Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Learning (and Describing) How Music Works: Free Online Resources


Cartoon by Toby Rush, man describing a musical passage to a woman "And then the bassoon choir comes in like flaming honeydew melons from on high"

Cartoon from “Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People” by Toby Rush.

You can enjoy music without knowing how it works, but knowing even a little bit will help you hear things you might have missed otherwise (for example, those repeated notes in Bach’s Magnificat and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude).

And you’ll be able to describe to people what’s great in the music you’ve heard.  There are lots of great resources to help you learn how.

I recently found a set of pages explaining various aspects of music notation (and more) using a format you don’t typically see:  it looks like a graphic novel.  And I love the title:

Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People

While there’s a lot of information on each page, it’s very pleasing to the eye and easy to read.  The pages are available in several languages, and the English-language pages include British and American versions to accommodate, for example, the differing names for note lengths (quaver versus eighth note).

Read these pages, and soon you too will be able to casually toss around terms like “circle of fifths,” “complex meter,” “species counterpoint,” and “motivic development”!

But if you find yourself saying, “Hold on there, Sparky (Sparky is the Music Theory Dog of the series), you’re getting a little ahead of me,” here are some more options.

Coursera’s online course “Fundamentals of Music Theory,” offered by the University of Edinburgh, will start up on January 30, 2017 (a little off-topic, but also on Coursera, Yale University’s course “Introduction to Classical Music” begins January 2, 2017).

If you don’t have a lot of time, try

If you like to go at your own pace, see

If you’re keen on lots of details, check out

If you like using flash cards, look at the musical offerings on

Spend a little time at any of these websites, and pretty soon you’ll be able to say

Photo of Clara Schumann captioned "I see what you did there"

Just watch out for those flaming honeydew melons.


Image attributions:  Cartoon from Toby Rush’s “Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People”

Clara Schumann, photograph by Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

2 thoughts on “Learning (and Describing) How Music Works: Free Online Resources

  1. This is an amazing collection of very useful music rudiments (not mostly “theory”, as I understand it) materials, Chris- well done! Really helpful for folks who have no, or very little, background. But as soon as it gets into such contextual/aesthetic/style-based issues as “species counterpoint” these materials become more problematic, IMO, as they are (necessarily, in this pedagogy) dealt with mechanistically- they really require the guidance of a skilled teacher (available via Coursera, or so I gather), providing feedback and correction as needed. Were you going to circulate this to the whole Choir- or may I? A bunch of this stuff would have been very helpful indeed for folks in my sight-singing/ear-training/rudiments sessions last year, and I’d love to pass it along.

    Great work!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Toby Rush says that these pages were originally review sheets for his students, so they were in fact used with an instructor’s guidance ( I thought folks might enjoy finding out a little about Mr. Fux and Palestrina and getting an idea of what this counterpoint business is all about (“blissfully awesome and super fun!”). Learning how to write counterpoint is a lot tougher–I mean, some guys have written entire books on it!

      If this material would be useful, you are welcome to pass it along!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.