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HALL OF FAMEon July 15, 2006
My background is in engineering and computer science. However, I do a lot of multimedia programming, and when it came to writing code for computer music I was at a loss because I have no formal musical training whatsoever. I've never played an instrument and I probably never will. However, I found it disabling to be unable to read music or understand the language of music theory when it came to reading the many helpful works on computer music that are in print and on the web. This book appeared to be what I was looking for and it turned out I was correct in my choice. It takes you from the absolute beginning, assuming you can't even read music, and takes you from intervals through phrases through counterpoint and into composition and performance. There are very helpful exercises at the end of every chapter with solutions at the end of the book, making this a good choice as a textbook or an excellent and inexpensive means of self study.

Part one talks about the notes of a scale,the different types of clefs and staves, the intervals between notes, major and minor scales, and keys and key signatures. Part two, on rhythm, starts by teaching you what simple whole notes are and moves on to sixteenth notes and syncopations. Also covered are time signatures, tempo and dynamics, and how to navigate through a piece of music. In part three, Tunes, you learn how to put tones and rhythms together to create a melody. Next you learn how to add chords to your tunes and find out about chord progressions and song forms. At this point, you have what you need to create your own pieces of music. Part 4, on accompaniment, teaches you how to train your ears so you can write down music as you hear it. You'll be able to create simple accompaniment parts on piano or guitar. Last, this section shows you how to take a song in one key and transpose it to a totally different key. Part 5, on embellishment, shows how to fill out your music with harmonies and counterpount, and how to add fancy chord substitutions to your tunes. The last section is on arranging music. It talks about how to write for specific voices and instruments and how to create attractive master scores and lead sheets. You also learn how to conduct your music in front of a choir, band, or orchestra. The appendices contain a complete glossary of terms, a chord reference, and answers to the chapter exercises.

I read the entire book, although parts one through three, which focuses on music literacy, are what I concentrated on because it coincided more to my needs. Parts 4 through 6 are more on performance and composition. I was so impressed by the book that I also bought "Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition", which I found equally accessible. I highly recommend both books.

Note that there really is very little difference between the first and second editions of this book, which makes sense because music theory does not change much over time. The parts of the second edition of book and chapters that they are composed of have identical titles and near identical content to the first edition. The only real difference is that the second edition has an audio CD in it that contains "The Complete Idiot's Guide Ear Training Course". If that is not important to you, going with the first edition and saving some money might be a good idea.
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on November 10, 2012
***I'm thoroughly enjoying this book, but I did find a couple of errors (I guess he is a good teacher!). In any event, I went to his website and found this errata page - no, not "erotic" page - with corrections to both the 1st and 2nd editions (and sure enough, he had corrected the error I discovered). Enjoy the book, it's great!***

Corrections to the Second Edition
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)

Corrections to the First Edition
Foreword: Third paragraph, second sentence, should read "...Michael mentions in Chapter 6."

Chapter 1, p. 5: Middle C (256Hz) on a guitar is actually the third fret of the A string. That's because music for guitar is written an octave higher than the actual pitch. While some guitarists might call the first fret on the B string "middle C" -- because that's what it looks like on the guitarist's staff -- that note actually plays an octave above middle C. (Kind of confusing, isn't it? Check out the Guitar Theory Resources page for a more in-depth explanation.)

Chapter 1, p. 14: In Exercise 1-5, I ask you to draw several different clefs. One of the clefs I ask you to draw is the soprano clef, which isn't mentioned in the text. Oops! Just ignore this clef in the exercise, if you would. Sorry!

Chapter 2, p. 18: In the third paragraph, the final sentence should read "Whenever you have two notes that describe the same pitch -- C-sharp being the same as D-flat -- the notes are enharmonic."

Chapter 2, p. 19: In the fourth paragraph, final sentence, seven half-steps above middle C is actually a G, not an A.

Chapter 2, p. 23: In the Mod-12 System section, next-to-last paragraph, the last line should read "play the major third, fifth, and major seventh."

Chapter 3, p. 28: The second musical example is actually the A chromatic scale, not the C chromatic scale.

Chapter 3, p. 29: The example for the E Major scale is incorrect. The fourth degree should be an A natural, not an A sharp.

Chapter 3, p. 29: The example for the G-flat Major scale is incorrect. The fourth degree should be a C-flat, not a C natural.

Chapter 3, p. 39: For the Aeolian mode, the seventh interval should be 2 half-steps, not 1. (The notes for this mode, on the following page, are correct.)

Chapter 6, p. 67: The following passage should read "When the eighth note is the beat, half a beat... will be a sixteenth note."

Chapter 6, p. 72: In Exercise 6-7 (and in the answer on p. 261), there aren't enough notes in what should be the second measure. The ninth note of the exercise (an eighth note that is tied to a second eighth note) should actually be a quarter note (still tied to the next eighth note.)

Chapter 8, p. 91: In the Note box, first sentence, it should read "...the first four measures", not notes

Chapter 8, p. 94: In the second Tip box, the end of the first sentence should read " strictly on the black keys."

Chapter 8, p. 94: In the "Use the Big Five" section, second paragraph, last sentence, the words in the parentheses should be "the fourth and the seventh"

Chapter 12, p. 151: In the Hearing Rhythms section, the third paragraph, the last part of the final sentence should read "or two quarters and four eighths, or whatever."

Chapter 17, p. 202: The example for the trill is incorrect. The trill should start on a D and alternate with the main note C (and end on the C, as well).

Chapter 18, p. 213. The discussion of how different instruments transpose is, admittedly, a little confusing. (Transposition is a tricky subject!) In the bullet points at the bottom of the page, you should note that when you play a C on an instrument, it sounds the specified interval below (or above) the C. So if a Bb instrument (like the trumpet) plays a C, it comes out Bb in concert pitch. If an Eb instrument (like the alto sax) plays a C, it comes out Eb in concert pitch. And if an F instrument (like the French horn) plays a C, it comes out F in concert pitch.

Appendix C, p. 260: In Exercise 2-6, the minor third interval, the second note should be an Eb, not an E.

Appendix C, p. 262: In Exercise 9-5, the next-to-last answer (Dbm7) should actually be C#m7.
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on February 24, 2006
I've attempted to read many theory books - this is the first one that makes sense. It doesn't spend half the book talking about time signatures and then jump into chord progressions. It spends just enough time on each area, building up so that the pieces fit together. I think everyone should start with this before they move up to The Jazz Theory Book by Levine - the more definitive guide but which is too heavy for me still.
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on November 25, 2011
If I wasn't one before I started, I sure would feel like one now. Thankfully, I know how to read music, have a keyboard and some foundation or I would have been completely overwhelmed. The terminology is dense. Having a keyboard is a must in my opinion. I can't imagine trying to learn this by only listening and reading. I bought this guide at the same time I bought a pocket guide to music theory. I use the pocket guide to make sense of this one. The biggest problem with this guide is it tries to cover too much at one time. For example in scales, it also goes into "intervals". I would have appreciated learning and digesting the basic information about major and minor scales followed by exercises and then have a "scales and intervals" or "intervals" section that presents the more esoteric information and terminology. Give me smaller "bites", let me practice it (keyboard), then give me more. I won't remember the intervals material and may not even use it until I get into attempting to write specifically for a particular sound or mood.
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on January 17, 2016
Well, this book isn't really for idiots like me, who know NOTHING about music theory. It's aimed more for musicians who have learned from mentors or on their own, who have not had any formal music theory. For those with NO musical experience, this will be a confusing, difficult book that introduces too much complex theory too fast. I need to know the difference between blues and jazz, not the fifteen major scales. Am I supposed to memorize that material? What good is it? I'm not worried about the major scales, I'm worried about what a chord is, or a blue note, or an A note. I need something VERY basic, and this isn't it. I got about a quarter of the way through this, and then I gave up. Be aware that this is for amateur musicians who have been playing for a while and have the basics down, who are ready for something more advanced. Good luck, and I hope you get more out of this than I did.
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on March 20, 2013
Yes I am an idiot when it comes to music. I am retired and decided to take up guitar at age 64. Never having any music education at all I looked for something to give me a clue to music therory. I found it here. If I can get something from this book imagine what someone with real smarts could accomplish. Highly reccommend!
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on February 25, 2007
This book takes what could be very dry information, and explains music theory in a very down-to-earth and practical way. The ear training CD that comes with it really helps orient your hearing with what you read in the text. The author presents the information in a fun, non-threatening way, and he breaks things down into easy-to-understand chapters.
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VINE VOICEon May 17, 2010
This is a review of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory" by Michael Miller. There are many excellent reviews here, so I shall only make a few points.

Obviously, this book is ideal for the beginner musician. However, even if you are not a beginner, I would highly recommend that you read through this book. For example, most guitarists I know never learned basic music theory. I know a couple of guitarists who have read through this book feeling quite humbled as they filled in the gaps in their knowledge.

While music theory is complicated, anything can be learned as long as the subject matter is broken down into small enough portions, and the portions are sequenced optimally to build from basic to more advanced understanding. In this manner, the writer of this book has designed and sequenced the training ideally for most learners. Even if you know nothing about music, just start this book at the beginning and you will have no problems.

With this book, you will learn all about pitches, intervals, scales, keys, basic music reading, time signatures, tempo, rhythms, melodies, chords, chord progressions (important for guitarists), circle of fifths (one of my favorite topics), harmony and counterpoint, arranging and composing.

In addition to "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory" I highly recommend the following additional references for guitarists: (1) the Hal Leonard book "Music Theory for Guitarists" (by Tom Kolb); and (2) "Blues You Can Use" (by John Ganapes). For guitarists who wish to learn how to sight read music, try "A Modern Method for Guitar - Volume 1: Book/DVD-ROM Pack" (by William Leavitt and Larry Baione). Lastly, if you can find a copy of "Be Dangerous on Rock Guitar" (by Richard Daniel) you can learn some guitar-specific theory you probably never knew before.

While a teenager or adult will have no problem self-studying with "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory.", I wonder how successful it would be for a child under 10. For a younger child, Music Ace Deluxe (computer-based instruction) might be a better choice for your beginner musician.

Thank you Michael Miller for an excellent book!
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on November 14, 2015
I'm surprised that so many found this book enjoyable or useful. I found it a frustrating chore to get through.

I had some background in music theory already but wanted a refresher and a more extensive re-introduction to the subject that would make relearning theory fun. I would have been better off reading again Dave Stewart's "The Musician's Guide to Reading and Writing Music" and "Inside the Music," books I read many years ago. Stewart, a professional musician and a very funny writer, covers a fraction of what Miller does but far more effectively.

Miller gets off on the wrong foot from the start. In his opening note to readers, he writes, "Everything there is about music can be explained by music theory." That sentence contains two of the three qualities that annoyed me throughout: flatfooted, ponderous writing and academic parochialism. The third annoyance is the lack of instructional savvy, the absence of context that would make these lessons easier to absorb. I kept thinking of the poor reader with no theory or keyboard handy, trying to make sense of this stuff.

Later in that same opening, he writes that without a grounding in theory, "you'll forever be on the outside, like an illiterate person in a library, all the wonders of music just out of reach." If so, you'll be there with Irving Berlin, John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Django Reinhardt, and a cruise ship's worth of other great musicians. Reading illiteracy is a bad analogy. An illiterate person can't comprehend or write written text, but folks who can't read notation & have no knowledge of music theory most certainly can comprehend, and create, music — even sophisticated music. It's arrogant and simply wrong to claim they can't.

There are any number of good reasons to learn theory, especially if you're a musician. Most obviously, it makes explaining your ideas to other musicians, and understanding their ideas, loads easier. It's a language, after all, and like other languages, it can give us a deeper appreciation for what it describes. What you wouldn't guess from reading this book is that learning the language can also be fun. I'm going back to Stewart.
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on November 21, 2012
I have played several instruments self-taught for most of my life. While I came to understand music more and more over the years, I never learned true music theory comprehensively. This book is enabling me to do that. For someone like me who knows music but wants to understand it in more depth, this book is excellent. It teaches music theory with text, cd, and exercises and does not require the ability to read music, but does incorporate reading as the lessons progress. It presents the sometimes confusing aspects of music in a clear and understandable way. Recommended.
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