I’m a little biased coming from a background in classical music and music theory, but I would argue that learning music theory is the one thing that has helped me improve my songwriting the most over the years.
Music theory gets a bad rap. It’s not glamorous or exciting. And a lot of music theory books and courses out there are so geared towards classical music and complicated music notation that they just aren’t relevant to songwriting.
But a lot of aspects of music theory that are relevant to songwriting. Like keys, the scale, solfege, chord progressions, and rhythm. Here are some of the benefits of understanding these concepts:
It will get you thinking relatively.
This is a big one.
When you’re playing a song, the literal notes you’re singing (D G F# A..etc.) don’t matter.
The literal chords you’re playing don’t matter.
Because it’s all relative to the key.
What matters is where those notes of the melody fall within the scale. And what function the chords have in that key.
Now don’t get me wrong, knowing the number of sharps and flats in each key and understanding notes and chords is still important. But when you start thinking beyond specific notes and chords – that’s where the heart of the song lies.
It will help you remember melodies
Have you ever written a perfect melody and then forgotten it? It’s the WORST, right? When you don’t have a way to record or write down the melody, you’re stuck with something like this:
Now you could repeat that set of directions and get about 100 different variations of that melody. And your original melody is completely lost in a jumble of possibilities…
A songwriter who understands where the notes fall in the scale might write the same melody as:
And taking it a step further, a songwriter who uses a system for identifying notes like solfege might write the same melody as this:
Now if it takes you 30 minutes to come up with that analysis, then it’s not exactly saving you much time. But if you’re experienced enough with solfege that this becomes second nature to you, you'll become SO much better at analyzing, remembering, and writing melodies.
I think for a lot of songwriters, melody is this huge mystery to them. But when you start to de-mystify those melodies, you’ll start to notice patterns: patterns you love, patterns you hate, and patterns you didn’t even know you were making.
But once you take a second to listen and understand those patterns you can use them to your advantage.
Understanding Chord Progressions
There are three phases to understanding chord progressions:
I think this is my favorite way to use music theory. I never turn my music-theory-brain off. When I’m listening to music, I’m constantly hearing the chord progression, the rhythm, the melody in my mind. It’s almost second nature to me at this point – It’s not like I’m literally saying “one chord, five chord, minor-six chord” in my mind along with the music, but I hear it subconsciously.
And then, if I hear a chord progression, melody, or rhythm that gets me excited, I already know exactly what’s happening in the song. I know what makes that rhythm unique and catchy, and I know what I can do to incorporate that pattern into my next song.
I think a lot of people are scared that songs will lose their magic if they start to think about them analytically, but I can tell you for me, it still hasn’t happened. I swear, I still have songs that give me goosebumps (even while I’m analyzing the chord progression). I still have those songs that I jam out to every single time I hear them on the radio.
So if you want to ignore all of this music theory stuff out of fear that it’ll “ruin” music for you, that’s your choice. But I think you’ll be missing out on a huge opportunity. Because for me, music theory didn’t close my mind to music, it only intensified my passion for music.
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