Do you need music theory to make music?

I’ve been playing music for over twenty years. I started playing drums when I was around 10 because my dad plays drums. I then took up guitar when I was 16. I specifically remember taking guitar lessons and my guitar teacher was telling me which chords and notes I could play in a certain key. For example, he taught me how to use use a really easy minor scale in a major key for a really cool effect. But I asked him “Why can I play those notes? Why do those notes work?” He told me that that question was about music theory, but he was more of a guitar player. 

I started to play guitar so I could write my own songs – I’ve never had the goal of being a fantastic guitar player. I just wanted to learn guitar for songwriting.

After my teacher told me that I needed to learn music theory in order to know what notes go together, I thought to myself “do you need music theory to make music?”

That’s a question a lot of musicians ask me and here’s what I think about it.

What is music theory?

I’ve written many articles about music theory. I’ve even talked about what I learned in music theory classes in school when I was a music major.

You can read those articles for a more in-depth answer to this question, but the short answer to “what is music theory” is that it explains how music works

Do you need music theory to write music?

Music theory reminds me a lot of color theory. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, color theory is:

“the collection of rules and guidelines regarding the use of color in art and design, as developed since their early days. Color theory informs the design of color schemes, aiming at aesthetic appeal and the effective communication of a design message on both the visual level and the psychological level.”

That sounds a lot like music theory. Music theory teaches what notes and chords go together. These “rules” then help songwriters write music that sounds “correct.”

Or you can break those rules to make something that sounds totally different.

As I said earlier, my guitar teacher, who was good at guitar, wasn’t great at music theory, so you can be a professional musician without being a music theory master.

You can also write music without knowing much about music theory – I started writing songs once I learned four chords on guitar.

You don’t need to know music theory to make music.

That said, there are many advantages of knowing music theory when writing music.

How music theory helps you make music

When you know music theory you will be able to learn new instruments much faster than if you didn’t know music theory.

I’m a rhythm guitar player, but there were a few gigs that I needed to play bass guitar.

I’m not really a good bass player, but because I know music theory I can play bass guitar and play more than just the root note of each chord.

Because I studied music theory, I know how to use non chord tones to make my bass playing a little bit better.

Another way knowing music theory can help you when making music is knowing music theory helps you turn the ideas in your head into actual music notes fairly easy.

Let’s say that I want to write a rock or pop tune. If that’s the case, I know I should probably start my phrases with a I chord and also use a lot of IV chords and V chords.

Here’s another example. Maybe I want to write a jazz song. I know that I should add a lot of seventh chords and I have to use a V7 chord.

Another advantage of learning music theory is that knowing music theory really helps you when you are talking with other musicians.

Let’s say you go to a jam session. You meet some musicians that you’ve never met before and are about to play a tune. One of the musicians turns to you and says “this is a one, four, five in D.” 

Do you know what that means? If you’ve studied some music theory you should be able to respond with “Sure thing. No problem!”

These are just a few ways how knowing music theory will help you make music.

But how much music theory should you learn? After all, people get PhDs is music theory. Do you really need to know that much music theory?

How much music theory do you need to know to write music?

In college I was a music major for a few years. At my school, all music majors needed to take four music theory classes: one through four.

However, before I graduated, I changed my degree and had a music minor which required fewer music theory classes. I ended up taking three music theory classes in college.

In Music Theory I and Music Theory II, I learned about the following things:

  • how to read music
  • key signatures
  • intervals 
  • major and minor scales
  • cadences 
  • non chord tones
  • how to write STAB chorales
  • the circle of fifths
  • seventh chords
  • some other stuff

Some of this stuff is pretty simple, but all of these things are really foundational things that are necessary for music theory.

music theory textbook
This is the actual textbook I used in college.

In music theory III I remember learning about

  • overall song structure
  • Neapolitan chords

and that’s it…

I’m sure we covered more than that in class, but I took Music Theory III around ten years ago. And you know what? I’ve been playing and writing music since then and haven’t used anything I learned in Music Theory III.

In my opinion, if you want to write contemporary pop music, you don’t need to study after Music Theory II. At my school Music Theory I and Music Theory II were both one semester each.

Sure, there are concepts and techniques in pop music that may use stuff that would be covered in Music Theory III and Music Theory IV, but those are few and far between.

Conclusion

You don’t need to know music theory to make good music, but knowing music theory really helps you improve every other part of your musicianship. If you want to take music seriously, then I would highly advise you to learn at least some music theory. If you want to learn more about music theory, I suggest you read the other articles I’ve written on music theory and keep checking back as I continue to add more.

What to read next:

Read some more articles about music theory to help your songwriting.

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