songwriting techniques that are actually music theory

Understanding the Songwriting Techniques Behind Hit Songs

Songwriting is often simultaneously one of the most magical and frustrating parts of being a musician. Sometimes, the best songs seem to appear in our heads without prompting and demand to be written down before they disappear, while other times great songs take forever to finish and are nothing but hard work.

Musically speaking, there is another way to write great songs: You can learn the theory behind them that helps make them work. Here are a few common songwriting techniques that are 100% based in music theory.

Magical Chord Combinations

One of the most frustrating challenges when writing songs can be finding the right chords to play. Understanding the basic theory concepts of harmonic function is an extremely helpful songwriting technique to know because it tells you how chords are related and which chords sound “best” together.

For instance, if you are building a chord progression in C major, knowing chord function tells you that the following chords can be mixed and matched together in whatever order: C, D-, E-, F, G, A- and (sometimes) B diminished. You can know this because the key of C major provides seven notes to build chords on. If you know how to build chords, you can then combine the seven chords in C major however you like.

I can go further and categorize these chords into three basic groups based on how they function in my ear: tonic, dominant and predominant. Tonic is typically the most relaxed, dominant is usually tense, and predominant chords are somewhere in between. This helps me choose chords for my song based on how much tension I want to hear.

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Harmonic Sequences

One of the most effective songwriting techniques you can use to develop strong chord progressions is to create a harmonic sequence. All that means is that you play a set of chords (usually inside a particular key) whose root notes (the notes the chords are built on) follow a particular interval pattern.

For instance, a common harmonic sequence uses the interval of a fourth. if I wanted to create this chord sequence in C major, I might start with a C major chord and follow it with chords that are each a fourth above C (F, B diminished, E-, A-, D-, G, C). Doing this creates a strong expectation in the listener’s ear that can make your chord progressions feel exceptionally strong. Pachelbel’s Canon is a well-known example of this.

Hooks and Riffs

Great songs often are marked with great hooks and riffs. At first, these musical devices often do not appear to be complicated, but writing them can seem impossibly difficult. The key to making it easier to create them is often to learn the theoretical underpinning behind them.

Enter the illustrious theory concept of the motif. A motif is akin to a phrase in a language. It is a short set of notes that make up a musical statement. Think of the opening to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Those four notes are used to write the entire piece – and they give it an incredible sense of cohesiveness and power.

Motifs can be used extremely effectively in any musical context and they’re at play all the time in modern popular music. You can use them to create a riff or hook, to build a melody, or even to create a rhythm or groove. Songwriters think in motifs all the time whether they are fully aware of it or not. So as you write, try breaking it down into smaller motifs instead of trying to grasp the whole riff in one go.

Final Thoughts

There are plenty more ways to understand what makes great songs work, but in a musical sense, many of the tried and true songwriting techniques are completely explainable with theory. If you are interested in exploring these concepts more thoroughly, consider checking out