Songwriting music paper

What Music Theory Does (and Doesn’t Do) For Your Songwriting

Many (perhaps most) songwriters have less than what might be called a working knowledge of the rudiments of music. Most create their songs on instinct — they write what sounds good, what their ear tells them they should write.

So what’s wrong with that? If that’s working for you, why muddy the waters with something like music theory?

Because the discussion of whether or not songwriters might benefit from a knowledge of music theory is at least decades and perhaps centuries old, let’s list the things that we know that music theory won’t do for you:

  1. Music theory won’t help in any direct way to generate better musical ideas.
  2. Music theory won’t, in any direct way, improve your musical imagination.
  3. Music theory won’t, in any direct way, speed up your songwriting process.

The key word there is direct. While an understanding of the inner workings of music won’t immediately (today) help or enhance your songwriting, it does do that very thing in the longer term. Here’s how:

  1. Generating musical ideas. Understanding theory means that you have a better chance of identifying by ear a sound, a melody, a chord, or any other musical construct. So when you hear a lovely moment in a song that you want to replicate in your own music, theory helps you understand what that was, and how you can do it too.
  2. Improving musical imagination. This can happen on many levels. But let’s say you’re working on a bridge. Your understanding of chord theory will show you in an efficient way how to move away from your original key, and then move back again, seamlessly and easily. So instead of working randomly, you feel freer to imagine almost anything, because theory will identify what you’re doing, and will guide you back to the original key. And that’s just one of hundreds of benefits.
  3. Speeding up your process. When songs sound good, the reasons are almost always supported by music theory. As your understanding of theory develops and deepens, you’ll find that random “hunt-and-peck” processes are replaced with ones that have a solid basis in theory.

Why Good Music Sounds Good

Here is something you may not have considered before: If a song sounds good to you, that means that it has been written in such a way that it is supported by the nuts and bolts of music theory. Whether you understand that theory is what we’re talking about in this post.

So if it satisfies you to limit your experience with songwriting to simply identifying when you hear good music, understanding music theory will do little for you. But if you are interested in more — in knowing why good music sounds good — you will find the studying of the rudiments of music to be very satisfying and ultimately useful.

Why You Have Never Studied Theory

The two main reasons I pick up from songwriters as to why they’ve never learned the music theory are:

  1. The benefits of what it might do for your as a songwriter is unclear at best.
  2. It’s not easy, and could be a lot of effort for little or no reason.

It’s hard for me to address the first point as it might directly apply to you, because I don’t know your process. But I have a good idea: I don’t know of any songwriter who has not, to some degree, found the studying of theory to be helpful to their songwriting process.

The second point is easier for me to address. There is absolutely no reason for music theory to be hard. The fact that we call it theory, in fact, implies that there is a system — a predictable, understandable way to deal with the structure of music.

If you’ve been putting off studying theory for either of the reasons listed above, this is a great time to bite the bullet and start learning. Right now, I am offering my “Easy Music Theory – Songwriter’s Edition” course FREE with the purchase of my “Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle.

That rudiments course is a video-based course, with other materials in PDF format. It starts at the beginning (“This is a note..” and takes you right through to scales, chords, inversions and more.)

This is a deal that will end soon, so you’ll want to take advantage of it right away.

Click here to see the deal.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter


At the writing of this post (June 8, 2016), “Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer” is being offered FREE with the purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle. 

Read more about that deal..

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  1. Pingback: What Music Theory Does (and Doesn’t Do) For Your Songwriting - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

  2. What do you think about non-diatonic, free rhythm music? That can be deadly beautiful and it is outside the body of rules established by music theory. Consider that music theory was developed by the Church in order to sound different than Jewish music, so it comes out of racism. It is just a theory that excludes a big and beautiful part of music. To find this out, I had to learn music theory of course.

    First off, I object the diatonic scale prefer to use instruments based on the cromatic scale or I use them as cromatically anyway (as in the case of the piano, for me all keys are the same, I do not see the point in having black and white keys and could use another marker for the beginning of each octave).

    Without the diatonic scale, all Western music theory crumbles down and its uselessness is revealed. Please stop advocate this theory who has done more harm than benefit to music and let music be free expression of human feelings. If you want to make a business, do it on music not on theory.

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