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.



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  1. […] 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 […]

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