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.
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