Welcome to Offtonic Theory! I'm Mauro Braunstein and I'm here to teach you music theory. Nice to meet you!


This is an interactive book written in dialogue form. It's interactive because there will be examples to play with, and it's in dialogue form because...

Because what?

...because I feel like it. The reader will be represented by the stupid student, whose questions I will answer in the text. You, the actual reader, are much smarter than the fake stupid student I'm making up. The idea is for the tone to be more conversational and less "teachy". People used to write like this all the time. I don't know why it fell out of favor. I'm hoping that the questions will be things that you, the actual reader, might be thinking about but don't know whether to ask. If I say something weird, I will have my stupid student stop me and say that it's weird, and maybe you'll notice that it's weird too. So maybe my stupid student isn't that stupid!

They say that true intelligence lies in asking the correct questions.

Do they now?

Hey, I'm the one asking; you should just keep answering!

::sigh:: OK, fine. Anyway, let's get on to music theory, shall we?

Hold up, hold up, what is music theory anyway, and why do I have to learn it?

Great question! First of all, you don't have to learn it. I hope you're here because you want to be here, because you're interested. To answer your question, though, music theory is the theory of music.

Ha fucking ha.

Theory just means "explanation", and the theory of music is just the explanation of how music works. Some of it is just naming things; some of it is interpreting things; some of it is understanding why things are the way they are. Some of it is obvious and subjective; some of it is completely up to interpretation; some of it is in between.

Music theory is practiced primarily by means of analysis. What does this mean? It means taking a piece of music and trying to answer questions about it. The most basic question, of course, is "what's happening in this piece of music?" There are many levels of answers here, depending on what you're trying to learn. We'll talk about many of them in the rest of the book, but you might want to know what the chords are, what their functions are, what the melodic contour is, what scales are used, what instruments are used, what the dynamics are, etc. Some of these questions are easy to answer and some are not.

Wait, WTF are dynamics? Also, scales? Like, fish scales? Or like the thing the nurse makes you step on with the numbers that go up every time you go to the doctor?

Er... We'll get to that, we'll get to that! I don't want to get sidetracked, but just to whet your curiosity, dynamics are just how loud or soft the music is, and scales are... sets of notes... which... You know what, just sit tight; we'll get to those. Believe it or not, that's a hard question to answer, but don't worry; we will get to it.

Back to analysis, the other main question we like to ask is much harder to answer: "why is this piece of music effective?"

You mean, why does it sound good?

Actually... no. Sounding good is very subjective, and sometimes the music doesn't sound good, on purpose, because the composer was specifically trying to create an unpleasant sound. It's still worth asking why the sound is unpleasant, as well as why the composer might have wanted to create an unpleasant sound in the first place. We like to think of music as a good thing to listen to, but sometimes music can challenge us, or make us sad, or make us angry, or patriotic, or happy, or religious, or many other things.

Wait, wait, wait. Wait. WAIT. What is music, anyway?

Heh. Heh heh. Heh. OK. So, what is music? My band teacher in 6th grade, Mr. Schwartz, asked this question to the class. I remember it very clearly. People said "notes". Nope. People said "notes and rests". Clever! Nope. Some smartass (might have been me, might not) said "the space between the notes". NOPE. So he picked up his stool and dropped it. That, he said, was not music. Then he picked up his stool and dropped it, making a ridiculous face, and that, he said, was music! "Music is anything meant to be music."

...Anything? Is silence music? Is a urinal music?

Yes to the first one, no to the second. I disagree with Mr. Schwartz's assessment. John Cage, pushing people's expectations in weird modernist ways, wrote a very interesting piece called 4'33", consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence (in three movements). Actually, there is no such thing as true silence; as everyone knows, silence is just a cue for the audience to cough and shuffle in their seats. That's what you're actually supposed to listen to. Don't turn 4'33" in for a composition assignment. It's like "painting" a blank canvas and appreciating the unevenness of the fabric. F for effort. But it's still music.

As for the urinal, while the sound of urine hitting it may well be music if you make the appropriate ridiculous face while you pee, we need to narrow our definition somewhat: music is any organized sound meant to be music. The urinal fails the "sound" bit. Talking is organized sound, but it generally isn't meant to be music (but sometimes it is, like in spoken word music). Birdsong is not meant to be music by the birds who make it, but if you decide to play a recording of birdsong, you can decide that that is actually music. You can even decide that all the sound coming into your ears right now is music, your own private, ephemeral music that you will never get a chance to hear again or play for others. I would say that the broader definition is a good one for art in general — art is anything meant to be art — but music has to be made specifically of sound (silence being simply a zero-loudness sound).

So you're telling me that rap is actually music? My grandma won't be happy to hear that!


I think I get what music is and what music theory is. But why do I need to learn it?

As I said, you don't. But if you want to understand more about music, you should. Music theory helps you acquire a toolbox that you can use for writing music or even just playing music. Or even just listening to music! (I'm going to generally assume that you're looking to write music, though.) Music theory allows you to communicate intelligently about music with other people. In my opinion, it's always better to know more stuff than to know less stuff, right? That said, not everybody is interested in music theory, and if you're one of those people, perhaps you should go do something else. I think music theory is really awesome, but then again, I'm pretty good at it, which is why I'm writing this book. I'm tired of seeing the same questions pop up in /r/musictheory time and time again and answered with wrong answers. I want people to learn music theory properly so that they can understand the music for real. If you want to understand music properly, keep reading. If you don't, there's no shame in that.

Now that was motivational. OK, I want to learn music theory. What do I need to know before we start?

Nothing! While this book may be a bit too in-depth for total beginners, I'm not assuming that you know anything already.

Great! What will I need to do, though? Will this take... work? I'm allergic to work.

Is it an allergy or a sensitivity? Or just laziness? Never mind, I already know the answer. Yes, this will take work. You can't hope to understand music just by reading. In this book I will also teach you to sing straight from sheet music, and you should probably have a piano keyboard handy to play around with, but if you need to you can get by without it by using a virtual keyboard. I'm planning on making one for you.

Did you say "sing straight from sheet music"? I have to sing? And I'm a guitar player/DAW user; I don't need to learn sheet music, you elitist asshole.

Tough shit.

No, seriously. Do I have to?

Standard music notation is how people talk about music in real life, so yes, you do need to learn to read sheet music, because I'm not going to humor your bullshit. A lot of people have problems with sheet music for some reason. I've honestly never understood why there's such reluctance. But even if you have your own music notation system that's oh so much better, I don't really care because standard music notation is standard, and it's what everyone uses. If your better system is that much better, you can convince everyone to use it, and then I'll change over to it.

As for singing, yeah, you have to do it.

But... my voice sucks!

Tough it out.

But... I'm mute! Like, I'm physically incapable of producing sound through vocal cords!

OK, this is a more difficult situation. You can just hear the notes in your head instead of singing them out loud, but that's a lot harder than singing. I'm sorry, I don't really know how to overcome that particular challenge. Maybe you can play some sort of variable-pitch instrument?

But... What if I'm tone-deaf?

Are you really? So there is a condition known as tone-deafness that some people have, where they are actually incapable of discerning pitch. I know someone with this condition. I've read that it's possible to overcome it somehow with a lot of effort, but I don't know if that's actually true. Music theory requires developing your ability to discern pitches, so if you're incapable of doing that, you may have a problem. On the other hand, most people who say they're tone-deaf aren't, in which case, tough shit.

Anything else I'll have to do?

It's important when studying music theory to have a wide repertoire. This means that you should listen to and engage with a wide variety of music in a wide variety of genres, not just whatever genres you care about. This is particularly important, because my examples will hopefully be unfamiliar to you. I study Jewish liturgical music, and I'm Brazilian, I play videogames, and I like Bach. There will be examples from Jewish liturgy, from bossa nova and chorinho, from the games I like, and from Bach, among other genres, simply because that's what I know best. I hope that you don't share all these musical interests so that the music you see here can broaden your musical horizons. I often see people asking questions that would have very obvious answers if the person asking had ever ventured outside of his or her own little musical world, so I'm going to make an effort to help you do that.

Oh, one more thing: the Offtonic Keyboard! It's a virtual keyboard so that you can play the examples, try out chords, match pitches, etc. You may want to have that on a separate window that you can switch to. Just click on it to turn it on, and you can either click on notes or use your computer keyboard to play it (with a QWERTY layout, or else it may not work). If you put your mouse button down over a note and then drag it off the note before releasing it, the note will keep playing; just click on the note (and release the button over it) to make it stop. This is on purpose to help you play many notes at once; it's not a bug! Just click anywhere outside the keyboard to turn it off (it shouldn't be eating a lot of CPU, but it's better to be careful).

All right, that's it. Let's see how it goes!

Up: Table of Contents
Next: Chapter 0: Rules of Music