Songwriter Theory Podcast
Episode 4

Music Theory For Songwriters

Joseph Vadala published on

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Episode Writeup:

How much music theory do you really need to know to write songs?

Do you need to know every bit of music theory your music major friends know? Do you need nothing?

I think there are 3 necessary bits of music theory you need to write songs. The more you learn, the better equipped you are, but these 3 are enough.

Keys

You need to know what people mean when they say “this song is in the key of E Major”.

Keys are like a ruleset. Trying to write a song with no knowledge of keys is like those 4 year olds playing soccer. They pick up the ball, they go out of bounds, and they shoot at the wrong net.

They can’t even begin to really learn strategy yet, because they don’t even understand how the game is played!

Once you understand keys, you have the groundwork for all the rest of music theory.

The rules of the key you’re in tell you every note you have to work with. 

You’ll know that playing a C in the key of A major is going to probably sound terrible. Because C is NOT in the key of A major. 

You’ll know that if your song is in the key of E major, the notes you have to work with are E, F#, G#, A, B, C# and D#.

Keys give you the ruleset you’re working with.

Once you learn keys, it will help you to understand the next important music theory concept.

Chords

A song is basically 3 things: Lyrics, Melody, and Chords.

The chords are the foundation of everything that happens on top of them. The chords influence the melody and the entire song arrangement.

How C Major sounds in music is completely dependent on context.

This is where roman numeral notation comes in.

Roman numeral notation defines chords within the context of keys.

For example, let’s use the key of C to keep things simple.

The key of C includes the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Also, all major keys have a Major I chord, minor ii, minor iii, Major IV, Major V, minor vi, and diminished vii.

So, for the key of C Major, we have a C Major (I), D minor (ii), E minor (iii), F Major (IV), G Major (V), A minor (vi), and B diminished (vii)

For the key of B Major, we have a B Major (I), C# minor (ii), D# minor (iii), E Major (IV), F# Major (V), G# minor (vi), and A# diminished (vii).

A C major chord is C, E and G. C and G are supposed to be sharp in the key of B Major. So ? of the notes in “Happy C Major” chord don’t even belong in the key.

Your precious happy C Major chord is more ugly than the Hunchback of Notre Dame in B Major. MUCH more ugly.

This is why it is so important to learn roman numeral notation- chords within the context of keys.

An important thing to understand about this roman numeral notation is that each of these roman numerals have a specific sound. G Major in the key of C and F# Major in the key of B sound the same, because they are both V chords. They both have the same job.

So it’s important to understand the job of each of these chords.

It’s good to know what an A Major Chord is. But what you really need is to understand the chords within your key. 

Chord Progressions

Remember how I just explained how context is everything to a chord? That isn’t just true for context within a key.

The context within a song is vital as well. Even though a I and ii chord are both valid chords in your Major key song, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a chord progression of I - ii - I - ii will sound good.

In fact, it probably won’t.

I, IV, V and vi are going to be your main chords.

I sounds like home and will be the most powerful.

IV and V are your other major chords. They also have a strong feel, with V longing to return to I.

And vi seems to be the only minor chord any pop song will ever use.

If you listen to pop radio, those 4 chords are probably the only 4 you hear. They are convenient, because you can go from any one of them to any other one and it will sound fine. Once you involve ii and iii, it starts to become a lot more interesting.

Understanding chord progressions (flow of one chord to the next) is a huge bonus to songwriting. This allows you to play with the listeners’ emotions. You can give feelings of resolve, suspense, shock and so much more. And all of this can be done with chord progression. They didn’t see that iii chord coming, did they!

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