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3 Ways Music Theory Makes You A Better Songwriter

You may be a good songwriter. But imagine if you knew some basic music theory. People say it can give your songwriting a serious boost.

As a songwriter myself, I was curious. So I did some digging to see what music theory could actually do for me. And here are the three most compelling ways music theory can make you and me better songwriters.

What Is Music Theory?

Music theory is basically the study of musical elements like rhythm, melody, harmony, notation, and many other things. For example, keys direct you on what notes to play, those notes make up chords, and that can direct you on writing a melody and harmony.

We won’t get too technical here — at the end of this post, there are resources for learning music theory on your own.

Right now, we’ll cover how theory can help you write better songs.

#1: Music Theory Can Improve Your Chord Progressions

It’s so easy to write a boring chord progression. You hear it all the time in pop music — the same four chords but in different keys and tempos.

But if you know about the Circle Of Fifths and chord building (two basic music theory principles), you have the knowledge to create more interesting chord progressions.

If you know what chords work with what key you’re in, then that’s going to help you tremendously. For example, as you sing your melody, you’ll be able to come up with a more creative chord progression quicker. Once you get good at writing chord progressions, you might even start hearing them in your head as you sing the melody.

#2: Music Theory Can Help You Write Stronger Melodies

Melodies are one of the most important aspects of a great song. I love crafting a melody and doing unexpected things with it. I usually sing until I find my melody — it seems like the most natural way to do it.

But sometimes, I can get stuck. In these moments, it would be helpful to know the different scales so I can pinpoint what notes to hit when.

A scale is just a sequence of notes that sound good together. And there are a bunch of scales. In each key, these are the different types of scales:

  • Chromatic / dodecatonic (12 notes per octave)
  • Octatonic (8 notes per octave)
  • Heptatonic (7 notes per octave)
  • Hexatonic (6 notes per octave)
  • Pentatonic (5 notes per octave)
  • Tetratonic (4 notes)
  • Tritonic (3 notes)
  • Ditonic (2 notes)
  • Monotonic (one note, obviously)

I’m not trying to overwhelm you, I’m trying to show you how you can expand your horizons. If you know these scales, the number of melodies you could come up with would be countless. And it would be easier to get yourself unstuck from searching for a melody.

For example, most of us naturally sing a melody made up of notes that are in the first chord of our progression. But if you know your scales, you can write a melody using the notes that are in the other chords in your progression.

And that would be interesting.

#3: Music Theory Can Help You Communicate With Other Songwriters

I would highly recommend co-writing a song with someone. You may realize you enjoy it and you might write better songs with others. Even if you don’t end up liking it, you’ll probably learn something useful.

And if you’re going to be collaborating with other songwriters, you’ll need to know the language. If you go into a songwriting session with someone and they start throwing music theory terms into the conversation, you may get left behind.

Knowing basic music theory will help you communicate better with your fellow songwriters who also know theory. It helps you get ideas across that otherwise would be very difficult.

If you really want to up your co-songwriting game (and impress other songwriters), learn some basic music theory.

Where Can You Learn Music Theory?

This post is more about why you should learn basic theory, not so much how or where to learn it. But to get you started, I would recommend heading over to YouTube for some basic music theory videos.

And if you don’t already know the chromatic scale, you can learn it here. Once you get that down, you can take a look at the other scales.

Whatever you do, start learning the basics of music theory. Your songwriting will thank you.

Caleb J. Murphy is a singer-songwriter and music producer based in Austin, Tx., and the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog that helps part-time musicians succeed.

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