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,