3 steps to improve your musical ear

Perhaps you can relate to the following situation: You’ve been working really hard to learn or write a new song. It’s taken many hours and lots of frustration and patience to work out what the right chords are. After putting all this work in, you go to rehearsal with a talented friend or colleague of yours and they quickly learn the whole song with all of its chords after playing it through once – maybe twice. How do these people do this?!?

It turns out your musical ear is something you can develop – you don’t need to be magically gifted at birth (though some people sure seem to be). Here are a couple of ways to get started.

Identify the Key

Every song has at least one key. A key is just a way to name the set of pitches used to create chord progressions, riffs, melodies, solos, and just about anything else that has pitch in a song. You can think of a key as a pool of “right” notes to start from.

Keys are defined with scales – which is just a fancy name for a pattern for organizing pitches. Scales usually have seven pitches that are spaced with particular intervals (distances between pitches). For instance, the major scale is built out of seven pitches spaced apart using half and whole steps (half steps are the shortest distance between two pitches, whole steps are made of two half steps).

Learning scales gives you the basic foundation you need to construct and name chords because they define the pitches most chords are made of. The better you know your scales, the easier finding and naming chords will be, and the stronger your musical ear will become.

Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are at work in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs

Identify Root Notes

Chords are built on specific pitches called root notes. Any pitch can be a root note – all you have to do is build a chord on top of it. You can usually find root notes by listening to bass part since most bass parts use these root notes as their foundation.

A good practice for learning to hear root notes is to identify the key a song is in, practice the scale that defines it, and then start trying to sing, play and name the root notes in chord progressions. The more you do this, the easier identifying pitches in a scale will become. If you practice this consistently, this will become almost second nature.

Identify Chord Qualities

Once you can identify root notes of chords, the next step is to identify chord qualities. This is an endless, wonderful rabbit hole of a subject. The process for naming chords is very detailed, systematic, and needs greater explanation than there is space for in this post, but the goal of all the rules is the same: give specific names (qualities) to specific sets of pitches built on root notes. For instance, a chord’s quality might be “major” or “minor”, which sound “happy” or “sad” respectively.

A good way to begin identifying these qualities is to take simple three or four chord songs and identify which chords sound “happy” or “sad”. Just about any pop or singer/songwriter tune will work very well. If you do this with every song you learn, your ear will become very good at hearing major and minor chord qualities. Once your musical ear has begun to hear these qualities easily, you will have a strong foundation for understanding additional chord qualities. A good book or course on music theory can help immensely in this process.

Final Thoughts

I have only scratched the surface of the wonderful, deep and never ending process of learning to hear chords, ear training, and developing your musical ear. If you would like to explore it further, consider checking out HITMusicTheory.com where I explain these concepts in much greater detail with specific examples from hit songs from a wide variety of genres.

By Daniel Roberts

Music Theory Secrets You Missed as a Kid

Music theory is wonderful, exciting, and enormously useful. But for many musicians who received any kind of music theory education growing up, the experience is usually exactly the opposite. Music theory classes can feel one step removed from strict math classes where the concepts never really seem to apply to “real life.” 

But have no fear – just because you had a bad music theory education (or no formal music education at all) in the past doesn’t mean you can’t give yourself a fantastic one now. In fact, learning music theory now with the music chops you already have means that you’ll be able to actually apply everything immediately. 

There is a beautiful world of music theory you can discover and use. Here are a few music theory secrets from that world.

Theory Is Just a Naming Convention

First, when it comes right down to it, music theory is just a way to name sounds. It isn’t derived from a set of archaic principles. Instead, it is just a way to name and talk about how (in general) humans hear sound. There are no rules – there are only sounds with names to be explored and reveled in.

For instance, a key is just a pool of notes that sound “pleasing” and are useful for making musical ideas from. A chord is just three or more notes stacked on top of each other. A motif is just a short musical idea – exactly the same as a phrase you might say in any other language.

Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are used in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs

You Don’t Ever Need Perfect Pitch

Second, you do not need perfect pitch to understand, explain, or play any music you hear. You just need a decent understanding of theory. For example, theory teaches you to name the function of the chords. This gives you a way to train your ear to hear these functions in any music and quickly figure out the exact names of chords being played. You can do this with any sound – chord or not – in music. Developing this skill can give you a huge leg up in all musical situations.

Theory Can Break You Out of Creative Ruts

One of the most common reasons many of us get stuck in creative ruts is that we keep running over the same musical ideas without reflecting on what they are, how to talk about them, or how to use them. Music theory provides a way to name what we are doing and intentionally to reframe and create new musical ideas.

For instance, if you learn that you are always using major chords, you can shift your focus and throw in a few minor chords instead. If you always play rhythms made out of eighth notes, you can learn about and use triplets. Once you start using theory this way, you will never have to be stuck in another creative musical rut again.

Final Thoughts and More Music Theory Secrets

There are so many more ways that theory can enable and empower your creative work – and it is all something you can start learning and using today. One of the best ways to start exploring music theory is through an online course. There are tons of options out there, but if you want to learn theory with modern examples from popular hit songs, check out Hit Music Theory.

Now go make some music!

Discover the music theory secrets you missed as a kid: by Daniel Roberts

Read more like this at http://hitmusictheory.com

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.

Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are at work in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs

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 HITMusicTheory.com.

the power of limitations in songwriting

We have all looked with great trepidation into the proverbial blank canvas of songwriting, arranging, and/or composition from time to time. Sitting in front of a blank page, anything is possible – but with no lyric written and no notes played, it’s easy to just feel lost. If we could just find the right line or musical phrase to begin with we would be off to the races – but these initial lyrics or musical ideas seem impossible to find! Where do these gems hide?

Limitations Are Prompts

The answer, counterintuitively, is in limitation. It is often because the canvas is blank that we have nothing to say. If we have something which we must respond to – a limitation to work with – then many ideas can easily start flowing.

Think about what makes you want to create lyrics or music – it is not the absence of anything. It is experience of something in particular you feel strongly about – a lost lover, a political lie, a personal struggle with a friend, an explosion of joy, etc. These are all particular things to write about. Once you start writing about them, they tell you what else might fit in your work.

Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are at work in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

The same is true in music. Every great piece of music is at its core built from just a few very simple ideas that limit what the rest of the pieces of the music can be.

Think about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It appears to be one of the most intensely complex pieces of music ever written – and it is in many ways – but not when it comes to its building blocks. In writing this incredible piece of music, Beethoven limited himself to a motif made out of four notes! Only four! This motif is stated at the beginning of the piece and then used to create almost EVERYTHING ELSE in the piece!

Try limiting your songwriting to a very simple motif or phrase and see if you can base an entire piece around that. You might be surprised with what you can come up with!

Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”

The songwriting greats do this too. Think about Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”. The musical motif in the phrase “hello darkness, my old friend” is also used for “I’ve come to talk with you again”. He then changes some of the melodic content of the motif when he sings “because a vision softly creeping” but he keeps the rhythmic content the same. Then at the end of almost every verse, he quotes the title of his song – another limitation used as a creative structure.

Throughout the entire song, almost everything is pulled from the initial motif or is a response to it. This is very intentional. Almost all the great songwriters and composers (whose music sticks around in our heads) do this. Almost every memorable musical statement you have ever heard has a simple but profound structure which is explored and supported.

Final Thoughts

Learning music theory is fundamentally important to learning to see and create effective musical limitations for yourself and your songwriting, but finding a good music theory course that contextualizes theory in modern contexts can be really hard. That is why myself and Dave Kusek created HITMusicTheory.com. Check it out and see if it might be useful for you.

improve your mix with music theory

So your band is finally in the studio. You’ve been working hard in rehearsals to create great songs and you know that your lyrics and melodies are strong. You finish your last rehearsal and feel like your band has a huge sound. You show up, set everything up, record your first song, listen back to it and discover that the mix is falling flat. What do you do?

Well, there are always things a mixing engineer can do to help, but usually, the core of the problem goes back to the song and its arrangement, and if you want to improve your mix, you need to start at the root of the problem. Here are three critical points to always consider if you want a mix with a big, powerful sound.

Harmonic Context

One of the first problems that comes up in many band contexts is that one or more of the guys in the band doesn’t actually know what the chords are. Instead, they just use their ear and try things until they feel like what they are doing works.

Working out parts by ear is a great skill and is very important to develop, but if you don’t understand the harmonic context (which the chords in the song define), the right part will often elude you for a very long time. This can often lead to certain band members just turning their amp up and listening to themselves instead of hearing what the rest of the band is playing and creating a complementary part. 

If this sounds like you or someone in your band, take some time to learn how chords are built and the harmonic context they define. It may be frustrating at first, but it will pay huge musical dividends in the long run – including helping make all of the parts in the mix complement each other.

Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are at work in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs


Register is the pitch range that each musical part in your arrangement sits in. Next to the right chords to play, this is the first thing many musicians totally overlook. Are the guitarists playing in the same register? Are the chords in the keyboard part stepping on the vocalist’s melody? Is the bass player noodling around in the same range as the keyboardist’s left hand?

These are some of the many common ways that register is often ignored when bands are first figuring out their arrangements. The first step to addressing these problems is to define a register for each instrument. Give the guitarist a particular position on the guitar neck to create his parts from. Tell the keyboardist what octave to keep her left and right hands in, and tell the bass player to go back to the low register where he usually belongs.

Defining the register like this makes each part in the mix automatically pop out more because it keeps parts very clear and separate. It’s a fairly quick fix that will really help you improve your mix and create a really big sound without lots of production work. 


Once you have figured out what register everybody should be staying in, the next step is to keep them there while the chords go by. When we first learn chords on our primary instrument, it’s common to learn one or two shapes and then just move them around to create most of our chords. However, this often results in a very choppy part that doesn’t stay in the register you’ve defined for each instrument in the band. The result can be parts that clash and make the mix muddy.

Enter voice-leading. Voice-leading is the term we use for the way we move the pitches in one chord to the pitches in another. In classical theory, there are many rules for “proper” voice-leading, but they all usually come back to the basic principle of moving as little as possible between chords. The key to start voice-leading is to understand how chords are built so that you can create them in whatever register you need to stay in. Using voice-leading well is fundamental to keeping each part in the mix in its own register so that the mix stays open and clear.

Improve Your Mix – Final Thoughts

Addressing your arrangement with these theory concepts can help improve your mix enormously. After fixing chord changes, register problems and cleaning up voice-leading, the mix will start to automatically open up. Your engineer will love you for this because it will enable them to focus on using their tools to complement the arrangement instead of trying to fix it. A little appropriate compression, EQ and effects to these parts and things will start making the mix really strong.
Learning more about theory is always enormously helpful when using these concepts. If you are looking for a good place to start, consider checking out HIT Music Theory at www.hitmusictheory.com – an online music theory course I developed with Dave Kusek that uses hit songs from a wide variety of genres to explain beginning to college level theory and make it practical.

By Daniel Roberts

3 music improvisation techniques to improve your solos

Improvisation is the musical equivalent of having a conversation. It’s therefore fundamental to being able to truly understand and play music at its best. However, for many of us, improvisation can be a very challenging and can often feel like stepping into a conversation that we understand almost nothing about. However, if you jump in and give yourself time to learn, you would be surprised what can come out of your voice or instrument. Here are a few music improvisation techniques you can use to get started.

Learn Your Scales

Our ears organize sound in particular ways whether we know how to name them or not. Some ways are more immediately pleasing or “consonant” and others are more challenging, harsh, or “dissonant”. Most of us hear music in a tonal way – meaning that our ear organizes all the pitches we hear in music around one central pitch called a tonal center. The tonal center is what gives us the pitch we use to describe keys – the “A” in “A minor”, for instance.

In western music, we usually organize the way we hear the rest of the pitches around the tonal center with scales. Scales are just a set of intervals used to create a specific order of pitches around a tonal center. The major scale is the most common example. It uses whole and half steps to organize six additional pitches around a tonal center.

Because our ears usually hear tonally, it is immensely helpful to develop a strong understanding and facility with scales – whether you sing them or play them. You can think of scales as a pool of notes that will work when you are trying to play over a set of chords. They are the foundation for the rest of how western music approaches improvisation (aside from a discussion on rhythm).

Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are at work in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs

Understand Harmonic Context

Once you know what scale, or set of scales, are useful for a particular song, the next step is to understand the harmonic changes that are going on. Harmonic changes are defined with chords. Chords are made up of three or more notes (usually from the key the song is in). When a chord is playing, the notes it is comprised of sound most consonant or “right”.

This is enormously helpful on many levels. First, even if you know the scale you can play during a song, if you don’t intentionally play with an awareness of what notes are in the chords, your improvisation can sound lost and confused. Second, many of the strongest riffs, arpeggios, motifs, and other improvisational elements come straight from chord tones. Think of the famous guitar riff from “Crazy Train” which is built around F#-, A and E chords.

Use Motifs

Once you know the scales and harmonic context you are working in, you can use what may be the most powerful music improvisation technique of all: the motif. Motifs are short musical ideas or phrases used to built more complex phrases, melodies, riffs, and much more.

Motifs are powerful because they function like a topic statement in an essay or debate. If you know exactly what you want to talk about, you will leave out everything that has nothing to do with your points and use everything you know brings your point home.

The same is true in music. Great improvisers and composers create and explore motifs all the time. Probably the easiest place to hear the use of a motif that we all know is the introduction to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. But motifs are all over the place. For instance, the three note tapping pattern in Eddie Van Halen’s solo from “Eruption” is played also a three-note motif played over multiple harmonic changes – which is part of why Van Halen’s tapping sounds so powerful.

Final Thoughts

This obviously only scratches the surface of what is possible in the work of improvisation. If you are interested in learning more but have found most theory books or courses unhelpful, I hope you will consider checking out an online music theory course I put together with Dave Kusek called HIT Music Theory where I use today’s music to explain college level music theory in a practical, meaningful way for today’s musician with real life examples. If your are interested, check it out at www.HITmusictheory.com.
By Daniel Roberts