Onmutu- Music Theory Article

What Role does Music Theory Play in Songwriting?

The songwriting process can be a tricky thing to write about and even trickier to teach.  This is because any creative effort (and any subsequent critique of that effort) is largely opinion-based.  A painting can be sold for a million dollars, but the person who created it might have died 50 years earlier without a penny to his or her name.  The history of artistic expression is littered with stories such as this, whether it be in the world of art, music, or literature.

That is why I’m not going to write about what makes a song great or explain how to create the catchiest chorus ever written.  Instead, I want to explore the potential role music theory can play in expanding any songwriter’s original ideas.  How possessing a solid understanding of theory can push the limits of what is possible in a particular piece.  And, most importantly, how it can help maximize the emotional impact on the listener.


Well, the term ‘Music Theory’ can be a bit misleading.  It is essentially a language which describes how our western system of music works. For example, we all love certain songs from the moment we hear them.  But, whether you play an instrument or not, some can’t explain why a song moves them in an emotional way.  However, those who are well versed in music theory can identify and articulate the specific qualities that give a song its overall mood and character.  This is not to say that people who understand music theory are better equipped to create amazing music, just that they can explain the mechanics of a piece more so than the average joe.


Where does a good idea come from?  That’s a tough one to answer.  But I’ll give a somewhat cliche response by saying the best ideas occur when a person is inspired.  Inspiration is one of those ephemeral emotions which is like a light bulb going on in your head.  The Greeks believed it was the act of breathing in the spirit of the gods which, in turn, gave mortals creative abilities.  This ancient belief could still be considered an accurate description of what inspiration means in today’s society.

Except, where the people of antiquity believed it was the spirit of gods they were inhaling, I believe it is the inhalation of other people’s ideas.  Let’s face it; no artistic work is created in a vacuum.  We all have probably felt moments of inspiration when reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to music.  Just think about when you’ve watched a movie for the first time and the ending completely disappointed you!  What do you do after the movie?  You start talking with your friends about how the ending would’ve been so much better if they did it ‘this way’ or ‘that way’.  It might just be casual conversation amongst you and your friends, but those ideas are creative endeavors that your mind is ‘exhaling’ after it ‘inhaled’ a 2-hour long movie.  Our reactions (whether positive or negative) towards other ideas seems to be the precursor for true inspiration.

Logically, the next step would be to inhale as much creative work as possible.  Of course, you should listen to a lot of music but, as mentioned earlier, reading good books, watching good movies, or checking out cool pieces of art can also spark that musical flame.  The bigger your internal library is, the better the chances are for inspiration to occur!

Inspiration usually then leads to a main musical idea.  This can be a melody, a chord progression, or even a lyric.  No amount of theory knowledge can truly explain the initial flare of that creative moment.  But once you have your main idea, where do you go from there?  How does an idea evolve into an entire song?


In many ways, this challenge can be compared to architecture.  Think of some of the world’s modern wonders; The Pyramids, The Roman Colosseum, The Taj Mahal, or The Empire State Building.  The visual concept for these structures could be credited to abstract inspiration occurring in the mind of their designers.  But how did the architects move beyond the basic designs and actually get these structures built?

The initial rendering of a building is very similar to the initial melody you hear in your head.  It is simply a concept.  This concept should be dissected, expanded, and improved upon.  In architectural terms, the visual idea needs to be reinforced with competent engineering.  This means you need people with technical knowledge to engineer and design the internal anatomy and framework of the structure.  This will ensure that it can physically withstand the elements and literally stand the test of time.  Architects have the responsibility of being both creative and technical, in that they have to maximize the aesthetic appeal of a building while making sure it is structurally sound.


This is where the application of music theory can be very useful.  It is simply a way of reinforcing your work with ‘competent engineering’.  Perhaps a song you wrote needs more layering in a certain section and you want to harmonize two guitar parts.  But because you only know how to harmonize by ear it is not producing the dramatic effect that you hoped it would.  If you had the ‘technical knowledge’ then you could experiment with different types of harmonization and figure out which one has the biggest impact on that section.

You could also have a particular chord in your progression that seems to clash with the bass guitar.  But, after many attempts to change the chord, you can’t seem to find a suitable replacement without sacrificing the melodic content of the song.  Well, it may not be the chord that is the problem, but how the notes are arranged in that chord (the chord voicing).  Maybe you just need to move the root note to a higher octave (invert the chord) and the musical palette will open up for the bass.

Another common roadblock occurs when one tries to play a guitar solo over a section of a song.  The player in question might know the Pentatonic and Blues scales but is lost once they’re presented with a rhythm progression that clashes with the typical rock or blues sound.  Knowing which scales to utilize in a given musical context and (less obvious but more crucial) being aware of the strongest notes within those scales are incredibly valuable skill sets to possess.  More times than not, music theory can be a useful tool in resolving the issues in all of these examples.


Sure, you can also accomplish these things without knowing theory.  If you have a great natural ear for music then you may not feel that it’s necessary to dissect your ideas into theoretical terms.  There’s definitely a case to be made for that side of the argument, and many people out there write great music without knowing a lick of theory (I wrote plenty of songs for years before understanding theory).  Hypothetically, a problem could arise when you’re writing a song and you make a ‘mistake’ (a wrong note that clashes with established music theory) which the rational side of your brain tries to correct by altering or discarding the idea altogether.  But what if the ‘creative’ side of your brain loves the mistake and equates it to a ‘happy accident’ that throws a musical curve ball to potential listeners?  In my opinion, you should always let your ‘gut’ win over in this scenario.  A person’s creative instincts belong in the driver’s seat, while the rules of music theory are best suited for the passenger side.  Without this mentality, musical innovation would be largely stagnant.

That being said, it definitely doesn’t hurt to be aware of all your musical options before finishing a piece.  Do you want to settle for a less than satisfying chord progression because one chord just doesn’t sound right?  Do you want to compromise on a guitar solo or even completely give up on the idea because you couldn’t really understand the musical context of that section?  Veering off the ‘music theory road’ can be a great move for your song, but it might be best to check with your ‘passenger’ before making a final decision.


Music theory is one of those subjects that seems to divide many musicians.  Some people are ardent supporters of it while others believe it prevents you from thinking “outside of the box”.  As with most things in life, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.  You should always try to maintain a balance between your raw ideas and the analytical refinement of those ideas.  Just like architects use engineering to reinforce and enhance their visual concepts, musicians can use theory to improve both the foundation and facade of their creative structures.

If you think music theory directly conflicts with creative freedom and is comparable to overanalyzing a beautiful painting or understanding the physics behind a perfect sunset, then a quote from American scientist Robert Sapolsky might put things in perspective;  “I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature.  Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.”  

However, an important aspect of this whole topic to remember is that it is merely a ‘theory’ and not a ‘law’.  As much as I like the architecture analogy, it must be emphasized that you can in fact bend, break or ignore the rules altogether and still create a powerful piece of music.  This mindset is what paved the way for more advanced jazz theory to be established, and will also help to push music into more progressive directions in the future.  Being aware of the basic tenets of music theory can be beneficial, but as Daniel Levitin states in his book This Is Your Brain On Music, “…the goal of a theory is to convey ‘truth for now’-to replace an old truth, while accepting that someday this theory, too, will be replaced by a new ‘truth’…”  To sum it all up, music theory is simply a set of guidelines for what has worked ‘so far’, and is not a prerequisite or a replacement for good songwriting.

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