How To Apply Music Theory In Writing Songs

By Bob Reno

Have you written songs, or have you tried to write songs? When I say “songs,” I mean music with or without words.

Everyone is creative, and some of us express our creativity by writing music. If you are someone who writes music, or wants to write music, you have an unexplainable desire to express your creativity through music.

But many of you, while having this urge to create music, don’t know how to go about making it a reality. You have no trouble getting musical ideas. You hear music in your mind, or you accidentally play a nice chord progression on your guitar or keyboard. However, you can’t seem to turn your ideas into a real song.

I have taught many people, over many years, music theory and music composition. Some of them play the guitar and sing; some play the piano and sing. They sing their tune and harmonize it with their instrument.


Whether you realize it or not, most music is based on harmony. Some people have a natural understanding of harmony. But most people don’t get very far writing their songs because they don’t understand harmony. To put it another way, they lack an understanding of music theory. Natural ability is a great way to start, but if you want to succeed in writing songs, you must learn music theory.

Some of my students argue that there are many famous musicians that don’t understand music theory. That may be true. Some people are lucky enough, or have enough natural ability to get by without having to learn music theory. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re probably not one of them.

I have enough music-teaching experience to know that most people who want to write music, but don’t bother to learn music theory, never even finish one song! Furthermore, by learning music theory, many more creative opportunities will come your way.

Writing music is subjective. I can’t tell you a right or a wrong way to do it. Every song seems to present its own set of problems and possibilities. If you’re a songwriter and you have an idea, it is your job to solve the musical problems of your idea, while discovering its possibilities.

Let’s say you want to be a cabinetmaker. It’s obvious that cabinets need doors. But what if you don’t have the right tools to build your cabinet. Or what if you don’t know how to install hinges for the doors? As a songwriter, then, you might have an idea, but if you don’t have the right tools, you’ll never be able to “build” your song, and you’ll never be able to discover the creative tendencies of your idea.

Do you get my point? If so, you don’t have to wait to learn everything about music theory to start writing music. Start writing music now, and be disciplined about it. But at the same time, make the effort to learn music theory. If you do, you may not become the next famous songwriter. But I guarantee you that there is no amount of fame worth the joy you will receive from seeing your musical idea go from nothing to a completed song!

About the Author: Bob Reno is a composer, arranger, teacher, and author of Materials of Music (

), a university-level music theory text. You can read more by him at Learning and Loving Music Theory (



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