How Much Music Theory Do You Need to Start Making Music?

     To start making music, you shouldn’t have to wait until you have graduated from music university and know all about music theory inside out. In fact, it is quite possible, and highly advisable, to start making your own music with the little that you may already know. But the question is, how much of what do you have to know about?

     Or, to put it differently, what is more important to know about music theory so that you can start to compose music right away?

     The following are what I think to be the most fundamental aspects to have a grasp on. However, keep in mind that the more tools you have and develop, the potential to create better music increases.

Song Structure

     It is important to understand how the different sections of the music can be arranged and how you can explore them as they will be the foundation for your lyrical and musical ideas. When we talk about form in music, we are referring to the song structure. Or in other words, the different sections that make up the whole song.

     Usually, you have the verse that introduces and develops the story; the pre-chorus that can move the story even further by thickening the plot; and the chorus that sums the main idea of the song in the most memorable way possible. You can also have a bridge section that usually occurs once in the whole song. You can use to give the listener yet another perspective of your story. This should be unique both musical and lyrically.

Rhythm

     Depending on certain music genres, rhythm can be one of the most defining characteristics of that genre – see Blues, Funk, Rock, Jazz, and music from different cultures. Rhythm is the time element of music and it is related to tempo, to the duration of sounds and to its rhythmic patterns and variations over time. It is an interplay of sound and silence. In that sense, you should have a good idea of how rhythmic patterns work and their characteristics according to musical genres.

     But rhythm is not present only in music. For instance, in poetry, words can be arranged in a more or less regular sequence and/or according to long or short syllables that altogether form a cadence, a metrical movement and rhythmic form.

     All in all, rhythm is a fundamental element that you can explore to be more expressive musically and lyrically – See Rhythm and Music Expression. Generally speaking, and almost without saying, you should also develop a good sense of where you are in the beat and in which bar you are on.

Chords and Chord Formation

     A chord is a group of three or more notes played simultaneously that form the basis for harmony. Such notes come from the scale material we are using, or to which the chord notes relate to. In order to form such chords the notes are usually stacked in intervals of the third, fourths/fifths or seconds.

     You can look at chords as elements that provide context for the song as a whole and your melodies that go on top of them. Saying that major chords are “happy” and a minor chords are “sad” is too simplistic because depending on the context where such major chords appear, you may feel differently.

     In this case, what you should develop is the ability to feel the chord quality that should come next to the previous one you just played – if it is a major or a minor chord; and then hear how those chords sound in context. And this brings us to the next thing you should know about:

Chord Progressions and Harmonic Rhythm

     A chord progression is basically a succession of chords that can be more or less interrelated according to the relationship between a chord’s tones with the following one. This creates a sense of movement in the song, which can be more or less dynamic and/or static. Probably, the most obvious way to achieve harmonic movement is through harmonic rhythm, that is, how fast you change chords – i.e. if it’s one chord per measure or one chord per beat.

     You can guide a chord progression in any direction, meaning that you can go from one chord to another one, a fifth, a third, or a second above or below. Each of these chord movements may give you a distinct feel according to the tonal or modal reference you are in.

     A progression based on perfect fifths normally have strength; the ones based on thirds are soft; based on seconds will sound more tame; and the ones based on the tritone will induce ambiguity. But don’t take my word for it! You should be figuring out how certain chord movements and relationships make you feel.

     That said, you should have a good understanding of how your chord progressions should flow according to the emotions you wish to convey in your songs. You should develop the sense of what chord should come next – if it is a major or a minor chord.

     In every tonality you have three major chords, three minor and one diminished chord. If you refer to them as scale degrees, this is what you will get:

Scale DegreesIiiiiiIVVViviiVIII
Chord QualityMmmMMmdimM

     Their relative positions are maintained throughout every other tonality (named after the first degree), and you should have a half-step between the 3rd and 4th degrees and between the 7th and 8th degrees. With this bit of information, you can start creating your chord progressions in any tonality.

Key Centers and Modulations

     In tonal music, there is a pitch or chord around which the music revolves, like a home base where you want to return to. But it is important to understand that when we say that we are in the key of C major we are referring to the pitch collection and all the chords that can be built using that same pitch collection – like in the table shown above; and not the C major scale specifically.

     As soon as you understand this concept, you can pretty much navigate throughout the different tonalities. And what does this mean?

     There is a device called modulation that can be used for a variety of purposes like emphasizing the contrast between different themes or sections of a musical piece and introducing novelty in the piece of music. The contrast can be bigger or smaller depending on the chosen keys that you modulate to. That said, a modulation is the shift from one tonal or modal center to another.

     The way that a modulation is perceived, if it is uplifting or the contrary, or more or less vibrant, will depend on several factors such as:

  • How close or distant the target tonality or modal center is; (see circle of fifths and key signatures)
  • Using ascending or descending melodic passages to highlight the direction of the modulation;
  • How the chord voices move to the target chord from the modulated section and thus contribution to the uplifting or downward perception of the overall musical direction;
  • If texture and/or dynamics is increasing or decreasing;
  • If rhythmic elements become more or less busy; among other.

     This is the knowledge that I think is fundamental to know about music theory and start making music in a more informed way. Ultimately, you can start making music without knowing a thing about music theory and rely on your natural instincts. But knowing about music theory can reduce the trial and error process by a lot and make you enjoy the music making process a lot more.

     Is there anything else you think should added to this list? Let me know in the comments.

     Happy composing!

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