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

the power of limitations in songwriting

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

Limitations Are Prompts

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

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

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

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

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

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

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

Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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 ( 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

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 for more information.
Now go write some killer songs!

Become a better songwriter: By Daniel Roberts