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Books Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Music Theory vs Music Theory For Dummies

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The For Dummies franchise is now celebrating its 20th year in business, having begun with DOS For Dummies in 1991. The initial idea was pure brilliance. There were literally millions of computer users out there who had no clue as how to get around Microsoft’s arcane DOS system, and the technical manuals available were of very little help to the average user who had no previous knowledge of computer systems.

Then along came DOS For Dummies, a book geared toward the average person, which made learning how to navigate these systems a relatively easy process. The tone of these books was very user friendly, and never talked down to the user.

As anyone who has been to a bookstore in the past 20 years will note, the For Dummies series has been a huge success. They have published more than 1600 titles to date, and seem practically unstoppable.

Or are they? In the grand tradition of capitalism, they have spawned some competitors. The most notable of these being The Complete Idiot’s Guide series, launched in 1993 with their Complete Idiot’s Guide To DOS.

On the surface, the two series may seem identical, although the Dummies books seem to be a bit more widespread thanks to numerous parodies, and their earlier start.

But is there a difference between these two guides? For those of us old enough to remember, there was a famous ad campaign from Pepsi called “The Pepsi Challenge.” What they did was give blindfolded customers a drink of Coke and of Pepsi, and asked them which soda they preferred. The results of this blind test indicated a majority preferred the taste of Pepsi, which was pretty embarrassing to market leader Coke. It may have even led to the disastrous introduction of New Coke in 1985.

We decided to take The Complete Idiot’s Guide challenge against the For Dummies series, to see for ourselves what the differences between the two handbooks actually were.

Out of all the various subjects the two offer competing guides on, we chose music theory. It is a subject I had some previous knowledge in, and it is also something which can be presented in a variety of ways. It seemed like a good place to start.

Structurally, the two series are pretty close. Dummies contains five parts, broken down into 21 chapters, while Idiot’s Guide has six parts, broken down into 20 chapters. Both contain three Appendices, and an audio CD.

But the different approaches are apparent right from the beginning. Whereas Chapter One of Music Theory For Dummies is titled “What Is Music Theory Anyway?” Chapter One of The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Music Theory is “What Are Pitches And Clefs?”

In the Idiot’s Introduction, the reader is introduced to all of the basic thoughts behind music theory, why it is important, how it can help even the non-musician, and what you will find in the book. With those niceties out of the way, the first chapter jumps headfirst into the meat and potatoes of the subject matter.

Music Theory For Dummies also has an Introduction, although it is simply concerned with the actual organization of the book. It is in chapter one where we are introduced to the subject itself, why it is important, etc.

From here on, we are presented with the basic concepts of music theory. In this regard, the two books are presenting the same basic facts. Although the enjoyment of different types of music is highly subjective, a Bach fan could hate Tchaikovsky for example, or a Beatles fan may detest Lady Gaga, the basic language of music is the bedrock foundation of it all.

So the real differences between the books lies in their presentations of music theory. The Idiot’s Guide begins with tones, or notes as most people refer to them. This is then expanded into explanations of sharps and flats, and finally into how scales work. I think this is the very root of music, because without sound you have nothing.

Dummies first launches into a discussion of rhythm, which is of course quite valid. The notes certainly must be arranged in a rhythm of sorts to turn them from single sounds to actual music. But doing so before explaining what notes are seems to be putting the cart before the horse.

Part Two of The Idiot’s Guide is devoted to rhythm, which is entirely logical to me. Part Three is titled “Tunes” and shows how to put the notes and rhythms together to make an actual song or composition. Parts Four, Five, and Six refine these concepts more, to fill out the piece for the rest of your band or orchestra. These three parts are respectively titled “Accompanying,” “Embellishing,” and “Arranging.”

The Dummies handbook seems to lose the plot a bit. In Part Three “Harmony: Fleshing It Out” we are finally introduced to the notes and scales, at the halfway point of the book. Part Four, “Form: How It’s Shaped” goes into the differences between popular music and classical music, which is fine, but not really something I was looking for. Part Five “The Part Of Tens” kind of speaks for itself with these chapters, “Six Most Frequently Asked Questions About Music Theory,” “Ten Cool And Useful Resources,” and “Nine Music Theorists You Should Know About.”

Overall, the feel of Music Theory For Dummies is lightweight. I did not find much of it useful in a practical sense at all. Sure, the notes and rhythm sections are very important, and the basics of music theory. But beyond that, there really isn’t a whole lot to sink your teeth into.

Both books offer audio CDs to embellish the information. Again, I would have to give the nod to The Complete Idtiot’s Guide. The CD included with it is set up as a series of lessons, with exercises running through all of the subjects taught in the book. The CD with Music Theory For Dummies is pretty random and hard to follow, with no exercises, just examples of the various sounds alluded to in different chapters. None of these are presented chronologically either.

Another big bonus for The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Music Theory is the set of pen and paper exercises included at the end of each part. While both books are written with the layman in mind, for someone who wishes to come away with a solid understanding of what music theory really is, and how it is applied, The Complete Idiot’s Guide is hands-down the winner in my view.

This challenge coincides with a promotion that the people of The Complete Idiot’s Guides are running through the month of October. They are offering a 50% off incentive for orders through the Idiot’s guide site, if you use code CIGBlog11.

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About Greg Barbrick