Songwriting 101: The Streetfighter vs. The Kung Fu Master - The Case for Learning Music Theory

Imagine you are walking down a dark ally.  Suddenly, you are attacked from some unseen foe in the shadows. A right, then a left, blows are coming seemingly from everywhere. You try to make out the shapes, but your vision is hazy. Swinging wildly, you flail in your assailants general direction, you land a punch or two, but eventually fatigue takes over and you fall, bruised and battered, face down on the unforgiving pavement.

The Dark Alley of the Mind

Sometimes songwriting can be like a street fight. Ideas come from shadowy places, the depths of our subconscious rise up and demand attention. Your intuition and ear can help you land a few hay makers here and there, but more often than not, we inevitably come to a point of exhaustion & stagnation. That one chord just doesn't seem right, we search for just the right note to express a complex feeling, but it keep eluding us; enter music theory.

Music Theory: Tools of the Master

Like Bruce Lee, or any master of Kung Fu, every movement, every action has purpose. Theory and practice become the tools by which you train your intuition into becoming more efficient. Instead of flailing around trying to find your next chord / note / line / rhythm, you can draw upon your accumulated conscious knowledge to help you move through the block & express your emotional idea faster, smarter and more accurately. Ultimately even a small amount of theory knowledge can lead to less creative burn out and more productivity. Do you have to leave your intuition behind? Absolutely not. Great songwriters find balance between making concepts conscious & exploring the mystery.

Another way of thinking about it is the concept of The Mid-Wife & The Sculptor.  Sensitive artists, to birth a great song, must be like a mid-wife. We must be an open channel, able to receive inspiration from our intuition & from the world around us. Once we have received the unrefined inspiration, Music Theory and technique then become the tools by which we can sculpt that raw material into a great work of art. Both approaches are necessary and it can be quite a delicate balancing act moving from intuition to consciousness.

So, where do you start? Well, in my college songwriting classes I have tried to simplify basic harmonic music theory into what I find the most useful. To me it breaks down like this:

Intervals -> Scales -> Chords -> Progressions

Intervals are the defined as the distance between notes, basically the building blocks of western music. We can measure these distances in steps or tones.

Half Step = Semitone (1 fret on the guitar)
Whole Step = Whole Tone (2 frets on the guitar)

Here is what Whole Tones & Semitones look like on a piano:

When we arranges these Intervals into certain patterns we get Scales. In western music, whether it be classical or pop, the major scale is the foundation upon which everything else is built. It's pattern goes like this:

W W H W W W H 

In our scale, the W's are whole steps or whole tones & the H's are half steps or semitones.

Here's how it works if you start with C:

The first note in the scale is called the Root or the Tonic and the last note is called the Octave. Scales go in alphabetical order using just the letters A -> G. Basically if you get to G, you start over again on A. 

I would be remiss if I didn't explain another essential factor when creating a scale; accidentals. An accidental is a way of adjusting a note by a half step up or down:

Say you have a C and you want to raise it a half step, well you would add a sharp (#) to it to get C#, if you wanted to continue on and raise the note another half step, you would get D. If you put two half steps together you a whole step:

C h C# h D
\            /

This concept is essential to creating scales, as it determines which tones are used within the various keys.  One thing to keep in mind is that there are two musical letters that only have a half step between them, they are:

B h C & E h F

You can see this phenomenon represented on the piano with the absence of two black keys:

A little mnemonic device to help you remember this rule:

Why is there only a half step between B & C / E & F?

Because Cats - Eat Fish 

Once we understand how scales are created, we can move on to harmonizing the scale into chords or playing 2 or more notes together. The most useful type of chord for songwriting is called a Triad. A triad is basically 3 notes, usually from a parent scale, played at the same time.  Triads are built from the combination of two intervals called Thirds. It's important to distinguish between these very similar sounding words:

Thirds = Intervals

Triads = Chords 

There are two basic types of Thirds that we use to build chords and four basic Triads that we see often in Diatonic Harmony, which is defined as building chords using only notes from the corresponding scale. Here are the two basic thirds:

Major Third = 2 Whole Steps  (W W)

Minor Third = 1.5 Steps (W h)

If we reference our C Major scale above, we can see that the interval distance between the first (C) & third (E) note in the scale is 2 whole steps or a Major Third. There are thirds through out the major scale. For instance the distance between the third (E) & fifth (G) note of the C Major scale is 1.5 Steps or a Minor Third.

Here are all the thirds in the Key of C Major:

Thirds are the building blocks for Triads.

Here's where it really starts to get interesting from a songwriting point of view. One of the most useful techniques you can use for writing songs is learning how to harmonize a major scale into Triads. The basic idea is that you can build a 3 note chord starting on any note in the scale not just the first note. Here is a C Major scale harmonized into Triads using Thirds:

The Triads (chords) are most often represented with roman numerals, with Major Triads being upper case & the minor triads being lower case. The diminished chord that is created from the seventh note in the scale has a little degree symbol next to lower case letters. 

The cool thing about Diatonic chords (built only with notes from the scale) is that the quality of each chord stays the same no matter what the key is as long as it has the same function (roman numeral). For example, the I chord is always Major, and the ii chord is always minor. Here is a short cut for every Major key:

So how do you use this knowledge? Well,  musicians use specific language to  help them communicate musical ideas. For instance, if we wanted to communicate what chords to play we could communicate with roman numerals:

I vi IV V

Which in the key of C Major would be the chord progression I: C vi: Am IV: F V: G. If you were to switch to a different key, say D Major, the I chord along with all the other roman numerals would shift: I: D vi: Bm IV: G V: A.  This is called Transposing. Transposing a chord progression into a different key can be extremely helpful if you like the way the chords sound together, but needed to adjust the range of the song to fit your voice. 

Here is a chart of all the basic diatonic triads in all of the major keys:

You can spend a lifetime properly exploring music theory, but even a moderate amount of basic knowledge can take your songwriting skills to the next level. Stop throwing punches in the dark and start down the path towards mastery. What are you waiting for?

: )


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