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How Music Theory Will Help Your Songwriting

(I promise, it will!)

· Songwriting

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:

  • start on this note
  • go up a couple notes
  • repeat that top note twice
  • jump down a few notes
  • step down twice
  • end on this…way lower note

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:

  • start on the first note of the scale
  • walk up the scale two notes
  • repeat the third note of the scale
  • jump down, outlining the minor-six triad
  • step down to the fifth note of the scale
  • end on first note of the scale (an octave lower than you started)

And taking it a step further, a songwriter who uses a system for identifying notes like solfege might write the same melody as this:

  • do re mi mi do la sol do

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.

(P.S. If you have NO clue what solfege is, don’t sweat it! The course Music Theory For Songwriters explains all the basics of scales, melody, and solfege.)

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:

  1. Understanding the unique function of each chord in a key. So instead of labeling chords as A, D, and G you’ll assign them roman numerals like I, IV, and V. Remember it’s the function of the chord that matters.
  2. Being able to identify the chord function while you listen to a song. (chord function = roman numerals or any other numbering system you use.) This takes practice, but being able to listen to a song and go “that’s a four chord, that’s a one chord” will help your songwriting more than you even know. And get this – you don’t ever, ever, ever, need to know what key a song is in. You don’t need perfect pitch. You don’t need to play along on your instrument. If you practice this enough, you’ll be able to analyze a chord progression of a song completely using only your ear.
  3. Being able to audiate chord progressions when you write a song. If you reach this level, you’ll be able to hear chord progressions in your head as you write your melody. You won’t even need to use an instrument to write chord progressions!
(I realize “chord function” is kind of an abstract idea, so if you're having trouble understanding this, I explain it in-depth in the Music Theory for Songwriters course.)

Observing trends

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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