Does Learning Music Theory Help or Hinder a Songwriter's Imagination?

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Music ChalkboardPart of my job at Dalhousie University is teaching an entry-level music theory class. Many of the students who take it are non-music Arts students, many of whom are songwriters, taking it as an elective. And so if you don’t want to take my word for it, you might consider theirs: most of the students tell me that learning music theory has opened their minds to new concepts and ways of thinking. But there are still songwriters out there who are skeptical of the whole thing, and think that studying theory stunts musical creativity.

Those who fear that learning music theory leads to a stifling of the imagination are denying centuries of music history. The Western world’s greatest composers were all experts, not just in the field of music composition, but also in music theory. And in fact, much of what we study in theory class today comes from those composers and their music: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and so many more. I think it would be simply bizarre to accuse those composers of being stunted in musical creativity by their knowledge of music theory.

Music theory does not close the mind; it opens it. By learning to read music, you have an entire world opened up to you. You can read other musician’s creations; you can express your musical thoughts in a way that other musicians can understand. When you hear something that dazzles your mind, you now have a hope that you can identify what that was, write it down, recreate it for yourself, or modify it. Music theory gives you a precise way to do that.

Think of this analogy: Architects don’t suffer from stunted imagination because they know how to read a blueprint. The blueprint is simply a communication tool. Similarly, reading music doesn’t stunt your imagination.

Music theory was never meant to tell you what to write. And if you use music theory for that purpose, then you are allowing theory to limit your choices. Music theory simply helps you identify the structures of music, and teaches you how to communicate those structures to others. And then, armed with that knowledge, you can extrapolate and create your own ideas. Those ideas may even break the “rules” of theory. But that’s OK, because those rules were never meant to tell you how to write music. If all we ever did was write according to rules, we’d be simply duplicating the music that’s been written before.

The truth is that a knowledge of music theory will give you tools you can use to expand your musical mind. If you’re afraid that it will stunt your creativity, you are severely misunderstanding the use of that knowledge. Theory will open your mind, not close it.
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Gary Ewer is the author of “Gary Ewer’s Easy Music Theory“, a CD-ROM based course in music rudiments, as well as The Essential Secrets of Songwriting suite of songwriting e-books.

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