How Basic Music Theory Can Improve Your Songwriting

No matter who you are and what sort of music you make, learning basic music theory is something that can absolutely change the way you think about songwriting for the better. Sheer songwriting talent, solid instruments, and compositional technology can certainly help you write great music, but nothing can replace music theory knowledge as being the best tool for explaining what music literally is and how it works. Rather than explain what basic music theory is––I already did that in a two-part series you can read here––in this article, I’m making the case for why every songwriter should take the time to master music theory basics.

Basic music theory can help you write better chord progressions

An almost universal problem songwriters face is writing the same boring chord progressions over and over again. Mastering a few simple music theory staples like chord-building and the Circle of 5ths will give you an entirely new perspective when it comes to understanding what chords are and how to use them in your music. The theory behind music is able to give your ideas a powerful new context that gives you not only a more informed view of every chord progression you’ve ever written but also ideas on how to write better ones in the future.

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Music theory can help you better understand the music you love

Have you ever loved a piece of music but you weren’t sure exactly why? Knowing music theory can help give you an understanding of music you never thought possible because it shows you what to listen for in music. Whether you gravitate towards the weightless sound of the Lydian mode or you can’t get enough of songs written in compound time signatures, music theory has the ability to show musicians why they love the aspects of music they do.

Why is this important? Because songwriting taste is a crucial part of learning how to write decent music. If you want to incorporate all the things you love in the music you hear around you, you’ll have to learn what’s really happening on a technical level. And sure, you can imitate aspects of music you love to a degree, but gaining a real understanding of how music actually works can improve your songwriting in massive and tangible ways.

Music theory can help you communicate and collaborate with other musicians

More than just a songwriting tool, music theory is the best and most accurate language used by musicians. Know it, and you’ll be able to communicate and work with musicians on a level that’s impossible any other way. Lots of musicians resist learning music theory because they see it as being needlessly complicated and unnecessary, but in truth, music theory and notation are systems designed to be as simple as possible for musicians to understand. Music theory is a helpful tool, not a complicated math problem.

Once you understand the language of music, you’ll be able to communicate musical ideas that you wouldn’t been able to without it. This is hugely helpful for collaborating with other songwriters and having other musicians perform your music. Sure, you can skip learning basic music theory, but if you consider yourself to be a serious songwriter, why would you?

Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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  • Indra - April 18, 2018 reply

    Interesting article. Thanks for posting. I can definitely learn how to approach songwriting with some music theory study. Grateful for the little nudge.

  • Chris Dunnett - April 19, 2018 reply

    I could not agree more! Well said.

  • Peter Jacobson - April 19, 2018 reply

    I agree that music theory is very useful in communicating with fellow musicians, in documenting the music and other technical aspects.. But in the writing process, I found that some of the innocence was lost as I learned the theory. I used to be thrilled and inspired about random/accidental piano chords unknown to me, but as I became able to tell exactly what they were, things got less inspirational. The magic was gone. Now I find myself retuning my guitar, using the QWERTY keyboard etc to disable my somewhat cynical, analytical left brain when in creative mode. It helps me.

  • James Carbonaro - April 19, 2018 reply

    I was told once, that if I did not want all of my songs to sound the same, then I should strive to write them in different keys & with different time signatures. I was also told once, that when I included a lead of some sort, it should be in the corresponding (relative) minor key, assuming the composition was in a major key. I was also told that songs should have an overall A B A structure, & that B should be a modulation of the A’s that come before & after it. This is especially true of longer compositions.

    Composing in different keys is easy. Putting them in different time signatures is a bit harder, at least for me anyway. But I haven’t gotten the knack of modulating a piece just yet.

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