I’ve always held the belief that an understanding of music theory can and will improve your songwriting. But it’s also right to acknowledge that not everything you could learn about music theory will be particularly relevant to your activities as a working songwriter in the pop genres.
If you study basic musical rudiments at a typical music college, for example, you’ll likely learn how to write music in various clefs that you’ll practically never encounter: alto clef (most commonly used by players of the viola), or tenor clef (used by a variety of orchestral instruments).
There are other bits you can learn, but might only come up once you’ve written a song, but want to involve other instruments in the performance of that song. So key transposition and the ins and outs of musical score notation might fall into this category.
So what are the bits of music theory that make a lot of sense for you as a songwriter to try to learn — that might actually make the task of songwriting easier and your music more creative? Here’s a short list of musical rudiments you’d learn from a theory course that can and will improve your ability to write songs. I’ve put them in what I consider their order of importance:
- Get a basic ability to read and write musical notation. This is a good one, because musical notation is a brilliant way to communicate musical ideas. And even if your bandmates don’t actually possess this basic skill, it still makes sense to learn how to read and write music because seeing your own songs in written format is a great way to analyze and understand your own music and the music of other composers
- Learn how to create major and minor scales. A basic understanding of scales is the foundation of practically everything else in music. When I was a theory teacher, I had a daily assignment for all my students: Write ten random scales a day and pass them in at the start of every class. Once writing and identifying scales became easy, everyone’s marks went up, almost always into the 90%-or-higher range.
- Learn how chords and keys work. How chords work hasn’t really changed in hundreds of years. So the way Bach and Mozart used chords is pretty much exactly how chords work in the 21st century. Learning chords and chord function, discovering how chords pull music into various other keys, knowing how to identify the key of a song, and how inverting chords (creating “slash chords”) can add to the colour and mood of your music makes this a great bit of knowledge to possess.
- Learn Roman numerals, or some other shorthand chord identification system. It doesn’t have to be Roman numerals. There are others that are liked even more by pop songwriters, like the Nashville Number System. You can even invent your own if you’re so inclined. But some system — any system — that identifies chords according to scale degree will be helpful.
Many songwriters resist because they’ve heard that since the best songwriters seem to just write by instinct, surely theory isn’t necessary. Or worse, they assume that theory will stunt creativity and result in lacklustre songs. That myth is a prevalent one, but there’s no basis in fact for it. The best composers in the world, including the aforementioned Bach and Mozart, were masters of music theory, and you would never hear anyone describe their music as lacklustre.
If you have the will but you lack the teacher, my own “Easy Music Theory” course was one I designed years ago, specifically because the amount of time we were able to devote to music theory in the public schools was becoming less.
And so I developed my course so that students could do the work even without a teacher. It’s comprised of videos, instruction sheets, worksheets, quizzes and answer sheets. It’s possible to work your way through the entire 25-lesson course with just the videos and instruction sheets to guide you.
If you’d like to check it out, please follow the link here:
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