I received this question multiple times. The short answer is NO. No, you don’t have to.
But here’s a longer caveat: you can think about music theory when you’re writing. And if you do, it’ll help you solve songwriting problems faster and steer your song to a direction that you want to take it.
Note that music theory is primarily an analysis tool. It helps you figure out what’s going on — whatever is already going on. Do you draw with a ruler? No, but a ruler can help if you need your drawing to meet some specific requirements.
Really, I doubt that any songwriter thinks about theory when you’re in that creative zone, following a muse and unraveling a song-in-making. You don’t stop and think about whether the melody is a pentatonic scale or if the chord belongs in the key of E. Until you run into a problem.
For example, you have a verse-like snippet in G and a chorus-like snippet in E. How will you go from one to the other and back while still creating that sense of arrival that any self-respecting chorus should have?
Music theory can help you with that. You can try B, A, F#, F#m, F, or D, depending on what other chords are in the G snippets and what kind of feel is appropriate for setting up the E.
Or you have these weird but cool chord progression and you don’t know where to even begin as far as the melody is concerned?
Music theory can help you with that, too. Figure out the notes that make up your chords and use them as the starting points.
So you can see that music theory is a great problem-solver when you’re writing songs. It gives you the power to stitch parts together, create interests in boring bits, and apply appropriate flavors into your songs. Many songwriters think good songs are accidents — hence albums filled with songs of varying qualities, where fillers and hits are as different as night and day. Not every song has to be hit-worthy, of course, but music theory help you ensure that all songs are impactful, they meet the standards you set for yourself as a writer.
In short, you don’t have to know any theory to write great songs — but music theory will give you the ability to make all your songs consistently good, and write them faster. The range of information needed to learn the fundamentals is actually fairly limited. It’s much easier than learning to sing or play an instrument. I even have a handy primer for you — so you have no excuse. Learn them now.
Photo credit: Adrian F.