Music theory can seem like a lot of clutter until you filter it down to the things you really need to know.
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There are two major reasons why musicians sometimes have a negative view of music theory. The first has to do with the part of educational philosophy that states that if you’re taught by someone who hates a topic, you’ll learn to hate it too. Most music teachers would rather get busy playing rather than studying, and that attitude rubs off on the student.
The second reason relates to the sheer size and scope of music theory. It feels to many that learning music theory could take years, and that would hardly inspire anyone to dig in and learn it.
But the truth is that to be a successful songwriter, it’s not necessary to know everything to do with theory. I wrote about this a while back. In that article, I mentioned chord theory as one area of the larger category of music theory that songwriters need to get a handle on.
In this post, I want to specifically target the area of chord theory. What specifically should songwriters learn about how harmony works, and which are the nonessential bits?
Here’s a list of things that you should have a fairly clear understanding of that pertain to chords and harmony.
- Identifying the key of a song. If you’re working on a song and you find that you just don’t know what key it’s in, that could be a problem, particularly for figuring out which chords would support that key. [Need a lesson on this?]
- Diatonic chords. A diatonic chord is one that exists naturally within a key. That’s important information, because those chords that naturally occur in a key will all sound like harmonic partners, and will give your music an important sense of cohesion. [Need a lesson on this?]
- Why some chord progressions work well, while others seem confusing. Just because you know the seven chords that exist naturally within a key doesn’t mean you know the best way to move from one chord to the other. [Need a lesson on this?]
- Roman numerals. Applying Roman numerals to chords is a great shorthand way of identifying chords. Roman numerals will allow you to transpose any progression easily to any key. [Need a lesson on this?]
- Chord inversions (slash chords). When you invert a chord, you’re simply using a chord tone other than the chord’s letter name as the lowest sounding note. For example, C uses the note C as its bass note; C/E uses E as the bass. [Need a lesson on this?]
- Non-chord-tones. A non-chord-tone (NCT) is simply any note that’s added to a basic chord, or triad. For example, when you play a sus4, that note that creates the sus4 is considered an NCT. Most NCTs have a way that they need to work, and it’s pretty easy to learn. [Need a lesson on this?]
- Transposition. To transpose means to change key. Most songs don’t change key once they start, but transposition can be a great way to build some excitement into your music. There are other reasons as well why transposition might work in your music. [Need a lesson on this?]
It is of course very possible to dig even deeper into the world of chord progressions and the way harmony works. You could look at pedal point, implied chords, secondary dominants, and so much more. But having a good grasp of the seven areas mentioned above will ensure that you’ve got the basics.
But if you really want to dig in and learn the rudiments of music theory quickly, you might want to visit my music theory site, “Easy Music Theory.” It features a 25-lesson program that you can purchase, including video of me teaching each concept. It’s designed to work for people who have absolutely no knowledge of music theory as a starting point, and within two or three months you’d be able to do a college-level music entrance test.
It’s a program I’ve used with my own students, most of whom get a final mark in the 90s, so I know it works. Visit “Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer.”
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