“Music theory” is a term that gets thrown around a lot nowadays, particularly by musicians and producers who want to put on airs.
The term itself can feel intimidating to those who’ve never studied it, like a subject you need a 4-year degree in to really understand.
However, music theory isn’t quite the gatekept academic field it’s chalked up to be.
In fact, music theory can be one of the best ways to enhance your songwriting.
Below, I’ll cover how music theory can help you identify and pinpoint the moving parts within your songs, as well as how to use it to get the most out of your music.
What is Music Theory?
The phrase “music theory” itself is a loaded term.
When I first heard it, images of 800-page textbooks and 4-hour long university lectures immediately sprang to mind.
However, music theory is simply a term for understanding and communicating the elements of music..
The kind of music theory we’re covering today is commonly known as Western music theory. Though there are many different ways of categorizing music globally, for the sake of brevity, we’ll stick with chords, harmony, scales, and everything else under the banner of the Western tradition.
Scales and Melody
So, to start us off on our music theory crash course, let’s dive into scales and melody, two terms you’re probably familiar with (and two ideas that make up the backbone of most music)!
Melody is the use of individual notes to make a pleasant-sounding tune.
Before we move onto chords and harmony, we need to first discuss these individual notes and how they relate to each other.
If you look at a piano, you’ll notice it has twelve keys that alternate in a repeating sequence.
The difference in pitch between these keys is called 12-tone equal temperament, and it makes up perhaps the most basic scale, the Chromatic scale!
Now, if you were to play all 12 notes in the scale, it would probably sound a little funky.
However, within this 12-note scale, there are smaller, 7-note scales that make up the scales of notes we’re more familiar with (known as heptatonic scales).
You may have heard of some, such as the “key of A” or the like. Those keys we use are all scales!
Now, we have a scale with 7 individual notes, but how do we play something that works in a song?
Well, that’s where you come in!
As we talked about earlier, music theory is just a way to describe the different components of a song.
So, while it might be helpful to know that a scale is made up of A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and its respective sharps and flats, the actual decision of how those notes are arranged is up to you.
Simply humming a melody can always be helpful, or noodling around on your instrument of choice also gets the creative engine turning if you find yourself hitting a wall.
Chords and Harmony
Okay, so we’ve got a few different notes we can mess around with to make a melody.
However, what if we played two, three, or even five different notes at the same time?
Well, if you did that, you’d get harmony!
Harmony, while at times difficult to fully define, is the simultaneous playing of two or more notes together to form a single sound.
This sound is usually pleasant sounding in some way. However, if we were two play two notes together that sounded a bit odd or off-putting, we would think of it as dissonance.
Now, we could spend hours on just harmony and dissonance, but to keep things simple, harmony sounds nice while dissonance sounds…not so nice.
So, if harmony is two or more notes played together to form a pleasant single sound, what’s a chord?
A chord is a kind of harmony, usually with three or more notes played simultaneously.
There are hundreds of different kinds of chords out there, but the most basic chord is known as a triad.
A triad is made up of your root note (such as a C or an A, for example), your third (which is the third note in your seven-note scale), and your fifth (which is the fifth note)!
So, if you wanted to play a C triad, you would play C, E, and G all together.
When you do that, you have a lovely-sounding chord to either begin your song or back up your melody.
Chords often provide the musical foundation for songs, so learning which chords you can use in a given scale can help open the doors to many different musical ideas.
Rhythm and Time Signatures
Rhythm is another core element of music theory, and it can influence how your song “feels” in a physical sense.
While your chord and key choices can influence the mood created in your music, rhythm creates a much more intuitive response from the audience.
Really, this trait of rhythm boils down to the fact that percussion and beat are such inherent parts of our lives and cultures.
Everything from the beat of our hearts to the rhythms of rock, jazz, and blues influences how we perceive rhythm.
However, rhythm itself isn’t necessarily based on just the intuitive, natural instinct to find recurring beats in the everyday.
Rhythm can also be quantified (in a sense), which is where we find time signatures.
Time signatures are mostly used in annotated music, but they can still be helpful for everyday musicians to feel the structure of a song’s rhythm.
4/4 and 3/4 are some of the most common time signatures you’ll come across, but there are even wonkier ones out there like 7/8 and 5/4!
But wait, what do these numbers even mean? 3 over 4? Is this math?!
Fret not, there’s no math for the average musician with time signatures.
The top number in a time signature is there to signify how many beats are in each bar/measure of music, and the bottom number describes what kind of beats they are.
So, 4/4 would be 4 beats per measure counted as quarter notes!
Now, a lot of this won’t make sense unless you’ve had some experience with sheet music.
However, understanding the basics of time signatures can help you communicate the feel of your song to other musicians, as well as help you explore new musical ideas.
As I touched on earlier, two time signatures to get familiar with would be 3/4 or 4/4.
The reason I recommend these two time signatures is because they’re:
- Instantly recognizable
- And easy to incorporate into your music.
3/4 is more commonly known as a waltz, and it has a shuffling rhythm to it that can be used in a multitude of ways.
Because of its history in music and its association with dance, it’s often described as slow and romantic.
4/4 is what you’re probably already playing your music in.
It has a strong, continuous beat that’s infectious and can be used in a multitude of ways.
There are thousands of different rhythms out there to experiment with, so don’t feel limited to just those two either!
One of my favorite examples of an odd rhythm is the use of 12/8 time in Tears For Fears’ hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.
Because of the rhythm and time signature, the song has a bouncy, almost gallop-y kind of beat.
If you haven’t already, give that song a listen!
Structuring Your Songs with Music Theory
Learning the basics of music theory can be a powerful tool to have as a musician.
That being said, knowing your chords, scales, and time signatures alone doesn’t help you write your next masterpiece.
So, what does?
Well, you do!
As we’ve talked about, music theory is just a language we use to describe the different components that make up music.
While knowing the terminology can help you fine-tune your vision, deciding what you like and don’t like in a song is your choice.
Think of it as ingredients in a dish.
You can have all of your different spices, vegetables, and types of meat, but it’s up to you as the chef to create a delicious dish.
“But!” you say, “A chef has recipes! Do musicians have recipes they can follow for songs?”
Well, they kind of do, depending on the genre or style of music you’re making.
Learning traditional chord progressions (such as the 50s progression), studying time signatures unique to your style of music, and learning genre-specific scales (such as the blues scale) are great ways to follow recipes for your music!
If you need some more help learning about the different ingredients that make up a song, check out my blog post on the different parts of a song!