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Beginner Music Theory Makes You Into A Better Songwriter


“Come on guys, it’s not music theory” the rocket scientist says…

Music theory is the collection of a wide range of tools to understand music. Many people like myself attend university to develop these strengths. Topics like understanding scale and chord constructions are complex and frankly intimidating.

Many producers today shy away from music theory on the basis you do not need it to make good music. They also fear it’s too much of a time commitment. While technically music theory is not needed to make music, there are various skills and concepts that can make your writing better and more productive.

Topics

Today, we will be investigating foundational music theory concepts that will make you a better writer, producer, and musician. These concepts will be the following:

  • Scales
  • Chords
  • Progressions

By discussing these concepts we can begin to discover why these topics are useful from a popular music perspective. We also will create a basic understanding that will make learning these concepts easier and less stressful.

Scales

To begin, the most simple concept that directly applies to pop music is scales. Scales are the collection of notes we use to make melodies, counter lines, backing vocals, guitar riffs, and so much more. By learning names and types of scales and their applications, we skip what I like to call the guessing game.

Imagine we have a chord progression for the chorus on a new song. Now, we just have to write that killer melody everyone will remember and we are going to record it on a midi keyboard. We go to record and first take, oh a bad note, we’ll leave that one out. Second take, oops another sour note, we should leave that note out. Third take, oh it’s sounding so cool this take is the one I can…. oops, a bad note.

The constant guessing and uncertainty of what’s actually happening prevents us from writing what we truly hear in our heads, and wastes so much time! This whole process would have gone so much quicker if we just knew we were writing in D minor and a D dorian scale was all we needed.

While there are countless examples I can give about the advantages of learning scales, I think it’s more important to tell you how to begin learning. To start, learn a C major scale and all the associated modes. Tricky, I know but keep following up with audio issues as next month I will be teaching these concepts in my posts!

Chords

Chords are the collection of nonadjacent (generally) notes that create harmony and help define tonality. For example, if we are only using an F major chord, we are in the key of F major. Even when you start combining chords into progressions, we still are almost always in one key in pop music.

By learning basic chords like triads and even seventh chords, we can quickly create synth pad backgrounds, string quartet parts, backup vocal harmonies, rhythm guitar parts, piano parts, and so much more.

For example, if we were at a keyboard struggling to sound out a monophonic (one note at a time) melody, how are we going to tackle three or even four notes at the same time with our guessing game?

The main point of this conversation is not to say we can’t do it, but our time is too valuable to go through that. Instead, let’s invest time into learning these concepts next month with me and less time frustrated at our keyboards.

Progressions

The last topic we will discuss today is chord progression. Chord progressions are simply a combination of chords that flow in order to arrive at a certain tonality. Progressions usually also return to the first chord we started with. This is a crucial topic because certain combinations and orders of chords do not complement each other.

A complex example of this is going from the V chord to a IV chord to the I chord. This can sound effective, but also is a concept called a retrograde and creates a sense of static harmony.

I threw all those complex words at us just so we can see what we are missing out on. Once we establish our basic understanding of progressions, we can simply make good music without having to guess by trial and error.

Wrapping Up

Music theory has value even in pop music. By no means is it easy and it seems never-ending. That’s okay as long as we get a strong start.

To start off the year, I will be writing blogs introducing these concepts technically so we can start using them in our music.

If you have further questions or want private lessons in all things writing, arranging, and composing, email me at cjrhenmusic@gmail.com.

About Cj

Hi, I’m Cj Rhen, and I am a composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. You can find some of my work at cjrhenmusic.com or on sounds.com, where I write and record high-end sax and horn loops for your music. Also, you can check out my live streams at twitch.tv/cjrhenmusic to see me writing music like this post live and ask questions and chat.


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About Audio Issues and Björgvin Benediktsson

At Audio Issues you’ll learn simple and practical audio production tips you can use right away to improve your music from your home recording studio.  Björgvin is the best-selling author of Step By Step Mixing and the founder of Audio Issues. He helps musicians and producers turn amateur demos into professionally produced records they can be proud to release.

We help home studio musicians and project studio producers make a greater musical impact in their lives by teaching them the skills needed to grow their hobbies and careers. We do this by offering simple and practical music production and success skills they can use right away to level themselves up – while rejecting negativity and gear-shaming from the industry. A rising tide floats all boats and the ocean is big enough for all of us to surf the sound waves.

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