Music Theory for Songwriters

How do you find just the right chords for your melody? Is it craft, luck, intuition, a gift from God? I won’t argue if they work for you. However, one thing that has really worked for me and many more famous songwriters, is a solid knowledge of music theory (a good ear doesn’t hurt either). The more I understand chords, the better I am at finding just the right one when I need it.

What is music theory? You could say it’s learning about the parts of a song or better yet, taking a song apart to see what makes it tick.

In my mind the four main elements of a song are melody, harmony (chords), rhythm and lyrics. OK, lyrics are not part of music theory, so you lyricists can skip ahead. Rhythm is a language all of its own, so I won’t try to go there. Melody is fairly easy to understand, so that leaves harmony.

Harmony (the chords that accompany the melody) is where many of us need help. I often write what I think are good lyrics and a passable melody, but when it comes to chords, well, I sometimes end up using the same 3 or 4 boring major chords. Or even if I use 5 or 6 different chords, minor chords, major sevenths, etc., it still doesn’t seem to be quite right.

A child can make up a melody. It actually takes a little work to learn about harmony. If you’re up to the challenge, start to read up on music theory, especially the harmony part.

Learn some jazz chords and you’ll start to recognize them when you hear them. And you will hear them everywhere, not just jazz. Many Christmas songs are full of jazz chords and they pop up frequently in pop music. It’s not that difficult and it will open up a whole new palette of choices when it comes to coloring your songs.

Your songs will be better for it. Your next song may still only use three chords, but they’ll be the three you intentionally chose from among a larger pool of options, not the same 3 you always fall back on.

One resource to help you begin (or continue) learning music theory is a web site called Music Theory for Songwriters.

I also own (and frequently refer to) a slim volume called Learn To Read Music by Howard Shanet. This is only about reading music, which is part of music theory.

On the cover it says “In two hours you can read through this book and understand the principles involved in the reading of music. In two evenings you can learn to read practically any melody and pick it out on the piano by doing the clear and simple exercises.”


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One Response to “Music Theory for Songwriters”

  1. Egils Says:

    Nice article! I always try to avoid ordinary 3 chord progression, for example: you can use , I, IV, bVII instead of I, IV, V as we can see it in Crazy Little Thing Called Love by Queen (D-G-C-G, I-IV- bVII-IV).

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