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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

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. 

Voice-Leading

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

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

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.

3 Steps to Improve Your Musical Ear

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

Two Ways to Become a More Confident Musician Using Theory

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 HitMusicTheory.com where I go into these concepts and much more in greater detail and with specific examples from the world of hit songs.

Improve Your Live Performance and Jams With Music Theory

Improve your live performance and jams with music theory

So it’s happened again. You’re walking out of rehearsal frustrated with your live performance and the sound your band is getting. Nothing seems to be clicking – and musically speaking, everything seems like a mess. When you try to figure out what might help, no one can figure out how to solve the problem. You try to jamming for a while to see if any ideas can pop up – but every jam sounds like the last one and nothing new is happening. What can you do?! You can turn to music theory to save the day! Here are three ways theory can help you address these situations.

Create New Chords and Chord Progressions

There’s a reason there are so many songs that have the same chord progression. Besides the fact that certain chord progressions always seem to sound good, many songwriters just never take the time to discover new ones.

Knowing a little music theory can help you create new chords and chord progressions. All chords are related to each other in some way – usually through a key. Knowing which chords fit in which keys can help you recognize the chord progressions you have been playing and create new ones.

Often, this process is awkward at first because new chords and chord progressions are not always so easy to play right off the bat – but the process is always worth it, and it will have a big effect on your live performance. Give yourself the time to regularly go through the awkwardness and you will be pleasantly surprised with the music that starts coming out.


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


Create New Musical Statements

Melodies, hooks, and riffs are all made up of “motifs” – a term for a musical idea built from a set of melodic intervals played with a particular rhythm. Motifs are everywhere in music. They make up every melody you sing, every riff you have ever played, and every hook that has ever demanded attention from your ear.

Learning to identify the intervals and rhythms you already use in your motifs can help you intentionally create new hooks, riffs and melodies by thoughtfully altering the motifs you know. You don’t have to create new ideas from thin air – nobody does that anyway. All you need to do is recognize the motifs you already are using and alter them until they become a new statement.

Create Space for Each Instrument

Once you have created a new chord progression and a new musical statement, you still need your band to use them effectively. Understanding register (how high or low the notes you play are) and voice leading (how you want pitches to move between chords) can help enormously by helping you communicate the musical space you want each band member to stay in.

For instance, when thinking about register, you may want the bass player to stay in a low octave around C2 and then have the keyboardist only play within the two octaves surrounding middle C. After that, you might want the guitarist to only play an octave above the keyboardist. Just defining the register each instrument should play within can do wonders for your band’s arrangement of any song.

To make each part even stronger, each musician can also make their parts much more compelling by being intentional about how they move between each chord. This is called “voice leading” and it is often used to make chord progressions sound as smooth as possible.

Final Thoughts

There are many more ways that understanding music theory can help improve your live performance and jams. The possibilities are endless! If you would like to learn more about music theory, consider checking out HITMusicTheory.com.

By Daniel Roberts