Learning music theory is a tough sell for some musicians. Since music-making is a rebellious creative pursuit for many, the idea of letting a determined set of rules inform the songwriting process can be unattractive. But the truth is that music theory doesn’t exist to confine or limit musicians. It’s a set of musical principals that are designed to explain and clarify the music we make and hear in the world around us. Musicians lose a valuable tool in their songwriting arsenals when they don’t bother to learn about music theory. If you’re a songwriter interested in learning about theory, here are three basics every musician should master:
How to build and identify chords
If you’re a serious musician, you probably already know how to play chords, but knowing what chords actually are and how to build them is a completely different skill set. Chords provide the harmonic foundation to the overwhelmingly vast majority of music we hear every day. Mastering how chords are built and understanding how they interact with one another will give you a much clearer perspective on why music sounds the way it does. No matter what instrument you play, mastering chord-building and being able to hear the differences between chords will make you a better songwriter and musician.
Scale-building and identification
If you have any interest in writing melodies, then knowing your way around musical scales should be a top priority. Also known as modes, scales can do everything from helping guitarists write solos to giving singers inspiration for melodies. Scales are great for exploring different musical moods, making them powerful tools for giving musical ideas direction. And, like chords, the sequence of notes behind individual scales never change, which makes them easy to learn and recognize in music with a little practice.
How to build and understand key signatures
If you’ve ever wanted to know why the key of G is different than Bb, this section is for you. Many songwriters tinker around with different melodies and chords without understanding why some notes sound perfect and others don’t. Learning how to construct key signatures will give you complete clarity when it comes to knowing how notes function within conventional music. The beauty behind music theory is that most of its core ideas are set in stone. This means that you’ll only have to learn specific patterns of notes once in order to understand crucial music theory concepts.
Learning music theory is worth it
Make no mistake. Music theory takes time and energy to learn. But the musicians who take time to master basic theory concepts are better off than the ones who don’t. Music theory is the only true common language spoken between musicians – tabs are a tempting crutch, they don’t paint anywhere near clear of a musical picture music theory is able to.
Music theory can be intimidating to learn, but you don’t have to master it in a day. Your best bet is to narrow down basic concepts like chords, scales, and key signatures, and to devote energy to learning about each on your own time. The knowledge you’ll acquire will be able to inform and improve your songwriting throughout your career.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.