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, and how it will improve your songwriting.

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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JamesHow Basic Music Theory Can Improve Your Songwriting

9 comments

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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.

    Rene' Purvis - May 14, 2018 reply

    Sounds very inspiring and what I’ve been needing for a long time. And on top of it all, selling my tracks too? WOW!

  • 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.

  • Robert Keelin - April 19, 2018 reply

    I agree that understanding music theory can be helpful; unfortunately, it can also take away the magic of what you’re hearing. I’ve been playing/writing a long time and I have to say that now when I listen to music, pop/rock/country/alt., etc. (collectively, “pop” music, in my mind), I hear it from a technical point of view (i.e., what’s going on in the song) — the arrangement, the interaction of the various instruments, harmonies, etc. It can be difficult to turn off that side of me and just enjoy what I’m hearing. In some ways, it has made music boring knowing how it was constructed.

  • Oci-One Kanubi - April 20, 2018 reply

    Your link to “what basic music theory is––I already did that in a two-part series you can read here––” links only to Part 1, as far as I can tell. I would have liked to read both parts before reading this article (although I already know and understand everything in Part 1), if only to calibrate your terminology, which is not always standard terminology (as pointed out by the first commenter on Part 1).

  • Cathy DeWitt - April 22, 2018 reply

    I like this, and will use this approach as incentive for the students I teach in my Senior center songwriting group and the veterabs I am being music lessons to at the V.A.! Thanks!

  • Lori Lynn Gamble - April 23, 2018 reply

    Learning music theory has definitely been helpful in writing strong compositions. It help me understand how my favorite band Rush could write the pieces that they did. In fact I have written several articles on different aspects of music theory and songwriting… These might also be helpful… http://ezinearticles.com/expert/Lori_Mortimore/12200

  • Don jacobs - April 24, 2018 reply

    Where do I find Part II?

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