Chicken or the Egg Theory
The question of “How do you create music if you don’t know music theory?” comes up often.
It seems that to some degree we’re fed the notion that we must have a great understanding of the finite technical details of music theory to come up with creative ideas.
Truth is, being creative has nothing to do with any knowledge of music theory. Music is a hearing art. We forget that sometimes. We get caught up in the analysis rather then what we’ve aurally digested from culture and experience.
Do you need to know what key you’re in to write a song? No. Do you need to know what scale you’re singing to write a great melody? No.
In fact, you’ll write better music if you don’t think about this when you’re creating. There is no need to rationalize your creativity when you’re in the moment. When inspiration hits, you need to just go with it.
The next obvious question would be, “Why do I need to learn any music theory then?” Just because I said not to worry about music theory while you’re coming up with your first ideas for a new song doesn’t mean we won’t use any theory.
Music theory can really help you connect sections. It can help you find missing chords. It can also help you translate to different instruments and add to your arrangement.
I’m going to walk you though a process I like to use for composing, writing parts, or solos.
The tools you’ll need:
- Recorder (iPhone recorder is great). Needs to be simple. Something you can instantly record your ideas to.
- Blank Sheet Music
- Your Instrument
The first thing I’m going to do is sing a melody I imagine. That’s right, I hear it in my head, then sing what I have in my head. You don’t have to be a great singer. That’s not the point. You should be able to match the pitch you have in your head.
This may take some time. But, it’s super important. Being able to sing what you play will do more for your playing then you can ever imagine.
Once I’m sure I’m singing the same line I heard in my head, I’ll record it onto my iPhone recorder. This is so I don’t forget it or move too far away from my initial idea.
Next, I will pick up my guitar or other instrument. Yes, this is the 3rd step in the process, not the first!
I will now proceed to figuring out the melody I just sang.
After I match the notes on the guitar, I start to bring music theory into the picture. I look at the relationship of the notes. I consider what position might be best to play the melody.
Leader of the Pack
If you think about it, melody is the most important element. Chords are just harmony or accompaniment. A lot of guitar players get twisted around about this. They tend to put melody second. If you can change your perspective to consider melody as the leader, you can open the door to creativity.
Connect The Dots
After I establish my melody, it’s time to start thinking about what chords may be best the best match. I start to listen to where I imagine the chord changes happening. On which beats can you imagine a change?
I can start to use theory to look at the notes and possible matching chords. Many melody notes are chord tones, especially starting and ending notes. Not always of course, but often. There are no hard rules in music. You always have to remember that.
With my knowledge of theory, I can try a selection of chords out pretty quickly. If you don’t have a lot of music theory knowledge, you may miss some chord options.
I can also do fun things like think about inversions and substitutions. I can also consider harmonies to the melody.
There is also the possibility of adding some outside flavors using parallel modulation. The Beatles used this technique quite a bit and it’s really a nice touch.
Bridge and Tunnel
Music theory can also help me with transitions. Let’s say we want to go from the A section to the B section. I can use my knowledge of music theory to help me with a more interesting transition.
You will notice though that I didn’t use any music theory to start my ideas. Only to accompany.
One other trait I see amongst guitarists is lack of ear training when soloing. Some guitarists can’t recognize whether a melody is moving up or down let alone what intervals they may be.
They let their fingers do the talking. This is an issue because, in case you haven’t noticed, your fingers can’t talk.
Write it Down
You’ll notice earlier I mentioned pencil and manuscript paper. Although I use the iReocrder to capture the initial idea, I use paper and pencil to document my final concept. I do this for a few reason. 1: It’s easier to find a clarified idea on paper then to sift though minutes of audio trying to find the right take. 2: Having a visual representation of music is a good thing. The more ways you can communicate the language of music, the better.
For writing down ideas I don’t use a pen. I find having a pencil with an eraser is important. You’ll make mistakes. We all do. Just like how your song is in the editing process, your writing should be. I like these Paper Mate Black Warriors. They write very nice. Not all pencils write easily. I know it seems like such a weird thing to geek out on. But, it does make it more enjoyable.
For manuscript paper, I like the loose variety. To me, it’s like a note pad. I’m always jotting down different ideas for a wide variety of projects.
If we compare music to language, a lot of musicians can speak words but not write them. It’s vital that you can communicate music in a variety of ways. The ability to speak and write music gives you a better understanding of how it works. It allows you to construct more musical sentences. Even if it’s transcribing after you hear your idea. Which is exactly how writing language works. You hear the words in the sentence and then write them down. You have to think the words before you can speak them or write them. Why should music be any different?
I encourage all my guitar students to take some vocal lessons. It’s not about studying to become a professional singer.
Voice lessons help you learn to control your voice. They can help you with pitch recognition and finding notes in your range. It will get you on a path to communicate with your instrument.