An understanding of music theory can take your songwriting abilities to the next level and beyond.
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One of the projects I’ve been working on lately, along with Spring Day Music, is Version 2 of my Easy Music Theory course. (You can view a short introductory video here.) The teaching of music theory remains a very satisfying activity for me. To me, it partners really well with songwriting because theory allows you to do two things: 1) easily communicate your musical ideas to others; and 2) completely understand how music works, and improve your songwriting abilities because of that.
To many songwriters, the mere mention of the topic of music theory can get eyes rolling. When many of the world’s best songwriters have happily plied their trade without even being able to recognize a single element of musical notation, what’s the need for it?
That argument is weak, for several reasons which I’ll get to. But it’s the kind of argument you often see in the world of popular songwriting. There’s a fear that knowledge of music theory will stunt creativity, and it’s a ridiculous notion.
No one would suggest to a novelist that their ability to read and write has impaired their ability to write a good book. And in fact, the world’s best writers are generally known as being extremely well-read and educated. But musicians, particularly in the pop, rock, country and folk genres, often sadly buy into this “theory kills creativity” myth.
If you’re one of the ones who have a fear that the knowledge of theory will hinder your musical imagination, you’re accepting a fable that has no basis in fact. An ability to read, write, and understand music has never stunted anyone’s creativity.
But if you think that, here’s why. You’ve accepted the idea that once you have an understanding of how chords, time signatures, scales and intervals work, you’re imagination will be restricted and required to conform to the theory you’ve learned.
But that’s completely off-base. No good songwriter would or should ever use music theory as their basis for the creation of music. People who use theory as the primary source of their musical ideas are people who write music that you probably wouldn’t want to hear. Theory produces boring music.
So if theory makes for boring music, why is it necessary? And what’s its real purpose?
Music theory allows you to understand what’s going on when you hear something great. And that understanding allows you to do something similar in your own music. And by the same token, music theory tells you why something isn’t working well, and gives you quick solutions. But it never handcuffs you, never stunts your creative approach.
The world’s greatest composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, and thousands of others – were experts in music theory. But they wrote music which, for its day, was frequently breaking the accepted rules and norms of how music usually worked. There’s no record of any composer who ever bemoaned the fact that they had learned music theory. No composer ever saying, “If only I hadn’t learned music theory… think of the music I’d be writing!”
If you really want to expand your musical brain, you’ll do it by listening to other songwriters, and analyzing their music. Music theory allows you to analyze music quickly. It gives you understanding, and it gives you the vocabulary to express your understanding.
If you’ve got little or no theoretical knowledge of music, it’s time to open your mind, and take your songwriting to the next level. An understanding of the basic concepts of music theory can be the missing element in your creative approach.
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