Music Theory - Songwriting

Can Music Theory Increase Your Creative Abilities?

There is a decades-old myth in the pop music world that asserts that the more you understand music theory, the more it stunts your creative abilities.

Where does the myth come from? I suspect it goes something like this: When a song sounds really good, theorists will pull it apart to try to understand why it sounds so good. They’ll come up with the things that music theory tells us about the skeletal bones of that song: its key and all the related keys it visits, how the chords work from a theoretical point of view, the shape of the melodies, and so on.

By the end of the analysis, a songwriter who has a deep understanding of the rudiments and theory of music will have a deeper understanding of how that song works (or at least deeper than when they first heard the song.)

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But (and here’s where the myth takes off) you can then try to use the theoretical understanding you just gained, write your own song using what you’ve learned, and — lo and behold — you’ve probably written a dud.

The assumption is then made that understanding music theory will stunt your creative abilities.

Of course that’s a silly assumption. It’s a little like saying that because I learned how to read and write words, and have a good understanding of the basic grammar of English, I couldn’t ever write a book because all that “theory of English” stunted my creative abilities. (Kind of why Shakespeare never made it.)

You’re Using It Wrong

Music theory was never intended to tell you what to write. If you find yourself asking questions that start with “Is it OK if I…?”, “Am I allowed to…?” or something similar, I can tell you quite simply that you’ve got a flaw in your songwriting process.

Theory was never meant as a tool for telling you what to write, at least not directly. If you’re using music theory to justify what you’ve written, you’re using it wrong.

Music theory does two things for you as a songwriter: it gives you a deeper understanding of what’s going on in someone else’s song, and it gives you a vocabulary for describing that to yourself and others.

There are a bunch of other things that are spin-off benefits as well: it improves your ear, speeds up your songwriting process, and allows you more easily to compare one song to another.

Theory exists because something in music has been done enough that we have a “theory” to describe what it is. So if everything you write conforms completely to theory, you’ve probably written something that’s boring, overdone, and lacks imagination.

What Theory Does

Used properly, music theory offers the ability to more thoroughly understand the structure of a song you really like. It’s entirely possible that the writer of that song had no idea what theoretical structures they were writing when they came up with something so good.

That’s fine. What’s important is that you understand the theoretical reasons it works. You put that knowledge in the metaphorical toolbox that sits in your musical mind, and it can provide you with a shortcut to writing your own songs. In that sense, music theory can actually increase your creative abilities.

If you’ve been putting off learning the basics and rudiments of music theory because of a fear you’d stunt your creative mind, you’ve fallen for the myth. Understanding theory can actually aid your creative approach and make you a better songwriter.

Gary Ewer Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Clips from Easy Music Theory with Gary EwerEasy Music Theory with Gary Ewer” is a 25-lesson video-based course. It starts at the very beginning (“This is a note”) and takes you gradually and easily through to RCM Grade 2 Rudiments. It can prepare you to take a college-level music theory entrance exam, and you’ll be amazed at how easy it can be.

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  2. Hi Gary, great discussion on an important topic! I’d like to share some analogies that could help bridge the gap between theory and creativity as well.

    I like to think of music theory as providing the basics on why music concepts “work” and why we respond to them. Similar to the laws of physics and how we design objects in our world. The best designs get a balance right between structural soundness so that the objects don’t fall apart, and a sense of style that appeals to us so we can enjoy using those objects. This involves both mastery over technical skills and creativity together. There are “foundations” in songwriting like there are in the fields of mechanical and electronic engineering (my background is in electronic engineering and technology).

    -Songwriting Foundation: Established tonality, repetition in song structure and elements of music and lyrics, etc.
    -Songwriting Style: Interesting melodies and chord choices, imaginative word usage, figures of speech, etc.

    -Eiffel Tower Foundation: Material choice, structural balance, mass and weight, angle and fastening calculations
    -Eiffel Tower Style: Aesthetics, pleasing angles, symmetry, patterns, contrast, etc.

    As for electronics, take a circuit board designed by Apple for example:

    -Circuit Foundation: The right current consumption and power dissipation for the application, no unintended short or open circuits, correct component specifications
    -Circuit Style: Sleek board design, convenient component placement, product features, etc.

    Going back to songwriting, getting that balance right is best achieved by really understanding the theory in a wider context, and knowing when to add or remove elements that may or may not contribute to the songwriter’s vision of the song. That itself involves a lot of creative choices. Songwriters can certainly have an intuitive sense of what they are doing and end up creating masterpieces even if they don’t know the theory, and vice versa. Songwriters can also be very knowledgeable in theory but not make the choices necessary to write a masterpiece due to overthinking, etc.

    Let me know if you’d like to discuss the topic further!

    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful input on this topic. When songwriters write a masterpiece, most of the concepts of theory are being followed, even if they’re not aware of it, as you say. In that sense, intuition is everything. Where theory comes in is in our ability to more thoroughly understand why it’s a masterpiece. Sometimes theory will shed light on that, sometimes not. But in any case, theory always gives us a vocabulary to discuss it, and then we learn all the more.

      Thanks again,

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