It’s a major mistake to confine music theory to the classroom and lock it behind the realm of academics.
Sure, you might not hear all that many legendary songwriters talking about music theory as it is taught in classrooms today as the genesis of their inspiration – but that’s because a lot of these creative types want you to think more about the wizardry of their exceptional talents rather than the foundational skills they developed through the same music theory exercises we share below.
No matter the kind of music that you are writing for – everything from classical opera to death metal and everything in between – these music theory exercises are going to dramatically elevate your ability to compose better, more impactful, and more meaningful songs.
By focusing on these fundamental basics you will be able to bring something new and exciting to the table, leveraging real skills to go along with your talent and ability to take your songwriting over the top.
Far too many artists consider music theory nothing more than “textbook songwriting”, a pathway to cookie-cutter compositions, or a distillation of the magic of songwriting that turns this into something much more formulaic.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, think of music theory and the exercises we share in this quick guide as just another tool in your musical production toolbox. You will be able to leverage these assets when your back is against the wall, when you have hit a creative drought (and every artist does), or when you need to put a new twist on something that just doesn’t seem to be coming together organically.
If these seven tips and tricks below will help you take things to the next level, that’s for sure!
Let’s get right to it!
Leverage musical chord extensions to color your sound
Even if you have already perfectly mastered the fundamental chord progression in the world of music, and maybe are even starting to get a little bit bored with the “old school” methodology, throwing him a couple of extra sixths, sevenths, and ninths can take things to entirely new levels – changing of your sound in fun, energetic, and profound ways you might not have been able to otherwise.
A great way to think of these new musical chord extensions is to consider them extra “color” – extra mood – for the more basic chord progressions, you’re probably working with. These are the kinds of spices you want to sprinkle in for a little bit of extra flavor, punching things when the time is right.
Fiddle around with different modes
Plenty of people think of “modes” as nothing more than a stuffed shirt music theory term peddled by those that live in the classroom rather than on stage or in the recording booth, but that’s really nothing more than a fancier term for scales.
The very first major scale that you played for your music teacher when you are just getting started – almost always over and over (and over and over) again – was nothing more than a “mode”.
All theory will tell you that there are seven music modes that bring a different feel and a different flavor to your songwriting, and tinkering with different modes for the kind of music you are creating can unleash a lot of interesting permutations that might not have come about organically.
Fool around with these modes until you find something that excites you and then dive right in.
Try obscure time signatures
A lot of great songwriters started out with relatively basic, straightforward, and almost ho-hum songs when they were hitting the ground running but really took things to the next level – and really made their own mark in the world of music – by messing about with more obscure or off-the-wall time signatures.
The most radio-friendly music in the world is written in a conventional time signature of 4/4 or sometimes 3/4. And while those signatures definitely get the job done (if they didn’t, most popular music wouldn’t use them) you might start to feel your creativity yet stifled if you stick to the same kind of signature.
5/4 time signatures can break you out this rut, and Radiohead illustrates this more often than almost anybody else out there.
Pink Floyd took things to the next level by running a 7/4 time signature for MONEY, and while you might not have the same kind of musical chops that this legendary rock band has (who does, really) use it as inspiration to take your own music to the next level as well.
Develop a new tonal pathway with the Circle of Fifths
If you feel like you are stuck in a never-ending loop of the same chord progressions running around over and over and over again it might be time to start tinkering with a new tonal pathway through the help of the Circle of Fifths.
This handy little visual guide has helped a lot of music theory students break out of creative droughts, visualizing exactly how to try something new musically and tonality without having to throw everything in the trash and start from scratch.
Not only will you be able to see exactly where you land right now with the help of this cool little tool, but you’re also going to be able to see different avenues and offshoots – new tonal pathways – that are connected to the sound you’re creating already, pathways that might not have been immediately apparent before.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
While a lot of rookie songwriters and musical artists are looking to throw just as many ingredients into a new pot of soup as possible when cooking up a song, top-tier professionals – some of the best songwriters in history – are a lot more interested in pulling as much out of their music as humanly possible, so long as they don’t pull out any more than absolutely necessary.
Your major and minor musical cords are going to be the bread and butter of most of your songwriting, but branching off of these basic chords will open up new avenues of creativity while dramatically simplifying the production process as well. Diminished and augmented cords can change something standard into something really special without you having to pour all kinds of “glitter” on your music to get the same kind of impact.
Just see how The Beach Boys were able to use diminished cords and GOD ONLY KNOWS to take things to the next level. They certainly were not using autotune or other musical examples of sleight-of-hand so popular today to get these kinds of results!
Write your music like a thriller
No, not necessarily like the song THRILLER. Instead, you should be using the same kind of toolset that thriller novelists and screenwriters use to add a lot of suspension and anticipation to your music.
It should come as no surprise to any artist that you will be able to add quite a bit of drama into your music (and a lot of creativity) by throwing in a little bit of anticipation and a little bit of suspension every now and again.
Anticipations are basically non-chord tones that will inevitably resolve into a chord, whereas suspensions are tones that remain from the previous chord played. Like salt and pepper, you want to use them a little bit sparingly in your music, but just like salt and pepper they’ll add a lot more flavor to your music and you might have thought otherwise.
Again, Radiohead knocks this out of the park with their song EXIT MUSIC.
Use Roman Numeral analysis to see the forest for the trees
By giving each of your individual cords their own individual Roman Numeral you can look at your entire song in a big picture kind of way that you might not have been able to vote for, quickly diagnosing what works and what doesn’t just based off of this visual indicator – without even having to hear your song being played in the first place.
It’s a quick way to diagnose your songs without a lot of heavy lifting and an easy way to figure out interconnected relationships between each of your musical cords without a lot of time wasted in the studio or tinkering around on your instruments.
At the end of the day, music theory doesn’t have to put you to sleep but can instead be a powerful tool in your artist’s toolbox to get the very most out of your music, your sound, and your creativity.
Try these tips out the next time you sit down to write!