Predictably, the people who think music theory is a waste of time are the ones who’ve either never studied it, or who’ve learned to hate the study of it. Just as predictably, the ones who feel that music theory is a must for anyone who writes or performs music are the ones who’ve got a strong working knowledge of the rudiments of music.
Let’s look at the issue with some relevance to this blog: how useful is the study of music theory to anyone who is an aspiring songwriter?
“Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer” – a 25-lesson video-based music rudiments course. Starts with entry-level concepts (notes, scales, time signatures), and then shows how easy the “scary” topics can be: key identification, transposition, modes and more.
First, let’s look at the common negative points we usually hear about the need for an understanding of music theory, points that have contributed to the mythology of music theory:
Mythological Point #1: Paul McCartney can’t read music, doesn’t know a thing about music theory, and he writes great music.
Answer: You aren’t Paul McCartney. (This isn’t meant to be as snarky as it probably sounds, but it’s simply meant to say: there are extraordinary people in every field of endeavour, and we should be careful using them as our norm.)
Mythological Point #2: Studying music theory will stunt my creativity and my songs will suffer.
Answer: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and every other master of music composition were masters of music theory. We should all hope to write music that’s been weakened by theory as much as theirs was.
Mythological Point #3: Music theory is a system of rules, and therefore doesn’t really apply to the creation or performance of new music.
Answer: Theory isn’t a system of rules as much as it is a series of observations about how music tends to work, and why it sounds the way it does.
You’ve likely heard it all before, and those three points above shouldn’t be anything new to you. To say that music theory will stunt any aspect of your creativity is simply untrue. Knowledge does not stunt creativity: it fuels it.
Moving to the Top
As an aspiring songwriter — or an aspiring anything in the field of professional music — if you’re looking for a way to put yourself above others, a working knowledge of the nuts & bolts of music theory is going to part of the formula that does it.
You may think that since songwriting hasn’t required you to write or read musical notation (at least to this point, anyway), that music theory is irrelevant to your activities as a songwriter.
But that’s entirely missing the point for what an understanding of theory can and will do for you. The point is not to get you using musical notation (though that will happen), and it’s not so much getting you reading it (though that will happen as well).
The point of theory is providing you with an understanding of why music sounds the way it does. In other words, it describes the things you’ve always known or heard about (notes, scales, chords, keys, transposition, inversions, etc.), but shows you why they work the way they do.
How Theory and Creativity Intersect
And theory then does more than that: it shows you, once you understand one thing, how to extrapolate and build on that knowledge. Building on knowledge is, in effect, creativity.
So yes, understanding music theory can help you become a more creative musician. Contrary to the notion that theory stunts creativity, it opens your mind and shows you new directions.
Yes, It Can Take Time
We love to think that the best things that happen in music are the ones that happen spontaneously, in seconds. That song that magically appears in our mind, for example. But that’s really untrue. Spontaneous songs are not often the best, they’re simply the most surprising. And the surprise excites us.
It takes time to fully understand the building blocks of music, but probably not as long as you fear. Within days, you can be understanding the most important entry-level rudiments that will form the backbone of your musical understanding: notes, rhythms, time signatures and scales.
From there, your understanding of more complex aspects of music — key identification, triads, inversions and transposition — become much, much easier.
Don’t Short-Change Yourself!
If you’re holding back on trying to understand music theory because you think it’s either too difficult, or too irrelevant, you’re short-changing yourself. And you’re preventing your ability to move forward in your field.
If you truly want to stand out from others, it’s time to develop a working vocabulary of music – time to develop an understanding of how music really works, and then time to use it to take your music to a higher level.
If every music rudiments course has left you bleary-eyed, you need to try “Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer.” It’s a video-based music theory course that starts at the very beginning (this is a note) and shows you all the rudiments of music in 25 Easy Lessons. It’s time to more fully understand music!