I hear from a lot of beginner songwriters bemoaning the fact that they have little or no musical theory knowledge and therefore will not be able to write ‘good’ songs.

For me, songs come from the heart and mind not from some mathematical formula.

However, if you want to learn music theory, do it because you want to, not because you feel that you have to learn it.

Some songwriters get really worked up over their musical theory while others write songs purely by feel. The funny thing is, the songs that come out at the end of the day all just as good as each other.

Let me tell you a little story.

From between the ages of 11 through to 16, I studied music through high school and learnt to play the clarinet in the process. It gave me a great opportunity to immerse myself in the complexities of musical theory.

I found the theoretical side of writing music fascinating although, I was probably the only person in my class that felt that way.

In that time I had dreams of being a composer and going to university to expand on my musical knowledge.

Thankfully I discovered the guitar!

When, at the age of 15, I decided to change my musical direction and get into playing in bands and writing songs I had an interesting dilemma. I had to unlearn my knowledge so I could play with ‘feel’.

That was an interesting thing to do.

It was in that unlearning process that I discovered that knowing music theory is not necessary in order to write a song. You see, a song is made up of two parts. The first part is the song lyrics and the second part is the melody.

Musical theory generally deals with the arrangement of the song (the chords, harmony, dynamics etc) which is determined by the melody and the rhythm of the lyrics anyway.

Even though I believe that music theory in songwriting is not really necessary I have found my own knowledge useful for the following reasons:

  • I use it for the purpose of ‘musical detective work’.
  • I call on my knowledge to lead me in directions I would never have thought of.
  • I can communicate my song ideas to other musicians more effectively.
  • I have a more intimate knowledge as to the “why” things work with each other.

I believe that it’s not the musical theory knowledge that’s important but the attitude that you have towards it. To someone that doesn’t feel this way having the theoretical knowledge can be a real hindrance.

This would be because:

  • You might feel that you are better than someone who don’t have the same knowledge (elitism)
  • You look at your songwriting through a finite and restrictive set of ‘rules’
  • You might try to show off your knowledge by overcomplicating your songs.
  • You forget that simplicity is often the best course of action.

To me, songwriting is about learning, un-learning, constructing, de-constructing and doing whatever you can to turn your songwriting ideas into a reality.

Having the theoretical knowledge of music is a bonus but not an essential skill in writing a good song because as far as I’m concerned, to be a good songwriter you must have the desire to be one. That’s it!

Until next time, happy writing,

Corey Stewart
All About Songwriting