3 Times Breaking Music Theory Rules Worked SO Well

3 times breaking music theory rules worked so well

At first glance, it can feel like music theory is full of “rules.” Pick up any good theory textbook and you will find detailed descriptions of how to name, construct, and analyze scales, intervals, harmonies, chord progressions, compositional forms, and a lot more that can make any creative person’s eyes glaze over.

These descriptions are often communicated in such a way as to imply that there’s a right and a wrong way. However, this way of thinking just does not reflect the real world of music. Theory is a way to name things – not a set of rules to be followed.

Here are just a few of the many times that breaking music theory rules made a lot of sense:

Chuck Berry: Johnny B. Goode – Parallel Perfect Intervals

One of the most commonly broken “rules” in music theory is the avoidance of parallel perfect intervals.

If you have ever played a power chord, you have played a perfect interval. In classical theory, parallel perfect intervals are avoided because (among other reasons) they cause the individual voices to lose their independence, resulting in a thinner and even blocky sound.

You can hear this for yourself. Try playing a perfect fifth, perfect fourth, or a perfect octave, then follow it with another perfect interval and see how it sounds. Try it again and this time follow the perfect interval with something like a third. You’ll notice that the perfect interval sounds almost “at rest” or “comfortable” for your ear. Hanging around that too long can get boring, so classical composers used more dissonant major, minor, diminished, and augmented intervals to add movement within a piece.

However, if Chuck Berry had decided to follow these rules, the guitar parts for “Johnny B. Goode” and the slew of classic rock music that came afterward would have been lost to all of us. Nowadays, just about all of rock and pop music depends on parallel perfect intervals.

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

David Bowie: “Space Oddity” – Playing the Wrong Chord

Another common “rule” in music theory is to play the correct chord qualities for each of the chords in a particular key. For instance, the diatonic chords (chords within the key) in C major are: C, D-, E-, F, G, A- and B diminished.

Following this rule is a great starting point when looking for strong chord progressions. Diatonic chords will all sound good together, so you can put a decent chord progression together without much thought. But, this rule has been broken many times in the service of great songs.

David Bowie’s musical catalog is a great example of this. Consider the acoustic guitar breaks in “Space Oddity” (which is also in C major). The chords in these breaks are C, F, G and A. Notice it is not an A- chord. Instead, Bowie intentionally plays the wrong chord quality – and it sounds AWESOME! Just because you are playing the “wrong” chord quality doesn’t mean you’ve played the wrong chord – sometimes the wrong chord is exactly the right thing for the song.

Rage Against the Machine: “Fistful of Steel” – Playing In the Wrong Key

Finally, a typically unspoken rule in most tonal music is that you don’t play in the wrong key. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: playing in the wrong key can sound downright awful (we all know that cringy feeling when we hit a wrong note…). However, there are some fantastic ways that this rule has been broken too.

A great example of this is the introduction of Rage Against the Machine’s “Fistful of Steel”. The song is basically in F# minor. However, half of the guitar part is made up of harmonies from G major. Juxtaposing F# minor against chords from G major is incredibly dissonant because G major has very little to do with F# minor. As a result, the guitarist is essentially playing in the wrong key half of the time. And yet, the part totally works! Instead of just sounding harsh, it conveys the angst of the song very effectively.

Really goes to show you that anything goes in music and music theory.

Final Thoughts:

All rules have their limits and are worth being broken sometimes – but breaking them is usually more effective when you know what the rules are in the first place and why they are there. Know the rules so you can intelligently break the rules, right?

If you are interested in discovering more about music theory and how it can help you in your creative work, consider checking out the course I made with Dave Kusek called “HIT Music Theory” www.hitmusictheory.com.

By Daniel Roberts

3 Music Theory Tips That Will Improve Your Mix

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

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

3 Ways Music Theory Can Help You Write a Great Chorus

3 Ways Music Theory Can Help You Write a Great Chorus

Writing a great chorus that sticks in your ear and makes you want to sing is a real challenge. It can often seem that finding the right melody, the right chords, the right arrangement, or whatever other parts amounts to pure inspirational magic. But there are real, concrete things you can do to improve your creative output and find strong musical ideas to write a great chorus. Here are a few of them.


The power of a musical motif cannot be overstated. Motifs are short musical ideas used to build phrases, melodies, riffs, grooves, and just about anything else foundational to a song. They are usually short and can be strung together or manipulated in many ways to create a strong, cohesive sound that stays interesting.

Motifs can be incredibly simple (and a lot of times it’s the simple ones that really stick in our heads). One of my all time favorite motifs is the guitar part for I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. It uses only one pitch and the same rhythm for the entire song, but it is one of the strongest guitar parts I’ve ever heard in a pop or dance tune. It creates an incredibly strong rhythmic foundation for just about everything else in the song.

Next time you’re working on a chorus, try to simplify it down and think about the motifs you’re using. Then, try modifying or making small changes those motifs in a later chorus. This helps create a lot of interest and keeps the song from feeling too monotonous while still maintaining that strong hook.

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


Another really useful theory concept that will help you write a great chorus is the concept of a sequence. Sequences are ways to take a particular motif or set of chords and transpose them in such a way that they stay recognizable but become more interesting and sound more inevitable.

There are two main types of sequences: harmonic and motivic. Harmonic sequences are made up of a set of chords that follow a particular interval pattern. Motivic sequences are made up of a motif that is transposed and repeated using specific interval pattern.

Two great examples of both of these concepts are Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. Canon in D uses a harmonic sequence that follows an interval pattern: down by a 4th, up by a 2nd (D to A, B- to E-, etc.). Hips Don’t Lie uses the same harmonic sequence but in a minor key. In both pieces of music, the motivic sequence follows the harmonic sequence. So every time the harmonic sequence repeats, so does the motif. You can hear this in the violin part in Pachelbel’s Canon and in the trumpet part in Hips Don’t Lie.

Sequences have a lot of power because they create strong expectations in the listener’s ear about what the next chord or line should come next. You can then use this to make the song feel inevitable or thwart that expectation to add tension.

Form and Repetition

Once you have built a strong set of motifs and potentially used some harmonic or motivic sequences, the ways you use form and repetition can play a huge role as you write a great chorus. There are a couple ways to do this.

First, if you want the chorus to stick, you need to make it the focus of your song. Many pop songs get to the chorus in 60 seconds or less (I Want You Back hits the chords a mere forty-five seconds into the song). It also helps a lot to write the hook (and sometimes the verses) of the song over the same chords and groove as the chorus.

Second, use a song form that repeats the chorus a lot. If you have too many sections other than the chorus, the power you want to the chorus to have may start to disappear.

A common starting point for pop song form is:













Remember that the hook (and often the verse) is often made of many of the same elements as the chorus.

Final Thoughts:

There are many more ways that theory can help you understand what makes great music work and help you write some of it yourself. If you would like to explore this further, consider checking out the online music theory course I developed with Dave Kusek called HIT Music Theory (www.hitmusictheory.com). In this course, I go into much greater detail about theory and how it has been used from a wide variety of today’s hit songs. The course covers a lot of college level theory in a practical and applicable way using diverse music from Rihanna to the Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash and much more.

By Daniel Roberts

3 Things Every Session Musician Needs to Know

3 things every session musician needs to know

There are many things that make a great session musician: a great attitude, quality gear, great tone, musicality, creative ideas and being reliable and early to sessions. For this post, however, I want to focus on three really important concepts related to music theory and composition. A deep understanding and appreciation of these concepts can make a huge difference when you are creating parts for a producer in a session.


Every great song has a great groove, no matter the style. Groove is a difficult concept to explore sometimes but it is a result of a few really important elements. I have already focused on the first element (subdivision) in previous posts (read them here and here), so I would like to address two others: space and rhythmic motifs.

One of the biggest reasons any groove really hits you is the amount of space created by the parts. This can be a really hard thing to learn at first because when we first start building our technique on whatever instrument we play, it can be very exciting to play faster and with greater intensity. But often, it is the musicians who know how to play the fewest notes really well that create the most exciting parts. Take songs like “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. The drum part is simple, the bassline is very open and has lots of space, and the hook played by the horns has two and a half beats of silence every two bars. All of this space in the parts makes them feel much stronger.

The second reason a groove often hits you is that it is built out of simple motifs (musical ideas or phrases) that repeat. Looking at “Sledgehammer” again, the vast majority of the drum part is built out of two simple beats, the bass line for each section is made out of two bar phrases that repeat over and over with only subtle changes, the guitar parts for each section are made up of only two to three notes, and the melody is made up of short phrases with lots of silence in between.

If you want your parts to groove in a session, space and strong motifs are king.

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

Reading Changes

This is a big deal for all session musicians. In almost every professional session, there will be a chart with chord changes (or Nashville numbers in many country sessions) and sometimes standard notation. If you can’t read, it will be really difficult to get (or keep) any session gigs.

Once the chart or notation is in front of you, you will often need to come up with additional parts that complement whatever is written. The producer may ask you to play in a particular style, create a part in a certain register, imitate a famous player, or any number of other requests. One of the most helpful skills to develop is your understanding of the theory behind the chords in the chart and how various players use that theory. Chords or “changes” really are just a way to give the harmonic context that is supposed to happen at any particular part of a song. There are many ways that the harmony can be expressed: a riff built out of the notes in the chord, various voicings, arpeggios, playing the chord in different inversions, registers, and much more. The first step to creating parts that use these concepts is knowing the theory behind what makes chords and how to approach creating parts that use them.

Creating the Right Part

Once you are clear on the theory and can play notes that fit with the right chords, there is still a lot more to creating the right part. Starting with the points I mentioned on groove is really important, but there are a couple other things to keep in mind too.

First, remember that melody always comes first. If your part gets in the way of the melody, it’s almost never worth using. Make sure that it is not in the same register (how high or low the pitches you are using are) and leaves the right amount of space around the melody. If you find your ear gravitating to a part you create before the melody, you should almost always rewrite the part.

Second, always be aware of how busy the arrangement is becoming. The tendency for all musicians when they start becoming technically proficient on their instrument is always to come up with lots of parts and start adding them to the arrangement – especially if you are looking for a big, powerful sound. However, the more parts you add, and the more complex and busy you make them, the harder it will be for any one part to stand out and have its own space in the mix. Pretty soon, you will find yourself with a muddy mess of an arrangement and mix with no power. So be aware of how busy the arrangement is and create your parts with that in mind. Simpler is almost always better.

Final Thoughts

A strong foundation in theory is enormously important for becoming a session musician who can deliver in the studio. If you are looking for a good place to start, consider checking out the course I made with Dave Kusek called HIT Music Theory at www.hitmusictheory.com. In it, I go into much greater detail about theory and how it is applied in major hit songs from a wide variety of genres that today’s musician can use.

By Daniel Roberts

Learn Basic Music Theory with Jay-Z’s 99 Problems

basic music theory jay-z's 99 problems

There are some songs that just seem to be so well made that they appear to possess some magical quality or spirit that gives them life yet can’t quite be pinned down. In reality, much of what makes a song work has to do with the structure underneath it, and if you break a song down to it’s simplest factors using music theory, you can begin to understand both what’s going on and why it works so well.

Let’s take a look at an example and see how basic music theory is at play in Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.


Subdivision is a basic music theory concept everyone should know. Essentially, it’s the way we break beats up into smaller pieces. Think of it like folding a piece of paper up into smaller pieces. The single sheet would be divided into two halves, four quarters, and so on.

So for example, in 4/4, where the quarter note equals one beat, you could subdivide into eighth notes by dividing each beat in half. So instead of counting 1, 2, 3, 4, you would have 1, &, 2, &, 3, &, 4, &.

But why does subdivision matter? Essentially, it’s what allows us to create more interesting and complex rhythms – just like the ones in 99 Problems. Think about a basic rock drum beat for a second – something like this. Now compare that to the drum beat from 99 problems. The complexity – especially in the kick drum – is possible because notes pulled from the subdivision are used to create the beat.

If you’re not sure how to find a song’s subdivision, start by focusing on the hi-hat. A lot of times the hi-hat functions as the subdivision pulse in the song, so that’s always a good place to start.

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

Groove and Phrasing

Once you understand the idea of subdivision, you can use it to explore and deepen your understanding of groove and phrasing.

If you listen to 99 problems, you’ll notice that it has an incredibly heavy groove. From a basic music theory perspective, this heavy feel is achieved by playing some notes right on time, some early, and some late. This pushing and pulling of the beat is what really helps you establish a killer groove.

In 99 Problems, the notes played at the beginning of the beat are played right on time, but the notes played at the end of the beat are played a little late. There is also a cowbell part which is consistently played “behind” the beat to further emphasize that rhythmic tension. Jay-Z follows suit by flowing between rapping right on the beat and rapping behind it.

Identifying these manipulations of the subdivision and how they affect the groove and phrasing has enormous implications for your own writing and playing. They are the rhythmic keys to being able to have control and intention with your music – whether you are trying to recreate 99 Problems or trying to create something that has some of the same powerful sense of groove and rhythm.

Strong Emphasis on the Tonal Center

The last thing to note about 99 Problems is how harmonically grounded the song is. Take a listen and you’ll notice how strongly it emphasizes the tonal center (a.k.a. the pitch around which our ears hear everything else in a song – the pitch “E” in the key of E minor, for instance).

How is this focus on the tonal center is accomplished? First, the entire song only uses two chords: E and D. The E chord (built on the tonal center, E) is used the most and the D chord is only used in short bursts to make the E chord stronger.

Second, the song uses a lot of space where no chord is played at all to make the E chord hit even harder. There frequently are almost entire measures of music where no chord is played at all, and this creates a sense of anticipation and openness that makes both the E and D chords feel much more powerful.

Final Thoughts

There is much more to explore in the world of theory and analysis than anyone can explain in one blog post. If you’ve found this helpful, you might find the online theory course I developed and authored with Dave Kusek to be helpful. Check out HitMusicTheory.com for more information.