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 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

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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

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 – 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 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”

By Daniel Roberts

two ways to become a more confident musician with music theory

Confidence building can be a real challenge for many musicians. There are so many great musicians out there, that seeing the value of your own work can be very challenging. Thankfully, there are ways to relatively quickly and effectively become a more confident musician by building your competence in basic music theory. Here are two starting points you can work from.

Know the Groove

The power of groove cannot be understated. If your groove is deep, you can play almost anything and people will dance. The key to understanding groove (in a theoretical sense) lies in subdivision and repeated rhythmic motifs.

“Subdivision” describes how the beat is broken up. Listen to hi-hat parts, rhythm guitar parts, and anything else in rhythm sections that is repetitive to figure out the subdivision and focus in on the shortest rhythm you hear. So, if the shortest rhythm is made up of eighth notes, for instance, the subdivision will be eighth notes. Once the subdivision has been established, you can play certain notes early, some late, and some right on time to add interest. This creates the basic context for a groove.

A rhythmic motif is a short musical rhythm that is used repeatedly in a rhythm instrument’s part. The backbeat of a snare drum and the strumming pattern in a rhythm guitar are both examples of rhythmic motifs. Every hit song you have ever loved is full of these small motifs which are repeated, transformed, and adapted throughout the whole song and arrangement.

Once you understand subdivision and rhythmic motifs, you can learn, create, and manipulate an almost endless amount of grooves. All you have to do is make up a motif and play around with its underlying subdivision. Try moving these motifs around in a song to see how they can be developed and expanded upon.

I know it seems simple, but a strong groove is the backbone of any hit song.

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

Know Chord Functions

The other fundamental music theory concept that can help you become a more confident musician is to learn basic chord functions. In most professional band contexts, the players can hear the functions of chords just by listening to the music. This makes it much easier to find or create their parts in a song. Imagine just listening to a song and being able to tell right away which chords are being used!

It turns out that you do not have to have a gift or even perfect pitch to be able to do this. It’s actually a skill you can develop – just like riding a bike. All you have to do is know the key you are in and the seven notes that make up that key. Once you have identified them, start listening to the bass part and name, as best you can, which notes from the scale are being played. In the vast majority of hit songs today, the bass part is made up of the pitches each chord is built on. These pitches are called “root notes” and they give chords their letters. For instance, “A” is the root note in an “A-” (A minor) chord.

At the beginning, it is often helpful to check your guesses about which notes are used in the bass part by playing them on your instrument. As you practice this, you will start to hear each note in the scale as having its own distinct sound and it will become easier and easier to identify the chords built on these notes.

As your skill improves, you can then begin to name the function of chords with numbers or roman numerals. For example, the chord built on the first note in the scale will be a “1” or an “I” and the chord built on the sixth note in a scale will be called a “6” or “vi”. This is how session musicians in places like Nashville can pump out great studio performances in no time – someone just gives them the chord changes using numbers (in Nashville it’s called the Nashville Number System), someone tells them what key to play in, and they go play the song. A single session musician (having never even heard the song before) can be done recording their parts for a song in fifteen minutes or less using this approach.

Every musician can learn to do this. All you need is to make it your regular practice to listen to bass lines and start identifying the root notes of each chord. The better you get at this, the more confidence you will have the next time you walk into a writing room, recording session, rehearsal, or live performance.

Final Thoughts

No blog post can ever fully explain these concepts as well as taking lessons or a class can. If you would like to explore any of these concepts further, consider checking out where I go into these concepts and much more in greater detail and with specific examples from the world of hit songs.