5 of the best free music theory resources for producers

music theory
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Music theory often gets a bad rep in the music production community. There seems to be a loud, collective hurrah whenever a famous and successful artist declares that they're not intimately acquainted with it, implying that if they don't need to understand it, neither do we. 

And in a way, that's correct. You don't need to know everything about music theory to make great music. But if your aim is just that - to make music - then why not equip yourself with some extra knowledge and understanding of the thing you're trying to create? Music theory can't teach you how to have great ideas, but it can help you make your musical ideas into a reality, and understand what you're doing in the process. 

At it's core, music theory is a set of rules. You know how that goes - rules are made to be broken. The more deeply you understand the rules, how they work and why they're important, the more skilfully you can toss them out the window, and make something truly original while you're at it.

With that in mind, we've collected five of the finest online resources for producers looking to brush up on their music theory. Spoiler alert: one of them might sound a little familiar.

1. Ableton Learning Music

Makers of the ubiquitous DAW, Ableton Live, Ableton are dedicated to supporting those on their journey towards learning both music production and music theory. Their free and interactive website Learning Music is geared towards producers (not just Ableton Live users!) and provides an intuitive, step-by-step guide on how to understand and write melodies, chords, basslines, beats and song arrangements. This is a great place to start for those looking to learn music theory to support their music production.

2. Musictheory.net

Packed with interactive lessons that can be taken at your own pace, Musictheory.net is a stellar free resource for anybody looking to learn more about everything from intervals and note durations to more complex ideas such as Neapolitan chords and inversions. Once you're through the lessons, there's a ton of helpful exercises to practice your theory, and even a pop-up browser piano to play around with while you learn.

3. Tone Gym

When most people think about music theory, they think of sight-reading - the process of using your eyes to read sheet music and understand a piece of music visually. We'd argue that an equally (if not more) important skill is developing your ability to hear what's going on in the music, through ear training. 

ToneGym is a browser-based ear training program that's perfect for coaching your cochlea. Through ear-training games and exercises, it'll help you learn to identify various intervals, scales, chords, progressions and rhythms simply by hearing and recognising them by sound alone. This won't be particularly useful unless you understand at least some of the theory going on beneath what you're hearing, so we recommend checking out their Music Theory School before you start flexing your muscles in the gym. 

4. YouTube

Far and away the most popular online resource for learning just about anything these days is YouTube, and music theory's no exception. There's heaps of channels and creators to choose from. If you're looking for a just a single video that explain the core concepts, Andrew Huang has you covered. If you'd like to go a little deeper, try out some videos from Dave Conservatoire, Michael New, MusicTheoryGuy, Rick Beato and 12tone. There's even a 22-part course from Yale University on there, if you're feeling particularly ambitious.

5. MusicRadar

There is one other fantastic website that's loaded with step-by-step tutorials on all things music... and you happen to already be there. For those starting off on their journey into music theory, we recommend reading through our tutorial on music theory basics, and then browsing a few more from the list below that are relevant to you. We've got almost everything covered, from simple chord progressions all the way through to more complex ideas like suspensions and ornamentation.

Music theory tutorials

Music theory basics: notes, intervals, scales and chords explained

Music theory basics: how to make your chords sound better by adding extra notes

Music theory basics: how to use cadences to develop your chord progressions

Songwriting basics: The music theory you need to write a chord progression to fit a melody

Music theory you can use: how to find the right chords for a melody

Songwriting basics: using music theory to help come up with a melody to fit your chords

Songwriting basics: chord, melody and music theory tricks for DAW users

The easy guide to music theory: play keyboard solos using the pentatonic scale

The easy guide to music theory: augmented and diminished chords explained

The easy guide to music theory: working with triplets

The easy guide to music theory: understanding minor scales

The easy guide to music theory: how to construct and use the melodic minor scale

The easy guide to music theory: common ornaments and how to use them

The easy guide to music theory: how to use suspensions and suspended chords

The easy guide to music theory: how to use syncopation to make rhythms more exciting

How to use basic music theory to build a simple hook

How to read sheet music: guitar theory for beginners

10 things about music theory that every producer needs to know

12 quick and dirty music theory tips you can use today

40 basic music theory terms you need to know

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

Get over 70 FREE plugin instruments and effects… image
Get over 70 FREE plugin instruments and effects…
…with the latest issue of Computer Music magazine