Putting Music Theory to Use in Songwriting

Good carpenters have well-outfitted toolboxes. But that toolbox doesn’t make them more creative.

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songwriter's toolboxIf you were a carpenter, it would be a bit strange to look inside your toolbox and wonder, “How am I going to put all of these tools to use?” That’s not how you use a toolbox. You decide on a project first, and then, over time, you’ll find that most of those tools get used for something.

And in fact, you’ll find that your imagination is what guides your woodworking projects. Your tools simply allow you to get the job done efficiently.

In songwriting, you could think of your understanding of music theory as being a toolbox of sorts. The more you know about how music works on a technical level, the bigger and more well-equipped that toolbox is. In that sense, it’s never a bad thing to be constantly adding to your musical toolbox.

But it would be off the mark to assume that because you’ve got a great knowledge of the theory of music, you’re well-set to write great music. Music theory has never had a direct hand in creating any music worth listening to. To repeat, music theory is simply a toolbox that you can use.

Guitar and piano - chord progressionsHaving said that, thought, your understanding of theory, and of how music works, increases with practically every song you listen to, assuming you can figure out why a song sounds the way it does. And that improvement to your musical toolbox is happening whether you know how to read music or not. That’s because the most relevant bit of theory is the understanding of how music fits together.

Anytime you find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s why that bit sounds like that…”, you are adding a tool to the box. Taken together, all your observances and conclusions about how music works all amount to your musical toolbox.

One of the quickest ways to build up that collection of tools is to study music theory. That’s because theory is simply the efficient categorization of centuries of musical observations, all assembled in such a way as to make it clear, and to give you the proper vocabulary to describe it to others.

Guitarist-Singer-SongwriterSome songwriters are worried that the larger their toolbox of musical observations (i.e., theory) becomes, the less imaginative their music will become. This is, of course, a silly conclusion. It would be like a carpenter assuming that the larger their toolbox is, the less imaginative their woodworking projects will be.

The other side of this is that some songwriters think that the larger their toolbox is, the better a songwriter they should logically be. That’s also silly.

A carpenter can only use their tools creatively if they have creative thoughts about their next project in the first place. A toolbox will make it easier to get the job done, but won’t necessarily make your project better.

So if you’ve got a great understanding of music theory, you’ve still got a job to do, just as a carpenter with a well-equipped toolbox has: create something imaginative and inspiring.

Never let your knowledge of music theory make you think you’re better at that part.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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  1. If you write about something that 95 per cent of human beings can say
    ‘yes I can empathise with that situation” you are on to a winner , but
    those hit songs only become hits when you are prepared to Re Write
    every line, no matter what , even take out a line and replace it with a
    better one . The views of fellow learning writers amount to nothing
    in the real world A Song has to pull you in and keep you there ,
    right to the end , if not it will fail ,

    Does your music fit the emotion of the lyric?? probably one of the
    hardest decisions you and any co writer will have to make

    The worse thing you can do on a Demo is use a voice that does not fit the
    Emotion you are seeking.

  2. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – July 22, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  3. Hi Gary, I like the analogy with the carpenter’s toolbox.

    And I completely agree that songwriters need theory. The way I think about it is “learn the rules so you can break them knowingly” (creative spirits love breaking the rules). But you could also say “learn about the building blocks so your house doesn’t collapse on your head” 🙂

    You make a very interesting point about the irreplaceability of the creative element in songwriting. I recently started reading a book called Become an Idea Machine – it looks like a promising tool for stimulating that creativity…

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