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!

Top Six Songwriting Methods That Could Make You Rich

prisonerBruno2There are songwriters who believe that everything they do needs to be fresh and new – I’m one of them. But the sad truth about songwriting is that the fresh and new usually doesn’t sell! Acts that we think of as “ground-breaking” have usually borrowed quite a bit from the artists that came before them who were actually fresh and new – the waters have already been tested and they’re now safe…

What you are about to read is a list of some of the most common songwriting techniques that the big players in the industry use to construct their songs. Bear in mind that the title says “could.” There is still quite a bit more that goes into success. Looking good or interesting helps considering the mind-numbing shallowness of most the world. Having connections in the industry is a big plus – without contacts your chances of being struck by lightning are greater than your chances of being discovered! An intense amount of energy combined with a solid work ethic are essential for indie/DIY artists, and certainly help the well-connected. If you have any combination of these things, you have a pretty good shot. Now you need the last part – your songs!

1) Technique number one is the one that can get you into the most trouble – it’s Theft! Yes… some people, like Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, think this is a legitimate songwriting technique. They took an old song and wrote their own words to it. This, however, will almost always end badly!

2) I call technique number two Slight Alterations. This is just one step above theft. In this technique the songwriter takes a hit and changes some element. Two examples jump immediately to mind. First, check out Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive” and compare to New Order’s “Blue Monday.” She kept the chords and melodies the same but altered the instruments and words. The second example is Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” as compared to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  In this example, Smith slowed the tempo, changed the instruments and words, but still had to pay Petty money for copyright infringement despite the fact that he arguably created something new and many feel, better!

3) The third technique is Deconstruction/Reconstruction. This is reportedly what Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger does. OK Go! seems to have done this obviously with “Here it Goes Again” from Billy Joel’s “Still Rock and Roll to Me” because the chord progressions and song structure are almost identical!

In this third technique, the songwriter takes an already existing hit song, takes it apart, analyzing chords, rhythms, melodies, textures, and makes a blueprint based on the song, from which a new song could be built. Artists that use this technique pay close attention to the details, and though they sometimes alter the song quite a bit, they try to capture the recipe that made the original song a success.

It’s difficult to find a direct example of this method, but if you want to learn more about it, I describe the method in greater detail here!

Unlike the first two techniques, and despite my disdain for some of the artists who claim to use this one, I don’t believe this technique is that bad and could actually yield some original stuff.

4) I like to call the fourth technique Frankenmusic. This technique is also just a step above outright theft. It is the borrowing of parts from many different songs, and like Frankenstein’s monster, the new is created when these different parts are put together. Kid Rock recently borrowed (stole?) the riffs from Warren Zevon’s “Warewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to make his terrible song “All Summer Long.”

An example of this at a micro-level is Bruno Mar’s “Uptown Funk.” These guys did a great job at finding many of the influences that led to the travesty, and huge hit that Uptown Funk has become. Bruno and Mark Ronson didn’t just pull two or three different parts together, they took riffs, melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions from dozens of songs, and like building with musical legos, they put a new song together that sounds completely familiar, though it’s tough to put your finger on why. The lyrics are often built in the same way from cliches.

Unlike the barbaric technique used by Kid Rock, Bruno and Mark Ronson are master thieves, stealing little bits from here and there and putting them together in such a way that they most likely won’t get sued.

5) The fifth technique is Stylistic Imitation. This is what Bruno Mars did with “Locked Out of Heaven” which he proudly admits sounds like a Police song. Using this technique, the songwriter needs to listen to a lot of music from a particular artist and get to know their style – growing up listening to an artist makes it all the easier. Once the sound of the artist has been absorbed, a new song is created from elements of the original artist. This is different from all the rest of the techniques so far because the result could very well be a brand new song – musically original – in the style of another artist. Listening to Locked Out of Heaven, it sounds like Bruno wrote an original Police song, not a Bruno Mars song.

6) The last technique I’ll mention here is the Art of Simplicity. It seems too easy. Play two or three chords and sing a few notes from the pentatonic scale, and you could have a hit. Most people, especially non-musicians, like to avoid challenge when it comes to listening to music. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a perfect example. Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” is another. There are thousands more… seriously, just pick two chords and fool around. You’ll be surprised what you can write!

This just scratches the surface. There are many more techniques to use, including revisiting the standards like the blues, old time rock and roll or country, or even dipping into classical music. I have a list of the top ten chord progressions in pop and rock. Any of these chord progressions are fair game and are immediately familiar.

The best technique, in my opinion, is to write music you want to hear, really follow your heart. This is what art is all about, after all. You could be a brilliant songwriter using the techniques listed above, but you might never be an artist.

How to Write a Song Using the Deconstruction/Reconstruction Method

Using Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a test song, let’s look at the song structure, instrumentation, and chords – take it apart as briefly as we can and build a new song.

First, the structure is simple – (Intro) – Verse – Prechorus – Chorus – Break. Repeat this three times with a solo thrown in over a chorus before the third verse.

It’s deceptively simple – the whole song, besides the break, has the same four chords (F – Bb – Ab – Db), but they’re played differently in each section. The intro is a chorus that starts with solo guitar. The drums pound their way in and bring us to a chorus-like intensity. This is followed by the verse which is bass and simple drums with two notes played on guitar at the beginning of each phrase. The prechorus is the same as the verse with the two notes repeated in quarter notes throughout – the words change to “hello hello hello how low” and there is a build up to the explosive chorus. In the chorus, the drums increase intensity and complexity again, the guitar plays loud, distorted power chords, and the voice becomes more gravelly and sings up the octave. Then the break brings us back to the next verse with a rising and falling line in the bass (F – Gb – C – Bb – Ab). The guitar plays F – Gb – F – Bb – Ab in power chords.

The melody is the stickiest part, and many artists don’t bother putting it in the blueprint aside from perhaps basic shape and feel. For instance, in Smells Like Teen Spirit Kurt sings a melody that starts in a comfortable range in the verse, steps down in the prechorus, and ends with the highest parts in the chorus. This is actually not that unusual.

The shape of the melody in the verse is as follows: three steps up and a jump down (load up on guns) – back up to the highest note from which we take three steps down (bri-ing your friends) – up one step followed by three more steps down (it’s fun to lose) – finally two more steps up, followed by three steps down (and to-o pretend). This repeats. The verse has two jumps – from the third to the fourth note and from the fourth to the fifth. Interestingly, the third and fifth notes are the same note, and it’s as if that fourth note didn’t belong. However, it’s the fourth note that makes that melody interesting and memorable!

What we have just done is create a blueprint. In an extended blueprint you would look at all the shapes of all the melodies too, but this part is already too long! Now you take the blueprint and build a new song, using all the elements, changing up the chords and maybe instruments – for instance, start with bass instead of guitar, play the chords in reverse order and turn the melody upside down, change the rhythm up a little. But follow the guidelines in the blueprint and you might have a hit!

I’ll be posting a video example of the working of this song soon!

Infectious music – How Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head and no matter how you tried, you couldn’t get it out? Usually it’s just a snippet, a small piece of the song, maybe the chorus or part of a verse. This is called an earworm or, in academic circles,  involuntary musical imagery. This can be a good thing, as in replaying a song you love in your mind, or it can be a terrible thing, like when that song you hate keeps surfacing and making you want to scream! There are a few reasons songs get stuck in our heads, some of which I’ll discuss below, followed by some ideas about what might make a song catchy that you can use to experiment and maybe, create your own infectious songs.


There are a few reasons songs get stuck in our heads. First, that song could be stuck in your head because of its association with a powerful event in your life, like your wedding, graduation day, or first kiss,  and thinking of those events or being in similar events brings the song back. Additionally, hearing that song can bring to mind memories of the event itself.

Another reason could include the song’s relationship to a strong emotional event, stressful situation, or trauma. Usually, the relationship happens when the song is playing while the event occurs. Again, in the recurrence of these or similar situations, the song jumps to mind.

In situations like the ones above, it doesn’t matter what song is playing, it get’s stuck, and many times, we are so far from the original event that we don’t even realize that’s why the song keeps popping up!

But what about the songs that are free of these relationships? What about the song you just heard on the radio with the chorus that replays in your head for weeks? What is it about these songs that makes them infectious?

I think it’s important to note before we go any further that simply creating an infectious melody or catchy riff doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re song is great. It’s just a small piece of the compositional process. You need a good chord progression – most of these catchy songs use the same, or at least similar chord progressions. You need relatively good lyrics – silly or nonsensical lyrics could backfire, turning your song into an annoying novelty. Highly negative lyrics could simply turn people off. And I believe its important to add a little artistic continuity to your song, using ideas from the main melody in the bass line or guitar line, integrating vocal rhythms into your drum part, using the meaning of the lyrics to determine the mood of your song, etc. There are many different ways to add more depth to your song which should be the subject of a new blog post!

How do people write that catchy song?

Researchers think they’ve isolated the elements that make a catchy song. According to the researchers, catchy songs share at least these four things (taken from the Wikipedia article).

  1. Longer and detailed musical phrases.
  2. Higher number of pitches in the chorus hook.
  3. Male vocalists
  4. Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort

Further, they concluded that Queen’s “We Are The Champions” is the catchiest song in history despite the fact that there are hundreds of songs that could fit the criteria just as well.

I personally have a few problems with this assessment. Though the authors claim that they can predict whether a song will be catchy with an 80% accuracy, it discounts much of the music recently heard that was immediately catchy! Songs like Call Me Maybe or Wrecking Ball have caught the ear and don’t fit any of the basic criteria.

I’m not entirely sure what the backgrounds of all of these researchers are, and even though they all study music’s effect on the brain, I think they are all psychologists first and perhaps don’t have the deeper understanding of music to really make all the claims they do above. Since the results of this research seem to me somewhat counter intuitive, lets look at what songwriters themselves think.

playingInTheBandWhat do the songwriters who are making the money say?

First, they agree that there needs to be repetition of short, simple ideas. Looking at the research above, this seems like the opposite of what they found. Simple ideas are easier to remember, and if they’re placed over an equally catchy chord progression (see here), people can almost be compelled to sing it.

A simple idea in music could be a tiny motif, and as an example I’ll use Do-Re-Mi (I hoe you all know your do re mis!). In the repetition of this idea, you don’t need it to be exact. For instance, you might raise it one step like this – Do – Re – Mi (rest) Re – Mi – Fa. You’ve repeated an idea that will be easier for your listener to remember but you’ve avoided being boring and monotonous!

Play around with this idea for a little while and then add variations. Play your melody backwards, upside-down, with larger intervals (Do-Re-Mi might become Do-Mi-Sol), slow it down, speed it up, change keys!

Second, it’s important to grab your listener with something unusual, like a curious turn of words, interesting instrumentation, or just a good riff – anything to make your listener curious enough to pay attention so your melody has a better chance of being remembered.

Third, you should build up to the spot where your hook is. Usually this is the chorus, the part of most songs that everyone sings. To build, again, there are a lot of techniques you can use. You could use a simple crescendo, starting softly and becoming louder through your verse until you reach a forte at the chorus. This can be accomplished by starting with one instrument and adding more as you move to the chorus. You could do it also by raising your pitch, starting with a low melody that rises to the highest notes in the song at your hook.

Of course, there is no rule. You could reverse all the suggestions and create something brilliant. Drop all the instruments but the guitar out and sing the hook and octave lower!

As you play with these ideas you need to constantly check yourself. Does your music sound like something else? Does the music sound the way you want it to (this is actually the most important consideration!)?

For more ideas, there are a bunch of songwriter’s resources online like:

On a final note, I mentioned Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” above. It was a ridiculously catchy song that made her a bunch of money… but do you know anyone that doesn’t groan in agony when they hear it now? Catchiness can be a double edged sword. If a song is too catchy, I think people eventually know they’re being psychologically manipulated and react strongly against it!

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!

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.

Check out my teaching website at Thorne’s Guitar