Music Theory: A Vital Communication Tool for Songwriters

An understanding of music theory can take your songwriting abilities to the next level and beyond.


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Guitar and MusicOne 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.

Easy Music Theory with Gary Ewer


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. If someone you are talking to is doing the pretentious “oh MUSIC THEORY *eyeroll*” bit, ask them what the chords are to the last song they wrote. If they say something like “well the first one is really mysterious sounding, but then it goes to C for a while, then E”

    Stop them and say, “I thought you hated music theory!” When they look at you all puzzled, just calmly explain that if they use chords, they are using pre-set ready-made bits of music that have existed for hundreds of years. 🙂

    Even if this person “invents” their own chords, somewhere somehow they probably learned a cowboy chord or two! So much for them feeling “pure” or “totally original”. 🙂

  2. The idea that knowledge will stunt your creativity is nothing but an excuse. There’s only one real reason for not learning theory – not wanting to invest the effort.

    Music theory is HARD. As hard as learning a new language, really. And I’m not speaking from a high horse, here, because I’m not a proficient sight reader. I can’t look at a staff and tell what key it’s in by the sharps and flats. I don’t immediately recognize the notes without going through the mental “steps” of the staff. I have a lot of trouble when mixing eighth and quarter notes.

    I have no excuse other than laziness for this. It’s the same reason I haven’t learned to play the harmonica, or become proficient in slide guitar, or done so many other things I would like to do. Part of it is finding the time to fit it all in, but the biggest part is lack of initiative.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. The only part I would challenge is the “music theory is HARD” bit. It wasn’t by accident that years ago I decided to name my course “Easy Music Theory.” After many years of teaching theory, I discovered that as long as theory is carefully taught, with specific topics in the correct sequence, music theory can be easy. Teaching beginner theory to arts students at Dalhousie University for the past several years has proven this to me time and time again. I usually start with students who can do no more than name the notes on a musical staff. By the end of the course (4 months later), they are able to identify, write and invert intervals, write major and minor scales, identify time signatures and triads. They are able to identify the key of written music that has no key signature, write and identify cadences, and transpose music into different keys. The average mark these students get is between 85% and 100% on tests.

      As I say, if it’s taught properly, with things in the correct order, theory can actually be easy. It also helps that theory is something I really enjoy, and students always do better when the teacher loves the topic. As you point out, it does take some effort, and a personal commitment to persevere. But you’d be surprised how easy it can be, if specific topics are introduced in a proper sequence.


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