps you deconstruct complex chord structures, or build sophisticated harmonies from the most simple of melodies.

The question is how you go about learning music theory. One approach is to take a music theory class. Another is to enlist the aid of a theory teacher. (Both good ideas, by the way.)

But there’s another way to learn more about the music you love — and it’s called The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory. This book takes you from the most basic basics all the way through leading a choir or orchestra through the music you’ve arranged — in simple steps, using easy-to-understand language and examples. You don’t even need to know how to read music to get started; this book will teach you how to read and write music and even how to transcribe songs you hear on the radio.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory is designed to be a self-teaching tool for anyone wishing to learn music theory. The book starts with basic notes and rhythms; advances through scales, melodies, chords, and harmony; and ends with valuable information about accompanying, arranging, and conducting your own music. In short, it presents pretty much everything you’ll need to know about music theory — for musicians of any level.

Each chapter presents a basic concept of music theory, and progresses through that concept using a combination of text and musical examples. In some chapters you’ll find pages of reference material — scale listings, chord charts, and the like — that you can turn back to whenever necessary. At the end of each chapter are exercises based on the theory presented in that chapter. Work through these exercises to test your newfound knowledge — and find out what areas you need to work on a little more!

Here’s some of what you’ll find in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory:

  • Sound strategies for understanding key signatures and scales — including all major and minor scales
  • An idiot-proof introduction to time signatures — from 4/4 to 9/8
  • A comprehensive chord reference that shows how to build virtually any type of chord, in any key
  • Tuneful techniques for adding chords to your melodies and writing melodies to your chords

When you read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, you’ll learn how to:

  • Read and write music notation
  • Master major and minor scales
  • Count out different rhythms
  • Use common chord progressions
  • Put tones and rhythms together to create melodies
  • Add a bass line to an existing melody or chord progression
  • Jazz up a song with different chords
  • Construct an orchestral or vocal score
  • Develop a “lead sheet” that can be used by other musicians
  • Transcribe music you hear on the radio or CDs
  • Interpret traditional Italian musical terms

The Complete Idiot’s Guide Ear Training Course

The new second edition of this best-selling book includes a bonus audio CD which contains The Complete Idiot’s Guide Ear Training Course. This easy-to-use CD teaches you how to:

  • Identify specific pitches and intervals
  • Recognize major and minor scales
  • Hear complex rhythms
  • Transcribe complete melodies
  • Determine different types of chords

If you’re daunted by boring old traditional music theory books, then it’s time to make music theory fun and easy — with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory!

Corrections and Clarifications

As happens with any printed work, a few errors slipped into the initial printings of this book. All errors in the first edition have all been corrected in the second edition. The errors in the second edition will be corrected in subsequent printings. (In fact, you may have a newer printing that has most of these corrections already made.)

This page lists all known mistakes or confusing passages. If you happen to come across any other errors or confusing sections, please feel free to email me using the contact form elsewhere on this site. Your feedback is always appreciated.

  • Chapter 1, p. 5: The frequency for middle C is actually 261Hz, not 256Hz — and if you can hear that difference, you have golden ears! In addition, middle C on a guitar is the fifth fret of the G string, not the A string.
  • Chapter 2, p. 21: The Note on perfect intervals is slightly misleading. Put more simply, the whole concept of perfect intervals has to do with the ratios between frequencies; perfect intervals sound so closely related because their frequencies are closely related. For example, a perfect octave has a ratio of 2:1 between the two frequencies — the octave is twice the frequency of the starting pitch (which is called the fundamental). If the fundamental is 440Hz, the octave above is twice that frequency, or 880Hz. Similarly, a perfect fifth has a ratio of 3:2; you take the starting pitch and multiply it by 3/2 to get the perfect fifth above (660Hz for a 440Hz fundamental). A perfect fourth has a ratio of 4:3; multiply the fundamental by 4/3 to get the perfect fourth (586Hz for a 440Hz fundamental). Other intervals have more complex ratios, which make them less perfect. For example, a perfect third has a ratio of 5:4, not quite as simple as 2:1, 3:2, or 4:3. Put into a series, each increasingly complex interval/ratio forms what is called a harmonic series, and the individual intervals/ratios (in order) are called harmonics. But try not to get hung up on all the math; what’s important is that you know what the perfect intervals are, not necessarily how they came to be.
  • Chapter 3, p. 30: The C-flat Major scale displayed here is incorrect. (The table actually shows the A-sharp minor scale, for some reason.) The correct notes for the C-flat Major scale are as follows: C-flat (B natural), D-flat, E-flat, F-flat (E natural), G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, C-flat again.
  • Chapter 3, p. 31: In the Natural Minor section, second paragraph, third sentence, it should read “up FIVE or down two” — that is, you move up five steps or down two steps to get to the sixth of the scale.
  • Chapter 5, p. 61: In the third paragraph, second sentence, it states that flags “can be replaced with horizontal stems at the end of the normal horizontal stems.” The second “horizontal” should say “vertical,” instead.
  • Chapter 9, p. 115: In the Augmented Chords section, at the end of the first paragraph, the augmented chord should be notated 1-3-#5.
  • Chapter 9, p. 118: In the Minor Seventh Chords chart at the top of the page, several chords — while enharmonically correct — are labeled incorrectly. In particular, the D-flat min7 should be labeled C#min7; the G-flat min7 should be labeled F#min7; and the A-flat min7 should be labeled G#min7.
  • Chapter 9, p. 118: In the Other Sevenths section, it states that a “minor seventh on top of a diminished triad creates a diminished seventh chord.” Actually, it creates a half-diminished seventh chord. A true diminished seventh chord has a double-flatted seventh — in the case of C dim 7, the notes would be C, E-flat, G-flat, and B-double-flat (A natural).
  • Chapter 9, p. 120: In the discussion about eleventh and higher chords, note that it’s the thirteenth chord that’s about the highest you’ll find; a fifteenth chord is actually two octaves up from the root.
  • Chapter 10, p. 133: On the third line, the choices leading to the ii chord should be I, iii, and vi — not the IV. (Although, of course, all rules are meant to be broken!)
  • Chapter 12, p. 160: The example for the minor sixth interval, ascending, is incorrect. The minor sixth actually occurs between the first and the third words of the musical phrase, “IS this THE little girl…”
  • Chapter 14, p. 181: In the second paragraph, second line, it should read “the original key-of-D melody.”
  • Chapter 17, p. 219: The heading “Glissandos” should actually be “Glissandi.”
  • Appendix A, p. 265: The word andante is misspelled as “adante.” also, the word andantino is misspelled as “adantino.”
  • Appendix B, p. 275: The C#9 chord is annotated incorrectly. The seventh of this chord should be a B-natural, not a B#.
  • Appendix B, pp. 275-277: Regarding the guitar tabs, several of the tabs for Major 9 chords (in particular, the CM9, D-flat M9, DM9, E-flat M9, EM9, FM9, G-flat M9, GM9, A-flat M9, AM9, B-flat M9, and BM9) are inexplicably blank. I apologize for this error. (I recommend you check out the interactive guitar chords chart at for a very complete listing of guitar chords in many different variations.)
  • Appendix C, p. 280: Exercise 1-5, the fourth clef is the tenor clef, not the soprano clef.
  • Appendix C, p. 286: Exercise 9-2, the second-to-last chord (Eb minor) is enharmonically the same as D# minor, but a heck of a lot easier to notate and play.
  • Appendix C, p. 289: Exercise 16-1, the fifth chord, A/D, should use the notes (bottom to top): D, A, C#, E.
  • Appendix D, p. 297: Interval exercise 53, the interval is a minor ninth (an octave and a minor second)

Author: Michael Miller

Publisher: Alpha Books

Published: September 2005

Page count: 314 pp. w/ audio CD

Price: $19.95

ISBN: 1592574378

Purchase at

Comments (1)

  1. Dale March 26, 2016 at 2:04 am

    I like you’re Guide to Music Theory very much and recommend it to my amateur students who are serious about learning more than just the guitar. I have your second edition and noticed a couple of things in it: The Minuet in G famously attributed to JS Bach is by a composer named Christian Petzold (Royal Conservatory Guitar Syllabus). Also in your chord reference, I would think that maj. and min. 6’ths would be important as well as 13th. I had a young student who joined his high school jazz band but knew little of jazz chords. I gave him an assignment to go through his charts (about 5, I think) and add up the number of different chord qualities and extensions. 13th chords won by a large margin! Thanks for your contribution to understanding of music – I plan to order couple more of your books.

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