Some people believe that you have to understand music theory to be a great songwriter.
Since many great songwriters have not known much about theory in a formal sense, this is a pretty questionable idea. And that’s not to mention the countless songwriters and composers creating music before theory even existed.
Not only is learning theory unnecessary for being a great songwriter. It can actually be counterproductive.
Writing your songs with music theory in mind can easily lead you to write songs you’d never want to listen to.
Let’s look at some of the ways music theory can hurt you as a songwriter. But once we see the pitfalls, we’ll explore how, if used well, music theory can still help broaden your horizons.
Music theory is not a recipe for writing great songs
Let’s start with a radical statement: whether a song is good or bad depends on how people experience it. If you want to find out if a song is good, you’ll have to listen to it.
Here’s another radical statement: what one person thinks is a great song, another person will turn off as soon as they can.
As a songwriter, your most valuable asset is your ears. And your “ability” to hear whether a song is good is actually something that develops and changes with experience.
If you’ve never heard a genre before, for example, it’s likely you won’t “get” a song in that genre the first time you hear it. You need to be familiar with the conventions, and that comes from listening.
Music theory has significant limits
Music theory is another way to learn about conventions in music. But historically, music theories have either ignored or denigrated popular forms of music.
In practice, this means that theory contains plenty of gaps. And these days theorists are still struggling to figure out how to talk about forms of music like pop, rock, and hip hop.
All of this means at least two things:
Music theory can’t tell us what makes a song good, since there is actually no straightforward answer to whether a particular song is good.
Music theories are descriptions of musical practice, but we don’t currently have a great description of most popular music.
This all points in one direction: music theory is not a recipe for writing great songs.
Music theory can lead to boring songs
So music theory knowledge can’t guarantee you’ll write great songs. But it also comes with risks.
The biggest risk of using music theory to write songs is that it will prevent you from using your ears.
How should you use this information?
If you’re writing a verse in the key of C, then the C major chord is your I and G major is your V. One way you could interpret what you learned is as a rule: to get back to the C major chord, you have to first play the G major chord.
Imagine what would happen if you followed a rule like this.
First, all of your chord progressions would contain that same chord change, which would get boring fast. But even more importantly, you would be making decisions based on a rule rather than trusting your ears.
Music theory just describes tendencies
It’s worth mentioning that music theory doesn’t actually say a V chord has to precede a I chord as a rule. It’s better to think of it as a statement about tendencies in a given style of music.
For example, in 18th Century European classical music, a return to the I is commonly preceded by a V. But this is by no means the only option!
However, the same problem above holds if you make your decisions based on what’s common. For example, you might think “in order to return to the I, you should normally use the V, and sometimes the IV, and less often the ii”.
If you’ve ever tried to write songs this way before, you might have found that the results sounded random. And I’m guessing you often found that the results sounded boring.
Music theory isn’t a measure of success
Chord choices always take place within the context of the whole song, and your best resource for understanding that context is your ears.
Let’s look at it another way.
What counts as success when you sit down to write a song? Is it that you used harmonic functions properly? Or that an expert in music theory would say “yes, this song is structured the way successful songs are often structured”?
Another radical statement: you’re successful when you write a song that sounds good to you.
Seen this way, a boring song is one that you lose interest in. Write songs for yourself, and use your intuitions about what sounds good to drive the process.
If you mindlessly apply rules to your songwriting, you’re basically guaranteed to write boring songs.
Music theory can cause you to stop writing songs
If you want to be a songwriter, writing songs that you like is pretty important. But it’s even more important that you actually write songs in the first place!
Approached the wrong way, music theory can ruin your motivation and cause you to stop writing altogether.
How can this happen? No matter what the activity is, failing on a regular basis can kill your confidence as well as your interest.
Music theory is no substitute for a process that aligns with your goals
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to fail sometimes. That’s one great way to learn, and it’s inevitable if you stretch yourself.
But there’s a limit. You need a consistent practice that makes room for failure while also increasing your odds of success.
If your goals don’t align with your process, you’re almost guaranteed to fail.
As a really simplistic example, imagine that you want to write synth pop, but your process is to write counterpoint exercises in the Baroque style. Most of the time, your results will not sound remotely like synth pop1.
You’ve set yourself up to fail.
How long do you think you’d continue this way? If for some reason you believed that writing counterpoint exercises is the way “real musicians” write great music, then you might conclude you’re not a real musician after all. Maybe it’s better to give up songwriting.
This case is intentionally absurd, but it’s meant to illustrate a more common problem. Getting caught up in ideas about what real musicians do or how real music works can lead you to focus on exactly the wrong things.
It’s better to focus on continuous improvement
Another point worth mentioning: if you consistently feel overwhelmed, you’ll probably be motivated to do something else. And many musicians feel overwhelmed by the minutiae of music theory.
It’s better to keep writing songs without any understanding of music theory than it is to stop writing because of music theory.
These are the foundation of your songwriting practice.
Music theory can broaden your horizons as a songwriter
Ok, so music theory can cause you to write boring songs. And it can stop you from writing altogether. Sounds pretty bad!
Does that mean it’s better to leave theory to people reading books in ivory towers?
No! What it means is that you need to be thoughtful about how you approach and apply theory in your songwriting.
Remember that music theory is a way of describing what happens in music. That means that learning theory is one way of learning about what composers and songwriters have done in their music (whether they thought about it that way or not).
Think of music theory as providing a vocabulary of options.
Use music theory to expand your vocabulary
What does this mean in practice? Imagine you’re stuck when writing a part and don’t know how to move forward. You want to get back to that C major chord that started your verse, but everything you try sounds wrong.
Ah, but you remember that the V chord is one common way to get back to the I. And other common routes are through the IV or the ii, etc. So you try the V first. It sounds a little boring. You try the IV. Still boring. You try the ii. Nice! That’s exactly what you were looking for in this case.
What just happened? You used theory to quickly think of some options, but you used your ears to make the choice.
Notice that we didn’t treat theory as a set of rules. Maybe none of those options sound right. That’s ok too.
You don’t want to use these same moves all the time, but they quickly give you things to try out. And perhaps more interestingly, they give you things to avoid if you don’t want your changes to sound standard.
What matters most is how it sounds!
Treat music theory as one more resource
If you’re fascinated by music theory, by all means do what it takes to become an expert.
But if you tend to find it boring, you can still benefit from it.
Don’t try to learn everything at once. Just learn a little at a time, and experiment with everything you learn.
It can be a great exercise to try to write a song based on some idea from music theory. This can help you break your habits, try new things, and learn more about what sounds good to you.
The crucial thing is that you don’t apply theory for its own sake.
Music theory is not a set of rules that you have to follow to write great songs. It’s just one more resource that can help you become a better songwriter, as long as you treat it that way.
Though synth pop counterpoint might sound interesting! Combining disparate styles together is a great way to explore new sounds. ↩︎