Do You Need to Understand Music Theory to Write Songs?

I fell into the trap of lusting after the knowledge of music theory very early in my musical journey. I took a vow of pretentiousness and refused to write songs with less than 5 or 6 chords; I was afraid that if my chords weren’t “spicy” enough, my music would be boring and flat. The funny thing was, I used to spend so long putting chord progressions together that I rarely got around to writing the actual song.

I meet a lot of people that say they’d like to study more music theory so that they can write more music, better music, or even any music at all. But do you really need to understand music theory to write good music? (In my post “What Makes a Song Good?“, I dive deeper into artistic expression and the objective quality of music and art.)The short answer is: no, you don’t need music theory at all. In fact, I would encourage that you begin writing songs before studying music theory.

This isn’t to say that music theory isn’t important. It allows you to better communicate with other musicians, dissect pieces of music that you like, and challenge yourself to write more complex music, among other things. Still, it is a mistake to assume that understanding musical structure will result in the ability to synthesize new music that is artistic and self-expressive. Music theory is a tool for analysis, not creativity. 

Understanding theory will not magically cause you to become creative. Very powerful songs can be written with the use of 3 or 4 chords and a simple melody. When there is free creative flow driving the development of a song, the right chords can be found intuitively, even by a person who cannot name the notes they are playing.

I always told myself that I needed to learn more theory before I could write more songs, but really, that was a disguise. I mindlessly studied scales and harmonies until I knew too many chords to hide behind that excuse for much longer. I was really just afraid of writing authentic music and the vulnerability that comes with creating art. I didn’t want to write any bad songs, and I didn’t want to be misunderstood; I wanted to labor away in my bedroom for hours and emerge with a single masterpiece.

The best way to improve at songwriting is by writing songs, sharing them in front of other people and watching their reaction. Nothing will ever be perfect, but through feedback and criticism, we can keep improving our craft. Coming to terms with this was difficult for me because I wanted everything to be perfect before anyone else saw it. I’ve always harbored a deep fear of feeling wrongfully judged and misunderstood by others. I was so insecure and afraid to be authentic that I was never able to open up enough to actually connect with people! Finding the courage to share my music and eventually co-write with other musicians has been a very cathartic process for me. At first, it was difficult and I felt embarrassed, but it got easier with time as I built courage and self-worth through writing and performing. Eventually, I was actually proud to share my music with others.

You may have entirely different reasons for being apprehensive about writing and sharing music. The bottom line is, you don’t need music theory to get started with songwriting. Telling yourself that you do is just placing a mask over the more deeply rooted issues that are causing you to experience writer’s block. Even if you do choose to study music theory, trying to use it in the place of authentic emotion and creative vision is like putting lipstick on a pig. If there’s no genuine self-expression behind your music, it will be boring, no matter how many secondary dominants or maj7 chords you use! It doesn’t matter what you know, it’s what you can do with what you know.

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