Updated: Apr 4, 2019
Music theory confined to the classroom is old school.
It’s a powerful tool that any creator should use—whether you’re a film composer or a pop rock guitarist.
Practicing some music theory basics will bring something new and powerful to your songwriting.
Look at music theory as a production tool and not just something in a book. It can open up new ways to create and spark ideas for your songwriting.
In fact, specific music theory techniques are incredibly valuable for inspiring new song ideas.
Sit tight or maybe even in your studio because you're going to learn 7 of the easiest and most beneficial ways to turn music theory into songwriting inspiration.
1. Add vibrant chord extensions to your chords.
Do you already know all the basic chord progressions? If you’re tired of the same old major and minor chords, consider adding some 6ths, 7ths and 9ths into the mix.
Think of chord extensions as extra colors and moods for your basic chords. Extensions can give overused progressions extra flavour where it needs it.
For example: Let’s take C major. I encourage you to follow along on your instrument or piano roll.
Adding a new note, like a major or minor 7th for example, will completely transform the sound and feel of the chord.
One extended chord added to a progression can bring new energy.
Major and minor 7th chords are just two examples, but there’s a vast array of other possibilities to consider.
2. Mess with Modes
Modes are just a fancy word for scales.
That good old major scale that your teacher made you play over and over again on the piano is actually a mode.
There are seven music modes in music theory that bring their own feel to your songwriting.
Some are bright and mysterious, like the Lydian mode. Some modes are rarely heard in popular music such as the Locrian mode. They are brutally discordant.
The easiest way to understand modes is to look at your keyboard or piano roll.
Each mode is built with no accidentals on 7-note patterns that begin on each white key.
The major scale or Ionian Mode starts on C major while the Lydian Mode begins on F.
3. Experiment with different time signatures
Whether you’re an aspiring pop star or a jazz nerd, experimenting with obscure time signatures can unlock a lot of great musical ideas.
If you create radio-friendly music, you’re probably used to writing in 4/4 or 3/4 signature times..
Those signatures are great, but you might be missing out on tons of other ways to present your music rhythmically.
Let’s take 5/4 for example. In case you don’t know, this means five quarter notes per-measure.
Brilliant artists like Radiohead are able to take an obscure time signature like this and transform it into a compelling pop song:
There is no staple when it comes to signatures. Next time you open up your DAW set your session to a new time signature. You will generate a lot of new ideas. Check it out and see what happens.
4. Create a tonal path with the Circle of Fifths
If you’ve ever found yourself writing the same chord progressions over and over again, the circle of fifths is a great map for taking your chords new places.
This isn’t a music theory tip as much as it is a massively helpful visual guide. Use the circle of fifths as a starting point for your next wave of song inspiration.
For example: Let’s say you’re writing a song in the key of G Major. The circle of fifths will show you G’s closely related keys, its relative minor and how many accidentals it has.
Using the circle of fifths not only shows you where you’re at musically, but also potential places to take your chords next.
5. Use new basic chords to augment musical predictability
If you’ve been making music for a while, you’re probably well-versed when it comes to major and minor chords.
You’re limiting the potential of your songwriting if you haven't branched out to try different chords.
A well-placed diminished or augmented chord could mean the difference between a chord progression that’s uh huh or wow.
Creepy, otherworldly soundtracks of 50’s Sci-Fi movies, definitely used augmented chords. If you don't know what I am talking about, check out an old flick.
Diminished chords pull in a certain tonal direction, while augmented chords tend to sound aimless and obscure—which can add a nice mood to tired progressions that might be boring or uninspiring.
Popular music do not used diminished and augmented chords. If you are wanting to go against the grain and create an awesome new sound, I would use these chords!
6. Add suspensions and anticipations
Suspensions and anticipations are easy ways to add some tension and drama into your music and encourage some new and inspiring ideas into your process.
Anticipations are non-chord tones that eventually resolve into a chord.
Suspensions are tones left over from previous chords.
Listen to the last two chords in the verse chord progression of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (from a film).” The the 4th (D) in the Asus4 chord resolves down to the 3rd (C#) of the A chord, a classic 4-3 suspension.
7. Roman Numerals help you see the picture behind your music
Roman numeral analysis lets you see how the chords you’re playing interact with one another in a powerful way.
Adding symbols to your chords gives you a better understanding of the relationship between chords in certain keys.
Get a good grasp of the relationships between chords. It will help you figure out how to shape and order your music more easily during your process.
More theory, more ideas.
Theory doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, these simple music theory exercises are just inspiration in disguise.
The best thing about rules in music theory is there is no rules! Break the rules and use music theory however you want. Nothing is better than your ears and musical intuition when it comes to music-making.
Next time you can’t find that creative spark, try some simple theory exercises and see what happens—At the very least you’ll be expanding your repertoire
Now go create!