Music Theory and Your Compositions

Treble ClefA lot of artists these days don’t think it’s necessary to know music theory. They write and play whatever sounds good to them. That’s all well and good, but as an arranger of music, I believe music theory now is more important than ever. With today’s technology, artist/producers may be able to make anything sound decent, but what makes music interesting and what will separate it from every other well-produced piece are changes that don’t include just going back and forth between two or three chords.

These changes can include using augmented sixth chords (these include the tonic of the key, the raised fourth, and lowered sixth, and more depending on the variations), complicated rhythms (tuplets or triplets, anyone?) or mode mixture (if a piece is in major, throwing a few chords from the parallel minor in there, or vice versa). A great example of mode mixture is “Michelle” by the Beatles. The song is in F major, but the F minor scale is included many times throughout. The bridge especially focuses on the minor, as it’s based around a D flat chord (which is not in F major but F minor).

Some artists with good ears and creativity will throw these changes in without knowing what they are, but it’s so much more helpful for arrangers and writers to have an idea of these chords and what their function is. It makes pieces much smoother and more interesting for the listener.

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4 Responses to Music Theory and Your Compositions

  1. DJ Shyine says:

    I’ve been waiting for you guys to cover this…I definitely consider myself a part of the group that can create plenty of changes but have no idea how to identify them. Definitley doing my homework now! =D

    ►DJ Shyine

  2. Modium says:

    Very well put. I call it the “played-out” factor: how long does it take a song to sound played out? In recent years, many top 40 charting songs sound played out to me about 30 seconds after I start listening to them for the first time: A monotonous 4 (or less) chord structure, a non-changing beat and a blunt resemblence to other songs by that artist or of the same genre.

    In addition to what you stated above, more ways you can make songs sound interesting are: To change the meter for one or more bars (The Strangler’s “Golden brown” – a 4/4 bar in the middle of a 3/4 song). To vary the dynamics by using successive soft and loud sections (The Pixies, anyone?). Using melodies that counter point the lead – in fact, as time goes by I hear less and less arpeggios and more and more wall-of-sound chords by both guitars and synths.

    In my opinion these variations make the difference between a song that is a hit for a day and something I would like to listen to over and over again, each time finding something new I haven’t noticed before.

    BTW, there used to be a set of articles and sessions dedicated to teaching the basics of music theory. I lost track of them after the new site revamp. It would be great if you could post a link to them here.

    - Modium

  3. alex says:

    Hi Modium,

    You can find all of these items in our Music Theory A.I.R.:


    Alex, Indaba Music

  4. Death Of An Alias says:

    I agree theory is important though I often find myself defying the grounded rules but I do know quite a bit and use it often.

    As with harmony& melody I will take a chord de-construct it and see what I can pair with it and build new melody and harmony based off a 4th or 3rd 5th etc and dig into that notes various chord structures . it depends on what your doing and to what purpose and if you can pull it off.

    You need to know some theory if you plan to break it in a pleasant way and it’s always a good back up, but by no means set in stone typically when it comes to chord progressions.

    oh and if you want gobs of harmony& Melody crash course -> Crosby Stills And Nash

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