3 Music Theory Basics Every Songwriter Should Know

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.

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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.

Rebecca3 Music Theory Basics Every Songwriter Should Know

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  • Gordon Kaswell - September 18, 2019 reply

    When I was a really young kid, I could already play the piano by ear. On most songs I could instinctively play the right chords with the right melody. But on more complex stuff, there were chords I couldn’t get right. I’d find workable substitutes, but I knew they weren’t correct. Three years of classical piano (to learn basic sight reading skills) and four years of stride piano and music theory instruction later, I knew most of what I needed to start writing my own tunes (a number of which have been published). Music theory was the keys to the kingdom.

    Theory is a way of describing note intervals, and there are a number of ways of thinking about it. Chords imply scale modes, and scale modes imply chords. Scale-oriented players tend to show higher virtuosity on their instruments, while chord-oriented players (myself included) tend to be singer-songwriters and/or composers. (Of course some musicians are comfortable with both approaches.) In India, the micro-tonal and raga scale approaches leave western musicians scratching their heads, but I suspect most traditional musicians in India would not know how to build a major 9 chord. It’s a rich and varied landscape. I find great beauty in music theory, not tedium.

  • rick - September 18, 2019 reply

    When I started playing guitar in Kenya in 73, I had no ear for music to speak of so I did all I could to learn basic music theory and chord structures. I had songs in my head but no musical training. When I asked a woman what it meant to play in key all she could answer was the “key of E has four sharps”. I knew that wasn’t what I was looking for as an answer. Why is one note called a Bb in one key and an A# in another? For my songs I learned the 1 4 5 chords, and their relative minors, and sixths, sevenths (transition chords) and major 7th. That gave me 15 chords to choose from and decide which was the right one for the melody. A good place to start but not all comprehensive. I couldn’t have progressed without this music theory. Made a cardboard “slide rule” that allowed one to slide to the window with the name of the key and the other “windows” would show the 1 4 5, 1 3 5, relative minors etc. This was in the back woods of Arkansas but it taught me a lot.

  • Chris Dunnett - September 18, 2019 reply

    I could not agree more! Many think “theory” are rules that you HAVE to follow but what it is are just guidelines to help speed up the process. As a guitar teacher of over 35 years I always stress the benefits to learning at least some basic Music Theory and the 3 areas you mentioned above are definitely the most beneficial

  • Hardy - September 18, 2019 reply

    When I just started learning fl studio I dont know about music theory, but now I think I need it tho 🙂 Thanks for sharing

  • Randy Schmuki - September 18, 2019 reply

    I respect your ideas on songwriting however I have written over 100 songs without knowing musical scales, key signatures, and crucial music theory concepts. I now wish I had learned far more in my music class in school. Today I started on a song in a strange tuning with a cut capo on the 2nd fret and have no idea what to call most of the chords. I read and write in a chord pattern program that is old but still working well. I have some fantastic songs with great lyrics. You could say I am a bit like Stevie Wonder, except I can see, but am blind to basic Music Theory and write with my heart and ears.

    john - September 24, 2019 reply

    Great points. My favorite guitarist didn’t read notes or anything yet has put out over 80 albums. Now, I’m sure, in time he did at theory, etc. to his knowledge but at 17 he was a better guitarist than 95% of the best guitarists have ever achieved, and that was with no theory.

  • Eddie Simon - September 19, 2019 reply

    Reading this has inspired me. I’m nearly 62 years old and I’m a guitar player but piano was my first instrument. I was learning theory as a child then quit piano lessons before I finished Grade 1 piano. I regret to this day not having continued it but am now keen to get on track. I’ve just discovered my original theory book that I studied from way back when. Awesome 😎

  • D.Merritt - September 20, 2019 reply

    i’m a guitar player and for the longest time theory made no sense until i got a key board then i could see it all laid out and like a light coming on it all made sense, and like me , a lot of people think its hard and you have to learn it but it is as easy as counting.

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