Music Theory Is Your Prison

If you let it be.

There are some huge misunderstandings about music theory. The two that go hand in hand at the top of the list are 1) music theory is a set of rules that we need to follow and, as a result, 2) music theory kills creativity. If you ever believed either of these two ideas, thenrameau_greuseyou need to radically change your relationship with music theory. The truth is that music theory can be one of your greatest tools as a musician, but first, you need to understand what it really is.

It’s called music theory. Not laws, not rules, but theory. The purpose of music theory has historically been to document what composers have done. This is why music theory is not necessarily solid and has changed dramatically over the years – as composers stretch beyond what has been done, the scope of music theory also grows, and many times, old ideas are discarded.

Music theory should serve you and not the other way around. As I mentioned above, theory could be one of the best tools a musician has – it can help us to understand what we’re paying more fully, and, as songwriters, help us to understand what’s been written before, what’s worked and not worked in the past to help us avoid continually reinventing the wheel!

Is music theory your prison? Try thinking of music theory as guidelines of ideas that have worked in the past. If the guidelines don’t fit what you have in mind, try something new and maybe someday someone will write a theory book about it!

Dissonance Makes It All Worthwhile

Dissonance is the most hated, least understood, and most important aspect of music. Simply put, dissonance gives music its purpose, much like the villain in a movie. There would be no movie without the villain – at least not a good movie. This is true for music too, though to varying degrees and depending on the purpose you have in mind. It also depends on your understanding of dissonance.

Let’s begin with the chord. One chord holds consonance and dissonance. A C major chord, for example is built within the frame of a perfect fifth, less consonant that an octave, but still considered a perfect consonance. The note nestled in between the C and G that make up the fifth is an E, which, in this context is still considered by many to be consonant, though the major third between the C and E, and the minor third between the E and G are less consonant that the fifth. For the sake of example, we will also consider the thirds consonant entities.

In the key of C, there are two other major chords – F and G. Let’s move now from the C to the G. The G chord is built with the same relationships as the C – its notes are G – B – D. Once the G chord sounds, it is the same kind of consonance as the C chord. However, in relationship to the C it causes dissonance! Though we can’t hear the C chord in the physical world, our minds hold it, creating an implied dissonance. It’s this tension which is mostly just in our heads that, in my opinion, gives music purpose.

If you played the two chords together, you would hear a nice clash between them, especially between the B and C notes, which is a minor second (or major seventh), the harshest of our tonal dissonances. Because it is only an implied dissonance when the two chords don’t sound together, it doesn’t hit someone who hates dissonance the wrong way. It does, however, create a musical longing to return to the C chord. Even more so if you add the seventh to the G chord.

It’s the dissonance that makes our ears return to that C chord throughout the course of a piece of music. In most of the popular forms of music today, the relationships are pretty simple. The song writer starts with a chord that they usually return to again and again. Good examples are the standard 4-chord songs we hear. in C the most popular is C – G – Am – F. Right away we hear implied dissonance between the C and G. Moving from G to Am adds even more dissonance, though the move to Am actually brings us closer to C because the two chords share two notes (C has C, E, and G and Am has A, C, and E). From the Am we move to F which, in relation to the C causes as much tension as the G but it shares two notes with the Am (F has F, A, and C). When we finally get to C you can feel the relief.

Try it yourself. Play the four chords in a row. First, stop on the F chord. Pay attention to what happens in your mind. Do you finish it in your head by thinking a C?

Next, play it again and this time, add a C chord after the F. How does this feel?

This is a simple exercise, though many people aren’t consciously aware of the pull dissonance has. The clearest example of tension and release is Bdim to C. Play the notes B and F together a few times followed by C and E. This will do it.

I’ve just scratched the surface – entire college courses could be taught about dissonance. The best way I know to deeply understand it’s power is to experiment and trust your ears. If you really trust them, they won’t lie to you.

Music Theory, Liberator or Great Destroyer?

Music has been evolving for as long as there has been language. At least that’s what some theorists think. A few think music is older than language and even facilitated the evolution of language itself.

mersennestarSince those long past days, music and language have continued to intermingle but have continued their development along separate paths. One of the main contributors to changes music has seen has been the music theorist.

Music theorists seldom reach the heights of adoration that composers and songwriters do, and I think that throughout history, they have been the most feared and hated of musicians, but they play a remarkably important role.

On the surface we might say that the music theorist simply follows the composer around and works to understand and explain the rules the composer followed to create her work. However, it’s more complicated than this.

On another level we might see the theorist as an oppressive force, setting down a series of rules that composers must follow. To destruction, some composers actually try following these rules, and this can be a creativity killer!

Finally, we come to what I think their most important role is – the archiver. They explore and document what composers do. This has a few different effects – some of which appear to be terrible.

First, by documenting, they drain the essence of spontaneity out of the compositional process, and I would argue that, at least in the short run, music may suffer. Composers, writing in a specific style, can easily fall into the trap of repeating old ideas. This is just part of the growth process.

Second, they reduce what we hear to a series of predictable events. This can kill the joy. When listening to a piece and hearing the chords you expect pass by, you lose interest because you remain unchallenged.

But, third, this all leads to a deeper understanding of the unofficial sonic boundaries we set for ourselves. After struggling with the rules, this drives some courageous composers to burst through those boundaries! This is how new styles and forms arise from the old. The documentarians, like the old map-makers, show us the territory we already instinctively know, helping us to also intellectually know it and preparing us for our journey into the sonic wild.

The caution should be placed on what we do with this knowledge. As we learn theory, many of us are, at least temporarily shackled by it. We need to understand that it’s a tool! It’s there to help us. We need to look at music theory as a map of what has been done and fight the misconception that it’s a documentation of the only realm of possibility. Zealots defend this idiotic notion to the detriment of many composers. Fight it!

I believe that music theory can be the destroyer, but only if we allow it. It is entirely our perception and understanding that will make it either a prison or a map to help us find greater creation.

Key Relationships… Jacob Gottfried Weber

Jacob Gottfried Weber (March 1, 1779 – September 21, 1839) was a German music theorist. One of the most useful tools he created was a chart of key relationships which I’m including here as an image.

Jacob Gottfried Weber's Table of Key Relationships

Jacob Gottfried Weber's Table of Key Relationships


The capital letters represent major keys and the lowercase letters represent minor keys. The chart shows us all the keys that are closely related to any one key. Using C as our example again, you can see that the major keys above and below are G and F. The minor keys on either side are cm and am. These are the 4 keys that are the most closely related to C. G and F share 4 chords each with C, am shares all chords (it’s the relative minor of C) and though cm shares no chords at all, it’s technically considered the same key because the note C is the tonal center of both keys.

Moving to the keys that are linked to the main key in question is always a smooth modulation. Writing one part of your song in C and another part in G sounds natural. If you want to move from one key to another that’s not as closely related, you can write a bridge between the two using the key or keys in between.

For instance, you could change from C to bm by moving through G and D to settle on bm… You could always just move directly to the next key too. It all depends in the end on what you want to hear in your music!!!

The chords in the 24 keys (12 major and 12 minor) are below. I list the relatives together because they share chords but they are technically different keys.

Since I don’t have a flat character on my keyboard, I use a lowercase b… Which is only really confusing when I need a b flat minor chord, which I write as bbm… Sorry!

C/am – C, dm, em, F, G, am, bdim

G/em – G, am, bm, C, D, em, f#dim

D/bm – D, em, f#m, G, A, bm, c#dim

A/f#m – A, bm, c#m, D, E, f#m, g#dim

E/c#m – E, f#m, g#m, A, B, c#m, d#dim

B/g#m – B, c#m, d#m, E, F#, g#m, a#dim

F#/d#m – F#, g#m, a#m, B, C#, d#m, e#dim (also known as Gb/ebm)

C#/a#m – C#, d#m, e#m, F#, G#, a#m, b#dim (also known as Db/bbm)

Ab/fm – Ab, bbm, cm, Db, Eb, fm, gdim

Eb/cm – Eb, fm, gm, Ab, Bb, cm, ddim

Bb/gm – Bb, cm, dm, Eb, F, gm, adim

and finally…

F/dm – F, gm, am, Bb, C, dm, edim


Now experiment!

Basic Music Theory for the Aspiring Songwriter – The Notes and Building Chords

Music theory can be a pain in the butt. While studying the history of music theory I realized it’s usually Jean Philippe Rameauthe work of people trying to figure out and document what the music creators are actually doing in their music… And it seems that for a period after a new theory is put in writing, music becomes, for many, stale and lifeless as they try to actually follow the rules.


Music theory, if used as a tool and not a set of rules-set-in-stone can be powerful for songwriters and composers.

I’m starting with the notes because they’re the group of basic building blocks we use in almost all our music!

As kids, most of us in the western world learned Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do. This is the major scale. Most of the music we hear is built from this. There are 7 notes (do through ti) in the major scale and 7 basic chords we can build from these. In the key of C major, the notes that correspond to the do – re – mi are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

The chords we use in western music have a root, third, and fifth. The first chord we usually consider in C… is the C chord. The root is C, the third is E and the fifth is G. We count the root as 1 so C – E – G is 1 – 3 – 5 (D would be 2 and F would be 4…).  The base of most of our chords are built this way.

In major chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a major third (two whole steps) and the interval between 3 and 5 is a minor third (a whole step and a half step). In minor chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a minor third while the interval between 3 and 5 is a major third. The C major and c minor chords both have the  notes C and G. The difference is in the middle note. The C major chord has an E as stated above while the c minor has an E-flat.

In the key of C the 7 chords are as follows

I – C or C major is C – E – G

ii – d minor is D – F – A

iii – e minor is E – G – B

IV – F or F major is F – A – C

V – G or G major is G – B – D

vi – a minor is A – C – E

and the last chord is vii dim – b diminished B – D – F

Diminished chords are rarely used in rock and pop. They have two minor thirds and will be discussed further in a later post.  There is also the augmented chord which can’t be built with the major scale and will be addressed in a later post!

For hundreds of years we’ve put heavy importance on the Major and minor keys. This, in no way means you need to. It’s a familiar sound but sometimes we need to explore the unfamiliar to get greater inspiration!

Later this week I’ll post all the chords in all the keys and explain how you can mix and match! For now, play with the chords in C and get used to the sound.

The 10 Most Used Chord Progressions in Pop and Rock and Roll

The following is a list of ten of the most used chord progressions in music today. Some are classic and have been used hundreds of times sometimes in combination with each other or with slight alteration to make things a bit more interesting. If you learn these progressions and are able to pick them out of a song by ear, you should be able to play (or at least understand) nearly any song!

If you’re a songwriter, knowing these progressions will help you avoid writing the same song multiple times or copying your heroes’ music. These chord progressions are the musical archetypes.

For those of you that know music theory, I’m providing the roman numerals. For those of you that don’t, I’ll give you the progressions in the key of G in parenthesis.

Number one is the Don’t Stop Believing Progression, I – V – vi – IV (G – D – Em – C). The Axis of Awesome did a great bit about this one in which they play 40 songs in a row that all have the same progression including, No Woman No Cry, Let It Be, I’m Yours, etc… and over the past few years, that list has become a lot longer!

The second is the 50’s Progression, I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D). I call it this because it was hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s and is still used today. Notably used recently by Justin Bieber for “Baby” (Justin was like baby baby baby oh… what a pity) and Sean Kingston for “Beautiful Girls,” though Kingston really just ripped Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” off.

The third is the Canon, I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V (G – D – Em – Bm – C – G – C – D). It was the chord progression used by Pachelbel for his Canon in D (not G as above). The piece, forgotten soon after it was written (around 1694), was rediscovered in the early 20th century and has influenced a number of songwriters. It is, however, simply an extension of the basic I – IV – V – I progression that was used by nearly every composer for hundreds of years up to about 100 years ago.

The fourth is the Blues Progression, I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I (G – G – G – G – C – C – G – G – D – D – G – G). This is the way Chuck Berry played it in Johnny B Goode though the last 4 chords are often V – VI – I – V (D – C – G – D). There are 12 chords because it follows the standard 12-bar blues progression. In this progression it’s common to switch freely between major and minor. This progression has been used in thousands of songs outside of the blues from Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love to Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason and beyond.

The fifth is the Smoke on the Water Progression, ii – IV – V (am – C – D). It’s usually used as part of a larger progression and was used in Purple Haze, Iron Man, House of the Rising Sun, Stepping Stone, etc…

The sixth is the Good Love Progression, I – IV – V – IV (G – C – D – C). This was used in Wild Thing, La Bamba, and Good Love, etc.

The Seventh is the Sweet Home Progression… (god, how I hate Sweet Home Alabama!) V – IV – I (D – C – G). Can’t Explain, Sweet Child of Mine.

The Eighth is a rearrangement of the Don’t Stop Believing progression vi – IV – I – V (em – C – G – D). I’m not sure what to call this one. The song that always gets stuck in my head with this one is The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Snow, though I know Taylor Swift uses it in at least three songs (as well as most of the other progressions above…), Green Day used it in Holiday, and The Cranberries used it in Zombie, just to name a few.

The ninth is the stereotypical Descending Flamenco Progression  vi – V – IV – III (em – D – C – B (not Bm!)). This one has been used in songs from California Dreamin to Stray Cat Strut… I’m sure you can think of a few more! A variation on this is vi – V – VI – V (em – D – C – D) which arguably may be more popular today…

And the tenth that I see is the As My Guitar Gently Weeps Progression. This one straddles two keys and it’s basic representation is ii – I – V6 – bVII (- VI) (am – G – D/f# – F (- E)). It looks like a variation on the Descending Flamenco Progression and is presented with slight variations by everyone that uses it. The Beatles actually substituted an am7/G  for the G chord and left out the E. Chicago, in 25 or 6 to 4 focused on the root notes in the bass -> A – G – F# – F – E. Led Zepplin, Green Day, and Neil Young all offered their variations as well.

These progressions are not the end of music. They’re used a lot but they’re not your only options! If you look on the ultimate guitar archive you’ll see them everywhere, but most songwriters use them in combination with other progressions or with variation, creating something new using old building blocks. Please don’t think of this list as a set of rules! Just information to enhance your own understanding of the way music works.

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