There’s a HUGE ongoing debate in the music world about whether learning music theory is important – and if so, why is music theory important?
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably wondering yourself!
In particular, today’s musicians and songwriters want to know whether learning music theory:
- Hinders your creativity; or
- Helps unlock your FULL composing and songwriting potential!
In this post, we’re going to find out how important music theory is in the real world!
Improve your songwriting by mastering piano.
What is Music Theory?
Before we dive in, let’s get on the same page about the term “music theory.”
According to the venerable scholar known as Wikipedia, music theory is “the study of the practices and possibilities of music.”
In practice, music theory encompasses big concepts like:
It can also refer to musicology, the history of music, and other broad musical concepts – but we’re going to focus more on music theory as “the rules” for composing, playing, and analyzing music.
So, what are these rules? Does everyone agree on them?
Think of these rules as the key concepts found in music: everything from individual notes, intervals, scales, and time signature all the way up to timbre, chord theory, modes, cadences, modulation techniques…
… The list goes on!
But essentially, music theory encompasses the building blocks that make music possible.
Why Is Music Theory Important?
So… With all that said, why is music theory important for songwriting?
Or taking a step back, is it even important?
Honestly, I think the answer is yes – music theory helps your creativity! (I’ll get to why in a little bit.)
But also no – music theory hurts your creativity (if you allow it to).
Let’s look at both answers to see how these can BOTH be true at the same time, plus what you should do for your own songwriting success!
Answer #1: Yes, Music Theory Helps Songwriting!
There’s a great analogy for understanding the value of music theory: writing and analyzing poetry.
To write great poetry, you need to understand language. Most people agree that poets need to have a way with words.
Specifically, you ought to know:
- The alphabet
- The spelling and pronunciation of common words
- Grammatical rules
- Interesting phrases, idioms, and expressions
- Examples of great poems and cultural references to draw from
As an aspiring poet, do you think these things would ruin your ability to tell a good story? Or would they enhance it?
In reality, ANYONE can read and enjoy a good poem… Even Ron Swanson!
But someone who understands the tools of poetry (like meter, rhyme scheme, enjambment, and alliteration) and who has a good knowledge of the history of poetry will have the vocabulary to explain WHY some poems are better than others!
This same knowledge can also help you write better poems (potentially), because you know all the elements of poetry and how they fit together to contribute to a greater whole.
Similarly, learning the rules of music is a good way to help you be a more discerning and creative songwriter and artist.
Why You Should Know Music Theory
Just like understanding language helps with writing poetry, knowing music theory and composition will give you a set of musical rules and guidelines for what works in songwriting – and allow you to communicate in this common language with fellow musicians and songwriters.
As a simple example, most people know that major chord progressions tend to sound “happier,” and minor chord progressions tend to sound “sadder.” Songwriters of all skill levels use this knowledge when they make new music – so if this SMALL amount of music theory is so helpful, why wouldn’t it also help to immerse yourself in modal mixture, pedal points, and secondary leading tone chords?
The truth is, advanced music theory is helpful too!
In fact, taking the time to learn more challenging music theory concepts can help you zero in on the sound you’re trying to achieve quickly and bust through songwriters block, instead of fumbling around for hours, days, or weeks without success… or even worse, failing to ever finish your magnum opus!
Best of all, when you know theory that other songwriters don’t, your songs can better stand out from the crowd.
That’s why music theory helps your songwriting.
Answer #2: No, Music Theory Hurts Songwriting!
Based on our first answer, music theory is clearly a helpful tool for some, but I wonder if that’s really the question here…
Do songwriters and musicians steer clear of music theory because it’s not useful, or because it takes the spontaneity out of art?
I believe the people who avoid music theory do so because it represents work, not play.
If writing songs and playing music is an outlet for your creativity – or a way for you to recharge – why would you turn that hobby into a homework assignment?
It’s the same reason I deliberately never learned any official strategies in the game of chess while growing up. I was naturally pretty good at the game, but learning chess move orders and formations would have taken a lot of the fun (and dare I say creativity) out of playing!
Personally, I wanted to see how well I could succeed in chess on my own, without “cheating” by studying other people’s strategies!
Did that hurt my skill level as a chess player? Almost certainly.
Do I regret it? Not at all!
I still like playing chess because I allowed it to be a game, not a set of rules and formulas.
Why You Shouldn’t Know Music Theory
Of course, more than simply “feeling” like work instead of play, music theory can actively interfere with the creative process.
Case in point: When I was starting out as a songwriter, I briefly hired a vocal coach. During one of our sessions together, I brought along a song demo I’d been working on and shared it with her to get her advice. I assumed she must be a skilled songwriter because she’d gone to school for music (which I had not).
But when I asked about her own songwriting experience, what she said SHOCKED me…
“Honestly, I’ve never really written anything. I learned all these rules for how the music is supposed to work, and now I can’t break out of them.”
In other words, a talented teacher who dedicated her studies and career to music was struggling to actually write any music! (And let’s be real… wasn’t THAT the whole point of learning music for four years?)
Sadly, she had so many rules from music theory drilled into her before she had the experience of composing songs…. And now, it was difficult for her to set all that theory aside when she wanted to write something!
That’s why music theory hurts your songwriting.
Is Theory Overrated for Musicians and Songwriters?
I know these are contradictory answers, but I think they’re both true!
Here’s the deal…
Learning music theory is kind of like going to college.
A LOT of really smart people with college degrees will look back and wonder if they really needed college. They might even regret the time and money they spent going!
But whether they admit it or not, they STILL benefit from their college degrees.
And like with college, a lot of musicians and songwriters learn some amount of music theory – and then turn around and suggest that it’s overrated, or that they don’t really use it.
For myself, I think all of the music theory I learned has helped immeasurably in me becoming a better songwriter and understanding the instruments I play (piano and guitar). I had the advantage of four years in concert band growing up, so I already knew fundamentals like reading sheet music, timing, key signatures, rhythm, and more before I set out to become a songwriter and musician on my own terms.
After graduating college, I pursued music as a hobby, which meant reading books on music theory and composition, along with a healthy dose of songwriting practice. Ultimately, I believe that applying what I learned is what made music theory valuable!
But I also see how learning much more than I did could end up being a distraction from what I’m trying to achieve with my music.
It could be argued that there’s a LIMIT to how much music theory you need to know! Your challenge is to find that point where it isn’t worth learning more music theory and put the rest of your attention on songwriting and composition.
Or do what I do: if you want to write music in a new style or genre, have a quick, intensive theory session to learn everything you can about it, but then immediately put the new knowledge into practice!
How Much Theory Should You Learn in Music?
First of all, hopefully you acknowledge how essential music theory actually is by now. Even if you don’t have professional music aspirations, you’ll have an easier time creating great music if you have a working knowledge of theory.
But don’t mistake THEORY for PRACTICE.
Everyone is different, so this is just MY take on music theory…
But if your goal is to be a masterful songwriter and composer, I personally believe you should only learn as much music theory as you need to fully express yourself in your songs.
The majority of your effort should be spent on writing more songs.
Some songwriters do better knowing all of the rules. Their brains are more logical and analytical, and they can create amazing pieces of music by understanding the interesting relationships between various chords, intervals, cadences, and other advanced musical concepts and techniques.
But some songwriters do better knowing none of the rules (at least, not in their head). If your brain is naturally artistic and creative, you can use your musical instincts to figure out what sounds “right.”
Many of the best musicians, songwriters, and composers create masterpieces using their ear and their intuition – without any classical training, academic knowledge of theory, or even the ability to read music notation!
How to Make the Most of Music Theory (For Real)
So, is music theory important for songwriting?
Yes, absolutely – but only to a point.
The problem comes when you let music theory take the creative reins instead of being a supporting tool you use to “figure out” the song you’re already trying to make!
I like to think of music theory as descriptive, not prescriptive… Theory helps explain WHY music works, but it doesn’t tell you HOW to write your music.
Your own ear and sense of direction for your song should guide what it becomes – and in that process of discovery, music theory can help you take the music where you want it to go.
Matching Essential Music Concepts to Your Goals
There’s one other important point to consider: The “level” of music theory you need to know depends a LOT on your chosen genre of music and the effect you’re trying to achieve!
You can take just four chords and write endlessly entertaining and enjoyable songs in genres like pop, blues, country, EDM, rap, punk…
In fact, punk bands often get by on just two or three power chords in their songs! And by listening to music you love and emulating it, you don’t always need to understand why something works – you can just develop an ear for what does work!
On the other hand, can you really be a successful orchestral composer, jazz musician, or classical guitar player with only a basic understanding of theory?
It’s all a matter of perspective. And for many people, knowing MORE music theory doesn’t hurt in and of itself – but the “opportunity cost” of learning too much theory at the expense of time spent writing, performing, or recording just isn’t worth it.
Good enough is good enough.
Conclusion: How Much Music Theory Do You Need to Know?
I know we’ve had a lot of back-and-forth on the music theory issue in this post, but here’s the bottom line:
I say this because aspiring songwriters should practice the skill of songwriting itself, rather than focus on learning endless theory that may or may not benefit their craft. The best way to develop the creative instinct for writing songs is to (you guessed it!) write songs.
Ultimately, you need to be able to trust your musical intuition (that little creative voice that helps you make amazing music). If knowing more music theory helps, more power to you. If it doesn’t, that’s okay as well!
It all depends on what works for you. In the end, the quality of your finished songs – and the reaction of your fans – is the only yardstick you need.
If you want to get better at writing memorable music that resonates, I recommend that you get familiar with an instrument like piano. The more you know about how great songs are constructed sonically, the easier it will be for you to create a masterpiece yourself. Check out Piano for All below to get started!
Improve your songwriting by mastering piano.