Grades 1-5 Books
The best books I have yet come across have to be the Music Theory in Practice Books by Eric Taylor for grades 1 to 5. They helped me get to grade 5 originally and are endorsed by ABRSM.
They are, in my opinion, the #1 book, out there for learning the foundation of music theory. They have detailed and clear explanations of each aspect you need to know about, alongside numerous questions.
Even if the purpose of learning isn’t to complete music theory grades, they are still the best books I have seen yet, and are well worth the buy, especially at such a cheap price.
If you do choose to go for them, I do ask that you purchase them using the link off this website, as it will help provide the income necessary to keep this site online and regularly updated.
Grades 1 to 5 Websites
I’d highly recommend checking out OpenMusicTheory.com. They are open-source, and describe themselves as an online ‘textboox’. It’s a great resource for all students of music, providing a brief and concise overview of almost every topic within music theory.
Mymusictheory.com is also a great website, which offers free lessons for grades 1 to 8 and some basic brief exercises for all the grades. They also do a variety of books on music theory for grades 1 to 8, available here. Although I have not been able to check these books out yet (although they are on my to buy list!), I would be inclined to believe their quality would be high, if the website is anything to go by.
Reddit.com/r/musictheory/ also has a great community to help you learn. It’s well worth checking out every now and again and posting every so often. You learn faster when you help each other after all.
I don’t feel fully qualified to write lessons for grades 6-8 and onwards, seeing as I am still undertaking these myself, however as I am undertaking them currently, I do feel qualified to offer my opinion on numerous products which I have purchased.
The first product, which I am most pleased with, is Harmony and Voice Leading by Schachter and Aldwell. It offers a brief introduction into music theory with chapters 1-5 covering grades 1-5. These chapters do rush through grades 1-5 content, but the authors do state that these chapters are meant solely as a recap.
What really makes this book shine is the content from chapter 6 onwards. Most of the other books I have read and talk about below all jump into topics, explaining the purpose and resolution and effect of all the triads in one go, without giving the reader time to digest and understand the information.
This book is different.
It goes introduces chords one or two at a time, offering exercises which let the reader become completely comfortable with every aspect of the chords before moving on.
The authors do a great job at explaining some complex aspects of music theory and with the content being perfectly ordered, it really is my #1 recommendation for people once they complete grade 5 music theory.
The only downside I can see, is that it may not be tailored to sitting grades 6 and 7 exams. Simply because all the topics needed for grades 6 or 7 are covered in such high detail and depth that by the time the reader learns about them all, they are would be more than likely ready for grade 8.
It also has a useful workbook, which is split into two volumes, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Both offer useful exercises to the reader, and can help clear up some topics and increase understanding. They aren’t a must have, but are handy.
The Harmony and Voice Leading and it’s workbooks are very pricey, with the latest edition often being $100+. Although I haven’t had a huge amount of opportunity to exam the different editions, I do believe that although there are what appear to be good and well-thought out changes in the later editions, you can definitely get by just fine with the earlier edition if you are strapped for cash.
The second book I have found most useful, is Piston’s Harmony book. There are earlier editions, which seem to be almost as good and are a lot cheaper, so check them out if the fifth edition is too pricey.
The book is a very comprehensive and well thought out guide, that goes from grade 6 up to final year of degree level, and in some cases beyond. It explains everything very well, and is a classic for all university students, but has been a massive help in getting me through grades 6-8.
Piston does go into a lot of depth in various topics, and offers helpful exercises at the end of eac chapter, and like Harmony and Voice Leading, briefly touches upon the more basic aspects of music theory in the first few chapters, again almost as a ‘recap’.
The only reason this book isn’t number one on the list is because he goes fairly deep into some of the topics a little too early. For example, he introduces the functions of the triads on each scale degree and their inversions within one chapter, and then refers back to that chapter regularly. It would have been better if it had been split up into 3-4 chapters, as with Harmony and Voice Leading.
That being said, Piston’s Harmony has been a great help in my learning experience, and would be worth checking out.
Butterworth’s Harmony in Practice book is again endorsed by ABRSM. It is a great book, and it has helped me a lot. It offers a lot of exercises that would prepare you for grades 6-8 theory exams, and really help drill into you different rules that you need to remember.
The only negative thing I found about this book, is it rushes it’s explanation of the rules 4-part chord progressions, which is one of the bigger jumps when going from grades 5 to 6.
For me, while Butterworth’s Harmony in Practice isn’t quite as useful as the first book discussed: Harmony and Voice Leading, it is a joint second with Piston’s Harmony book.
Whilst Piston’s Harmony is aimed more at understanding the wider aspects of music theory and composition, going into some extremely detailed and advanced topics, Butterworth’s Harmony in Practice book focuses on just what is needed for grades 6-8. As such, it teaches the necessary concepts better for grades 6-8, and offers better and more thought out exercises that Piston. But then that is due to it’s intended audience being different to Piston’s.
Consequently, if you choose to not buy Harmony and Voice Leading (the first book), I’d recommend getting this Harmony in Practice book by Butterworth and then looking at Piston’s Harmony book.
But if you had to choose just one book between the two, then for those sitting grades 6-8 Butterworth’s Harmony in Practice book would be the best bet. For those interested in learning music theory outside of exams, Piston’s harmony book is the one to go for.
Again by butterworth, the Theory Workbooks (available in all grades, but I recommend the grades 6-8 pictured below) are good buys.
The are quite well tailored to each specific grade, and each chapter is absed on a question seen in the exam.
The chapters all offer basic guidelines for completing these questions, showing worked examples and then giving numerous different sample questions.
Due to the specificity to each of the exams, the workbooks are very useful to those sitting grades 6-8 exams. The only downside I have found is that the explanations for some of the questions assume you have knowledge which isn’t taught in the previous grades. This for me, is the main reason why these books don’t rank as highly as the others in this list.
However, if you were to get a combination of two books, these books would definitely be a good second buy. Ideally, I’d recommend getting them with Harmony and Voice Leading (the first grade 6+ book), but if there are no affordable editions of that available, then Butterworth’s previously mention book Harmony in practice would be a good buy.
As discussed previously, the only reason I don’t recommend Piston’s book in combination with these theory workbooks is that they are tailored for different audiences. Piston is designed for those hoping to compose and study advanced music theory in great levels of depth, whereas the theory workbooks and Harmony in practice are aimed at those completed grades 6-8 (although these grades 6-8 are a great precursor to studying advanced harmony, and should by no means be looked down on, they are simply different means to the same end).
Resources to avoid
To be honest, I was happy with nearly all of the books and resources I have got, with one exception. Music Theory in Practice for Grades 6-8.
They are, in my opinion, terrible. The grades 1-5 version of these books are magnificent. To complete grades 1-5, all you really need is past papers, these books, and google searches, which is why they are the only book I recommended for grades 1-5 at the top of this page.
However, whilst the grades 1-5 books are written by Eric Taylor, the Grades 6-8 books have new authors: Julian Webb and Peter Aston. This is definitely pity, as the book is simply pages and pages of constant text which is extremely un-user-friendly and the exercises leave something to be desired. It is such as pity, as the earlier grades were simply magnificent.
Please, do not waste your money on these books when there are so many better options out there.
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