Songwriting is often a mysterious, transcendental experience when it is going well. It can also be one of the most challenging and frustrating creative experiences in music. Often, songwriting seems almost like a spiritual place we must magically arrive at through some sort of weird set of unexpected and inspirational circumstances – but it is also a craft that can be learned and improved on by building the skills to catch the inspiration when it hits and to create inspiration when it seems far away.
Understanding and being able to apply music theory is enormously helpful in this process and can help you improve your songwriting. Here are a few of the big ways it can help.
Find the Best Chord for Your Song
How many times have you sat down, written inspired lyrics, strummed the first chord, started to sing and then found it impossible to find the next chord you hear in your head? Music theory can save you in this situation by helping you learn to name and identify what you hear in your head so that it is easier to find the right chord.
A major aspect of music theory is describing the way a chord functions inside a key – or how it interacts with all the other notes and chords. By developing your ear to hear these functions, you can learn to identify what you hear in your head and, in turn, play it on your instrument. You can also find great inspiration and ideas this way by thinking about which chords or chord functions you haven’t used as much and beginning with them when you write a new song.
Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are used in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs
Find the Strongest Pitches for Your Melodies
There is never a substitute for singing as a way to create melodies, but after singing melodies for a while, you may find yourself becoming stuck and not being able to find a new melody that seems “right”. One of the best ways to address this and to improve your songwriting is to understand how melodies fit inside chords.
Without often realizing it, we usually sing melodies made up of notes that come directly from the chords we play. Learning music theory provides a way to identify and describe the way we hear a melody and expand on it. For instance, you might find that a lot of your melodies come from the notes in the first chord of a scale. If that is the case, you can expand your melodic ideas by building melodies from notes in other chords in your song. Exploring theory intentionally like this can open up a huge range of melodic options that work well.
Find the Most Exciting Rhythms for Your Band
Great chords and great melodies often aren’t worth a thing until the groove being played underneath them makes people want to dance. Finding this groove depends on your understanding of rhythm – and music theory can help you with that too.
Think about how you feel the beat underneath your song. How is it broken up? Are the rhythms you’re playing built out of eighth notes? Sixteenth notes? Triplets? How much space is there? Does it feel very even and straight or does it feel laid back like a heavy hip-hop groove? These are all rhythmic concepts explored in theory as well. Knowing how to identify and talk about them will give you all the power you need to write and communicate what you want to your band and help them play with a powerful groove that supports your song.