People can study music theory online in the same way they do other academic subjects. To choose the best classes for music theory, however, students need to ensure the goals of the class meet their needs and thoroughly examine the presentation of and resources related to course information. Communication and scheduling also are important considerations, as is credit transfer and cost.
The first step in choosing the best online music theory classes is to look at the syllabus for the class and determine what music theory elements the class will cover. The outline for the course should not simply indicate the progression of the course. It also should indicate what the specific objectives of the class are, such as being able to identify various musical meters, intervals and chord quality. Determining the specific objectives is important because music theory is an expansive field. Tonal composition based on diatonic scale and chord progressions and analysis, for example, is drastically different than atonal composition based on the twelve-tone row.
Next, look at the listening and visual examples included in the course. Many people learn well by reading a text, but music is by definition an auditory discipline that requires the translation of visual elements into physical sound production. Good online music theory classes thus should have audio files available for download or streaming and score excerpts that exemplify the theory concepts and allow the musician to recognize how the concept works in real practice.
Third, check the self-testing resources the online music theory classes offer. Music theorists need the opportunity to practice applying concepts and recognizing specific musical elements by ear. Self-testing resources may check understanding of musical terminology, interval and chord recognition, proper use of clefs and other elements such as instrument range and harmonics. The tools may be on a website or they can be freeware or shareware software programs the musician can download and use at leisure. The tools should be relevant to the course objectives and have 24-hour access.
Good online music theory classes also present musical terminology well, such as presenting an online glossary. In poor presentation, terminology is explained with other musical terminology, meaning that someone without previous musical knowledge cannot really grasp the idea at hand without looking up additional terms. Good presentation explains each theory concept independently and in layman's vocabulary.
The ability to communicate with the professor and other students matters, too. Music theory can be complex and confusing, so students need a way to check that they're on the right track and ask questions just as if they were in a physical classroom. The professor should be easy to reach via email, and there should be regular chat sessions scheduled for distanced-learning group study. This is critical because musicians will struggle later on if they don't have a solid understanding of fundamentals.
Additionally, look at the overall schedule for the course. People often choose online courses, music or otherwise, because they need to be able to do the coursework outside of the traditional work and academic day. Compare the schedule to the commitments the student already has. Even if the course has all the theory objectives for which a student is looking, it might not be the best fit if it is paced too quickly or slowly. Deadlines for assignment submissions should be clear, as should the penalties for late submissions.
The ability to transfer credit from the online music theory classes is also an issue. Sometimes people find that they would like to change academic institutions, but because different institutions have different curriculum standards, students cannot always guarantee their music theory credit is useful in another location. This ends up costing the student more money and more time, as he has to pay to retake a theory course that does meet the institution's standards. Music departments often tier music theory classes — for example, only offering Theory I in the fall — so students must also pay attention to the transfer process to avoid delays in obtaining a music theory degree.
Students who want to learn music theory online also should investigate the qualifications and experience of the professor. Check that the professor is active as a performer or composer and find out how long he has taught the class. Look at student reviews to determine how the professor communicates and assists students.
Cost is the last factor to examine when choosing an online music theory course. No matter how good a music theory class is, it isn't practical if it won't fit the student's available budget. At the same time, even excellent courses should not exceed the general market rate for the same information and tools. Comparing course fees and syllabi at the same time can shed light on which courses provide the most data and resources for the least cost.