Recently I was asked how much music theory you need to compose a decent song or instrumental.

The answer is simple: none.

Some of the greatest songs ever written were not only written by people who had no formal music training, but some were totally illiterate. And I’m not just talking about country blues singers of the turn of the last century. I’m talking about gypsy musicians of the century before that. And the troubadours of the time of the American Revolution. And the balladeers of the medieval times. And so on…

How do we know they were great songs?

We’re still singing them!

These folk musicians had nare a care about whether what they did was “proper”, they just thought that it sounded good. The people agreed, and still do.

Sure, an intellectual approach to songwriting or compositing can certain turn out pleasing results, but so can writing straight from the heart. 

So if you know a few chords on the guitar or piano, start writing. You don’t need to know why or how your chord progression and/or melody works; you just need to be happy with what you end up with. You might make (what some might consider) a musical faux pas and not even know it. And those around you might say, “Wow, cool changes.”

In fact, knowing the “rules of composition” could actually box you in and restrain you from composing your unique composition.

While I believe that the Beatles are (or were, in a couple of cases) fine musicians, I doubt that they were learned musicians in the beginning considering their success at such a young age. Yet now, universities have classes that study the compositions of the band.

They worked chords that were outside the key of the song right into it, without modulation, and did so in a very natural way. When students sat down to learn the song they had to hunt it down on the neck of the guitar; it didn’t fall in the regular progression of chords they were familiar with using together. (It should be noted that the Beatles weren’t the first to do this.)

But writing from the heart doesn’t require the odd or complex chord. There are many great two chord compositions. “Tulsa Time”, “Memphis, Tennessee”, “Guitars, Caddilacs” and (yeah, I hate it too) “Achy Breaky Heart” each consists wholly of two chords.

Do I recommend learning music theory? Absolutely. But don’t let that stop you from writing songs.

And, you can leave it to the musicologist to figure out why you did what you did.
Jake Kelly is a man on the constant search for enlightenment, if anyone finds it let him know so he can get some. For more of this hombre’s ramblings and the rest of L2P check out L2Pbandspace and


Originally posted 2010-08-09 14:45:41.