3 Hit Songwriting Techniques (That are Actually Music Theory)

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.

Become a Better Songwriter – How Music Theory can Help You Write Better Songs

Become a better songwriter

Songwriting is often a mysterious, transcendental experience when it is going well. It can also be one of the most challenging and frustrating creative experiences in music. Often, songwriting seems almost like a spiritual place we must magically arrive at through some sort of weird set of unexpected and inspirational circumstances – but it is also a craft that can be learned and improved on by building the skills to catch the inspiration when it hits and to create inspiration when it seems far away.

Understanding and being able to apply music theory is enormously helpful in this process and can help you become a better songwriter. Here are a few of the big ways it can help.

Find the Best Chord for Your Song

How many times have you sat down, written inspired lyrics, strummed the first chord, started to sing and then found it impossible to find the next chord you hear in your head? Music theory can save you in this situation by helping you learn to name and identify what you hear in your head so that it is easier to find the right chord.

A major aspect of music theory is describing the way a chord functions inside a key – or how it interacts with all the other notes and chords. By developing your ear to hear these functions, you can learn to identify what you hear in your head and, in turn, play it on your instrument. You can also find great inspiration and ideas this way by thinking about which chords or chord functions you haven’t used as much and beginning with them when you write a new song.

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

Find the Strongest Pitches for Your Melodies

There is never a substitute for singing as a way to create melodies, but after singing melodies for a while, you may find yourself becoming stuck and not being able to find a new melody that seems “right”. One of the best ways to address this and to become a better songwriter is to understand how melodies fit inside chords.

Without often realizing it, we usually sing melodies made up of notes that come directly from the chords we play. Learning music theory provides a way to identify and describe the way we hear a melody and expand on it. For instance, you might find that a lot of your melodies come from the notes in the first chord of a scale. If that is the case, you can expand your melodic ideas by building melodies from notes in other chords in your song. Exploring theory intentionally like this can open up a huge range of melodic options that work well.

Find the Most Exciting Rhythms for Your Band

Great chords and great melodies often aren’t worth a thing until the groove being played underneath them makes people want to dance. Finding this groove depends on your understanding of rhythm – and music theory can help you with that too.

Think about how you feel the beat underneath your song. How is it broken up? Are the rhythms you’re playing built out of eighth notes? Sixteenth notes? Triplets? How much space is there? Does it feel very even and straight or does it feel laid back like a heavy hip-hop groove? These are all rhythmic concepts explored in theory as well. Knowing how to identify and talk about them will give you all the power you need to write and communicate what you want to your band and help them play with a powerful groove that supports your song.

Final Thoughts

There is so much more to theory and what it can do to help you become a better songwriter than can be said in a single blog post, which is why we created HIT Music Theory. If you would like to delve deeper into these concepts, check out HITMusicTheory.com for more information.
Now go write some killer songs!

Become a better songwriter: By Daniel Roberts

Discover the Music Theory Secrets You Missed as a Kid

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

Expand Your Repertoire

Expand Your Repertoire

So here you are again. Sitting with your instrument trying to learn or create another song – but the process is taking forever! Every new song you learn or write feels like starting from square one with a totally blank slate. What can you do? Well as it turns out, theory can be a huge help in this situation. Here are three reasons theory can help you expand your repertoire.

Name the Sounds You Already Use

Theory is, the final analysis, a naming convention. Beyond all its talk about “rules” and “concepts” is a basic foundation of naming sounds. We name and describe intervals, chords, scales, tonalities, rhythms, motifs, hooks, melodies, textures, dynamics, phrases, and everything else under the musical sun. All of these names and descriptions just help us remember and intentionally use specific sounds.

Since theory is a naming convention, are you naming what you play? Are you aware of the function of the chords you are playing? What about the key or tonality you are in? Can you describe the primary rhythmic components you are using? What motifs is this song built on? What is the form of the piece? The more you can clearly identify and name the sounds you already use, the easier it will be to recognize and play them in new music.

Discover New Sounds That Are Exciting to You

In addition to learning new songs with greater ease, digging into theory will help you discover new sounds that are exciting to you and expand your repertoire. A new sound with its own name is invaluable when you are trying to grow musically. We often get stuck feeling like we can’t come up with new ideas because we don’t have a way to think outside of the old ones. Discovering new sounds with their own names breaks us out of our old musical ideas and can make our creative options explode.

Do you use major chords all the time? Consider learning about minor chords. Do you use 7th chords all the time? Consider learning about chord extensions. Do you use a 16th note subdivision when you create strumming patterns? Try using an 8th note subdivision instead. There are always new sounds to be discovered, named and used. You just have to seek them out and use them.

See Inside Hit Songs and How They Work

Discover the Similarities Between Songs

The more you can name what you are playing, the easier it will become to hear, name and manipulate those sounds in your music. This becomes enormously helpful when you are trying to learn a ton of songs. Consider how many blues tunes use the same three chords! Knowing this makes learning blues tunes much easier. The same is true of any other style of music.

As you internalize and use theory more deeply in your creative work, learning or writing new music will become easier and easier. New songs will begin to sound like music you already know in a rearranged form, and pretty soon your repertoire will grow much more easily and effortlessly each time you sit down to work on it.

Expand Your Repertoire by Daniel Roberts

For more like this visit http://hitmusictheory.com

Get the Music out of your Head and onto Paper

Get the music out of your head and onto paper

We all have found ourselves hearing something in our head that sounds so fantastic that we have to play it and get it down on paper. However, once we find ourselves there, the next step of actually writing down what we are hearing often becomes too frustrating to accomplish – and then as we sit there in front of the paper being frustrated, the music we hear disappears into the ether. Thankfully, there are ways you can learn to get the music out of your head and make this process easier – even seamless. Here are a few of the key points to focus on while developing this skill.

Sing what is in your head

There are many reasons for every musician to sing, but one of the most compelling for me has always been the power singing has to develop what “we in the business” call “big ears” – the ability to hear, identify and play whatever you want to hear.

Singing has a way of checking whether we hear things accurately. Often, what we don’t actually hear what is in our heads as clearly as we think we do. Singing reveals this. If you can’t sing it, you can’t hear it. You might find singing uncomfortable at first, so feel free to find some space to practice this where no one can hear you. Don’t worry about singing with good tone or anything. Just hit the pitches you are trying to hear.


Give pitches names

To help identify the pitches you are singing, give each of them a name. Most musicians who study music in school do this by using solfege (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) or scale degrees (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). The most important thing to remember when using these systems is to keep using them. As a melody passes by, just sing it with these syllables as best you can. If you discover later that you used the wrong syllables, you will know your ear is improving.

As you get comfortable with this approach, it will get easier and easier to know what note you are singing at any one time. Pretty soon, simple melodies will become easy to write down because you will clearly be able to hear and identify them.

Sing every part you hear in recordings

You will probably find that certain parts of music are easier for you to hear than others. Some musicians hear melodies more clearly than bass lines. Others hear harmony lines easier than melodies. Choir members often most naturally hear the parts that they sing the most. Be honest with what you hear best and be sure to spend time singing whatever you need to hear more accurately. Bass lines and melodies are often a great place to start because they often frame how we hear everything else. After that, learn to identify and sing all the pitches in harmony lines, chords, riffs, solos and any other extraneous musical parts you hear.

Write down something you hear every day

This last point is pretty simple, but very important. Often the reasons we can’t write down what we hear is simply because we never work on it. When it comes right down to it, this is often because we don’t like facing the fact that we are still bad at it. News flash: You will always be terrible if you never practice. In fact – that is the best way to ensure being terrible. The time to start is now. Give yourself a safe, quiet space to write and do it. Every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Just write something.

Get the music out of your head: by Daniel Roberts

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

Break Out of Your Old Habits

Break Out of Your Old Habits

One of the greatest challenges any musician faces is the plateau. We all know what it is like. You finally start regularly practicing, you make some strong progress with a few things that you always wanted to learn, and then all of a sudden…you stop improving. Every time you sit down to play, nothing new seems to come out. Try as you will, each practice session starts to feel more and more repetitive, mindless – and definitely not useful.

As it turns out, there some great ways to free yourself from this horror. The approaches vary widely, but there are always four basic principles that all of these ways have in common.

Identify and Name What You Are Playing

The first step is always name what you are doing. Are you using a particular scale? A certain set of chords? Do you come back to the same rhythms all the time? Can you name these scales, chords or rhythms? This can be very challenging because it requires stopping, thinking, and doing some honest reflection.

You may need to look up some concepts or find some lessons if you don’t know how to name what you are doing. In the beginning, if you don’t know where to turn, lessons or classes with a qualified teacher can help steer you in the right direction.

Stop Playing What You Identified

This can be the hardest step. It feels good to play things we know because we get a sense of immediate gratification from it, but remember – the goal is to grow. I find the best approach is to start designating a small amount of practice time each day where you do not allow yourself to repeat anything you already know how to play. As you start to practice this way each day, slowly increase the amount of time that you designate for not playing anything you already know.

Eventually, your entire practice routine should consist only of working on what you do not know how to play yet. Why? Because that is the point of practice. To learn something you do not know how to do yet.

Regularly Explore New Techniques or Concepts

As you are developing this practice, make sure you always have something new to focus on during these practice sessions. It can be a technique, a theory concept, a performance approach, anything. Just make sure you are regularly finding these concepts and working on applying them.

An excellent resource for concepts, techniques and performance approaches are music courses. They can be online or in person – whatever motivates you the most. They are often the most useful because they typically organize new ideas in an order that is manageable for your practice sessions.

Slow Down

Finally, once you have created the space in your practice time for new ideas and have found a good set of them to work on, slow down and be patient with yourself. New ideas and techniques are always challenging to learn – but they will never sink in unless you let yourself learn at the pace that you can really take them in. You might even consider taking some time to regularly practice more slowly than you think is required for you to learn well. It is often in that slower practice time that what it really means to master something becomes clear.

Final Thoughts

That’s it! Name what you are doing, stop doing it, find something new to learn, and then slow down and be patient with yourself. In music, as in all creative work, it is always more about the process and the journey than the destination. No one ever arrives and everyone is always looking over the horizon for the next wonderful, creative idea to explore. Now get to it and have fun!

Break Out of Your Old Habits By Daniel Roberts