Songwriters: Five Huge Advantages of Learning Music Theory


So in my last post, I established that you don’t have to think theory, nor do you have to know theory at all, to write good songs.  That said, knowing music theory gives you these huge advantages.

Music theory helps you troubleshoot your songs.

This I went over in detail in my last post, but music theory is a critical troubleshooting tool when your song is not working.  What’s wrong with it?  Are the chords too generic?  Are the melodies too static?  Too predictable?  Answering these questions will require you to analyze your song, and to analyze you need to know theory so you can figure out what’s going on.

Music theory gives you the language to communicate with other musicians.

Ever come up with some crazy chords or unusual rhythm?  It’s hard to make other musicians understand what’s going on quickly if you can’t use music theory to correctly describe the music.  Does the chord have an unexpected #9, or perhaps you threw in an extra eighth note at the end of a 4/4 measure?  Communicating using those terms make things much clearer than saying “I have this weird chord” or “the rhythm is kind of odd here.”

Music theory helps you steal from other songs.

Plagiarism is not cool, but we all have our influences and role models.  The songs that hit you hard — how did it do that?  How does that chorus make you want to pump fist into the air?  Or that chord sound so sorrowful?  They don’t happen by accident, even if the songwriters themselves don’t understand the intricate mechanism that holds our music together.  Analyzing and understanding how it works helps you apply similar techniques in different circumstances.  At first your influences may seem a bit literal but with time these songwriting lessons will become internalized and become part of your voice as a writer.

Music theory gives you options.

It’s hard to keep writing great songs when you’re limited to a handful of chords.  Knowing theory will expand your vocabulary and helps you discover more chord options, more chord voicings, more ways to fit melodies and harmonies together.  And that variety will keep you inspired as you explore a bigger terrain as a writer.  D, G, and A are perfectly capable of creating a jaw-dropping song, but you don’t want an album filled with songs with nothing but those chords.

Music theory lets you know how you can break rules.

And expanding on the previous point, music theory actually helps you, rather than prevents you from, breaking the “rules.”  People who don’t know theory tend to think music theory is a bunch of rules that you have live by, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  (Perhaps you weren’t taught theory the correct way.)

For example, in the key of D I know I can safely use Em, F#m, G, A and Bm.  Or I can throw in F, Bb and C without sounding too weird.  But it really starts to push the envelope if I put in chords that haven’t been mentioned so far.  Can I throw in E, F#, G#?  Or how about Eb or C#?  It’s tricky to make them work but being weird is actually OK in more circumstances than you imagine.  Moves that strike you as weird on the first listen may end up becoming the thing you look forward to the next time you listen to it.

There are no excuses.

If I said that I wanted to be a great guitar player but I didn’t practice, you’d tell me that I’m not serious.  I must say the same thing, if you want to learn to write great songs — and they can be learned — then you’ll want to practice writing songs, and learn music theory.  Actually the amount of theory you need to know in order to be a competent songwriter in the pop/rock/folk/metal genres is fairly finite.  It’s harder to learn to sing or play the guitar.  I have a handy primer for you that covers a lot of the bases.  There are many other resources, free and not free, that can get you the knowledge that you need.  Learn theory, and start improving your songwriting.

Did I miss any other benefits of knowing music theory?  Let me know by leaving a comment below.  Thanks!

Photo credit: Jean-Michel Soupraya/Wikipedia