One way to approach music theory and songwriting is to think in terms of cause & effect. Understanding the musical devices (chords, riffs, melodies) and the impressions each gives will provide you a toolbox you can use to concoct songs that create a particular emotional impact.
I started writing songs in high school, but had no training in writing/composing at that point. So I was in for a surprise when I started my first music theory class as a music major in college. I was disappointed to learn that music theory simply meant studying patterns past composers employed to build their music.
What about questions like, “what chord will convey anguish?” or “what rhythm will convey urgency?”
My major motivation for writing music was to have the audience feel something, yet, simply going over the compositional systems of the past didn’t really go far enough to give me the building blocks. I wasn’t interested in writing another invention that sounded exactly like what Bach would write. (a real exercise I did — I did get an A+ though) I was hoping to understand, say, why Brahms’ 1st Symphony, 4th movement, has that tear-inducing majesty, power, and joy — really, that awesome, indescribable feeling.
Yet understanding of music theory does give us the tools to analyze other songs and then figure out why that piece of music gives us the particular feeling we get. So my music education did give me the foundation to start exploring and building my toolset. It’s like the music theory was the wood and rocks and I needed to use to build my tools.
As I developed I focused on amassing my vocabulary as a songwriter, by analyzing other people’s and my own songs to figure out why I get a certain feeling from it. Now I know that going from I to bIII chord is a strong, heroic, rock-n-roll move. Eighth-16th-16th rhythm has this galloping feel that’s highly energizing.
Without these toolboxes, your songwriting ends up dependent only on stumbling upon cool bits. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with stumbling upon pieces of music — in fact, that exploration and playing around is essential — but it’s hard to get a complete song by just stumbling around. After you do come upon a cool riff or chorus, you want to build music around it and eventually turn it in to a cohesive song — an impactful song.
If Impactful Songwriting is our goal, Cause & Effect Music Theory is our building blocks. It’s a way of analyzing and then acquiring techniques for inspiring a certain feeling in its listener. I am going to share what I know, but more importantly, I’ll share how I go about analyzing existing Impactful songs, so that you gain an understanding of how you can learn and develop on your own.
Image: Robert Proksa