Music Theory in Songwriting: How Much Do You Need to Know?



The age-old question, “Do you need to know music theory to compose a song?” is one that songwriters, producers, and artists have all had to face at some point in their career. There really is no correct answer because there has never been a hard and fast rule when it comes to songwriting and making music. Some musicians have a natural inclination for the theory side of songwriting and know what sounds good to them by ear. For others, it might take a little more practice before they write something they are satisfied with. It is a different journey for everybody, as everybody starts in a different place.

Having proficient knowledge in music theory is not a requirement for writing a song, but it can help a great deal with many aspects of the songwriting process. Think of music theory as a set of tools that you can use to construct the building blocks of your “house” and make it as sturdy and fully realized as possible. Through the implementation of theory-based ideas such as chord progressions, rhythm, key, and form, music is generally successful in evoking a strong overall tone that the listener can hum, dance, or play along to. Even the most seemingly dissonant songs likely still demonstrate an understanding of music theory by having some type of song structure. It is difficult to avoid running into theory while in the songwriting process, because it is the invisible set of rules that is always there to govern how music works, and how to make it sound appealing to the ear. The artist, singer, or songwriter just has to decide what degree of music theory is needed in the construction of their given song. Sometimes a simple melodic composition can be just as effective as a complex one, and little theory needs to be applied.


Elements of Songwriting


Creating songs with strong chord progressions and maintaining a dynamic relationship between the different elements of the song, such as the vocal melody, vocal harmonies, and instruments is one of many secrets to songwriting success. As a writer, you want to have a memorable melody that can stand against other successful songs from the same genre. You also need to have a strong song concept that will be either relatable or interesting to your audience. Some of the most respected songwriters in music history such as Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, and Taylor Swift are all known for their ability to storytell and transport the listener into the world of the song. Of course, they all know their way around writing infectious musical hooks as well, but it is their ability to find a good balance of the song’s elements that makes their work so effective, because it hits our ears in just the right way.

The more songs you write, the more efficient you will become at producing work with more resonance. Although music theory is definitely not essential, nearly all of the chart-topping hits of the past and present demonstrate a clear understanding of it in some way. It doesn’t matter what musical genre you are writing in, whether it be pop, rock, jazz, or r&b. A professional songwriter with music industry experience would have the knowledge in how to harness the power of music theory to craft the catchiest, most profitable version of the song that they can. This combined with clever rhyme-schemes, trendy lyrics, and an ear for the current sound is a good recipe for a hit. Anyone interested in writing a hit song might benefit from consulting a rhyming dictionary or a random melody generator, which can help to spark some inspiration. Some may also find it useful to play around with verse and chorus structure, as well as descriptive/colorful language, such as metaphors, alliteration, idioms, and similes to spice up the lyrics even more.


Creating a Demo

If you have a general idea of the vocal melody and musical arrangement of the song, you should probably make a demo recording to show the audio engineer when you bring it into a recording studio. Even if you decide you don’t want to go into the studio yourself, you would still be able to pitch it to others if you have a demo. You could achieve this by recording vocals into a USB microphone on your laptop into any DAW program. If you are proficient in music production, start creating MIDI tracks for different parts that you would like to have in the song. These could be instruments such as guitar, bass, piano, keyboard or drums, or any chords that you may have had in mind.


If you know you want one or more instrumental part in your song but don’t know how to play it or don’t have access to someone who can play it, there are programs, such as Band-in-a-Box, that come fully equipped with hundreds of real instrument samples, with unique tunings that will give your song that authentic feel you’re looking for. A MIDI keyboard is a device that can also help to produce different pitches for your desired sound or instrument. Having rhythm tracks, lush vocal arrangement, and solid bass lines are other elements to consider. Tracking all of these different elements of your song is an important step in deciding if you are definitely ready to record the song you wrote for your EP, album, or project. You wouldn’t want to go into the studio with no idea of what you would want to do.


Demos are typically preferred by industry professionals to be in the form of wav files, as they are easier to use if they are working with MIDI. When you go into a studio, be prepared for songwriting collaboration, critique, and be flexible to new ideas relating to song production. After the song is done, many recording studios, such as The Recording Den, can help you pick a song release date, rollout plan, and deliver your final product to music platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify.


Get Your Music Discovered

There are endless resources and opportunities available for aspiring songwriters, musicians, or anyone looking to break into the music business. Lyric writing courses, songwriting camps, workshops, and critique services such as SongU.com are some of many services that work to help to get undiscovered talent recognized. There are also yearly conventions and songwriter showcases, such as the Taxi Road Rally, where record label executives, music publishers, and industry heads go to seek out fresh talent. Taxi.com allows users to submit pitch sheets that present their work to different executives in the film and tv industries, for consideration for use in different future projects.

Many cities across the country are known as musical hubs and magnets for artists and songwriters. Nashville, Tennessee, for example, has an incredibly vibrant music scene and is a great place for aspiring country music artists and singer songwriters, with dozens of live performance venues and plenty of opportunities to find gigs. Several Grammy award winning artists had started out in Nashville and many other talented acts have emerged from its indie music scene. Similarly, there are several colleges across the country that are known for their excellent music programs, whether it be songwriting, music business or music production. Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut are both good schools for music in their own respective way.

Music Theory is always going to be there to help us write the best song we can. We don’t always need to use it or acknowledge it, but either way, it’s not going anywhere. Nine out of ten songs on the radio today will have used music theory in their construction or at some point in the songwriting process. It’s up to you if you want to see everything it has to offer, because the doors it can unlock are limitless.


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