Which Bits of Music Theory Are Most Relevant for Songwriters?

You don’t need to learn every area of music theory all at once. Here’s a short list to get you started.

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The Benefits of Music TheoryTo put it succinctly, music theory is what allows musicians to be literate. It makes it possible to listen to music and understand what’s going on. This is important knowledge, because it allows composition to become a positive action, rather than a random hunting around for something that sounds good. The most obvious benefit of an understanding of music theory is not necessarily the improvement of musicianship (though that certainly happens). It’s greatest benefit is the ability to understand why something sounds good, and to modify it for use in your own songs.

The idea that music theory will stunt creativity is simply not true, and borders on the silly; the world’s greatest composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, and countless thousands others) not only knew music theory, but were known as master teachers of theory in their day. And to say that Mozart was a good composer but could have been more creative if he hadn’t been stunted by theory is ludicrous.

Having said all that, it might be true to say that there are bits of rudimentary music theory which are more specifically important for songwriters than other parts. Here’s a short list of rudiments that you would do well to get under your belt:

  1. Basic note reading in treble and bass clef. This is a vital part of being an all-round musician, equating to the basic ability to read and write a language.
  2. Basic rhythmic notation. You can create some really fine backing rhythms and rhythmic interplay between instruments once you know how to put it into notation. This skill also allows you to identify what’s going on in a song, and adapt it for your own use.
  3. Intervals. An interval is the space between two notes; for example, the opening melodic interval of “Hey Jude” is a descending minor 3rd. Being able to dissect melodies and understand what’s going on requires a good knowledge of intervals.
  4. Basic chord theory. A song’s chord progression is the landscape, as it were, for the other important elements such as lyric, melody and rhythm. Understanding how chords like to move is a vital part of songwriting.
  5. Major and minor scales. Probably every song you write will be based on a major or minor scale. A knowledge of scales does a lot for you, including making transposition to different keys easier.
  6. Time signatures. Changing time signatures within a song is a favourite technique of progressive rock bands, but can really raise the creativity level of music in almost any genre.

With those six basic areas of musical rudiments, you can significantly raise your compositional output, and turn the writing of music from being a random search for something good into something far more sophisticated.

And once you’ve got a handle on those areas, it’s time to raise the bar again by getting familiar with:

  1. Altered chords, and various non-chord-tones.
  2. Chord inversions.
  3. Modes.
  4. Cadences.
  5. Complex time signatures

Becoming more literate allows you to take those creative ideas that you hear in other songs and identify them accurately. There’s a wonderful Kern & Hammerstein tune that I heard recently at an anniversary reception, called “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, recorded by hundreds of singers. Peggy Lee’s version is stunningly gorgeous. It has a trumpet line that really grabs attention. You can spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the trumpet is doing at 0’09”, and why it sounds so… different.

But all that time evaporates when you realize that the song is in a major key (E-flat major), and the trumpet is playing in a mode (Eb mixolydian). That knowledge then allows you to think of ways that you can incorporate mixolydian effects into your own music.

So stop thinking of theory as something that stunts creativity. It does the opposite. It opens your mind, helps you identify musical effects you’re imagining, and speeds up the songwriting process.

If you want to check out my own musical rudiments course, check out my “Easy Music Theory with Gary Ewer” page.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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12 Comments

  1. Pingback: Special Subject Investigation | Zac Thompson

  2. On songsville’s #2: “Identify the diatonic chords available for that key”: Obviously this is important, but I have actually found it to be a bit of a trap. I find I have to consciously decide to NOT look to the standard diatonic chords if I want to write anything distinctive. Once you know those six (or seven) chords, it becomes almost too easy to use them. Use too many and it starts to feel sort of generically bland or slick. I think they nail down the key too strongly somehow, and at least a little sense of harmonic ambiguity makes a song sound more “modern.”

    I think part of writing in a particular genre, or with a particular feel, is sorting out what chords are specific to that, and that usually means restricting your harmonic vocabulary. Certain rockier songs might use major III or bIII chords, or bVII chords, for instance, which you won’t find in the basic diatonic set, but no minor chords. Others might avoid the V altogether, or use secondary dominants. I find that when I exploit the basic diatonic set to much, the chord progressions just become boring.

  3. One of my big problems with notation is rhythm. Not only knowing how to notate rhythmically what I’m playing, but being able to “hear” the rhythms I’m reading. I understand the notation theoretically just fine, it’s a question of making it real to my ear. Any resources you can think of would be welcome.

  4. Great post, but I’m with songsville, although not totally. Here would be my top five.

    1) Know the structures of your favorite tunes (verse, chorus, middle 8, modulations, arrangements).
    2) Know your basic keys and how to play scales build chords in them.
    3) Be able to hear a song and, without picking up an instrument, learn it. Key to this is being able to hear common progressions (I IV V, II V I, IV VI V).
    4) Understand and be able to create tension and release (V to I and IV to I, especially!)
    5) Get comfortable with transposition, in case your song is only singable by a chipmunk.

  5. Hey Gary,

    Is reading and writing really the first thing? I started a similar thread on another site, and we concluded:
    “A person who aspires to be a good songwriter would be in good shape if they were able to:
    1. Identify the key of a song they were writing
    2. Identify the diatonic chords available for that key
    3. Play these chords: major, minor, 7, m7, Maj7, slash
    4. Extra points for being able to play sus2, sus4, 9, add9, 6, dim, 11, aug
    5. Build those and other chords from scratch by understanding their structure eg: 1357 etc
    6. Write out their songs in I, IV, V etc format
    7. Write in waltz and 5 time rythmns
    8. Know and follow basic song structures
    9. Identify the phrases in their melody, including points of tension and points of rest
    10. Play the scales and/or modes useful for the styles of music they write in
    11. Recognise intervals and the power they have for conveying emotion”

    No reading or writing required. Or it would be Number 12 …

    Although these were mostly guitarists, so maybe it’s different for piano players?

    Love the new layout BTW, and the smiling face! 🙂

    • I would say you are definitely have a good priority list. I would say though that being able to read and write music has helped me with identifying intervals, scales, chords etc…Although it is not the only approach. Maybe it is actually a slower approach but I find it to be a thorough approach.

      Its probably not the best for guitar player(reading and writing).

      • Hi Ryan:

        I agree with your point, and slower can sometimes mean thorough. I think the main purpose of my post was to consider the power and benefits of written theory as a crucial step toward the communication of musical ideas to others. So the list that songsville created is a great one, and my view is that an ability to read and write music can make those items on the list much easier.

        -G

    • Thanks, glad you like the new site design. I put reading and writing at the top, only because I consider the communication of musical ideas to other musicians (and back again) to be a prime benefit of music theory. In other words, being able to write it and read it allows you to easily impart your musical thoughts to others. So I definitely like your list, and I would only add the importance of theory as a basic communication tool.

      Many thanks for your great comments,
      -Gary

  6. Great post, I really enjoyed this read!! I’m starting to dive into this music theory approach and I agree with Ryan that at times I find myself way out of the box, but I love that but wanna know when I can’t go so far out of the box that it doesn’t make sense either. I wanna learn these and if anyone has suggestions, readings, or websites that really teaches it to a simple mind that would be wonderful. Thanks.

  7. I want to touch on something you said toward the beginning of this post Gary. Basically, Music Theory makes us more literate and I definitely agree. But one of the things I have struggled with over the years is as I get more literate, it becomes more of a challenge to write something out of the box. It seems as though those who don’t know, make a lot of mistakes but along the way they might come up with something totally original because they weren’t afraid to break the rules. Now I wouldn’t trade my knowledge, but I definitely and always looking for ways to get out of the box!

    I would also say this: I really appreciate the fact that I am trained in classical piano. For example, I learned finger patterns, theory, arpeggios, scales, chord progressions etc…alll from learning Mozart!

    I guess what I am trying to say is that spending time on music that you don’t even think is revelant can have a great effect on a person’s theory knowledge. I’m sure you know this stuff but I thought I would give a thought for anyone out there who is just starting out.

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