How to Apply Music Theory to Your Songwriting

By | October 6, 2016
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Music theory knowledge gives you more control over your songwriting, but sometimes it’s difficult for songwriters to figure out how to view their songs from a technical perspective in a way that supports their creativity. In this article, we’ll explore all the major aspects of music theory and give you the tools you need to strengthen your songwriting.

Study other songs

One of the best ways to learn the language of music is by studying other songs. You can improve your craft by learning the tricks and techniques of professional songwriters. When you analyze songs, you’ll want to listen through them at least a couple of times so that you can focus in on each aspect, such as the chord progression, the melody, or the lyrics.

[Be sure to check out our hook-writing webinar on October 22, 2016, to learn the techniques hit songwriters use every day to write strong, catchy hooks!]


Do you know your way around your instrument enough to play scales? Scales are the sets of musical notes that chords progressions are built off of, and you need to be familiar with them to write melodies.

There are major, minor, and many other scales to help you get creative with your songwriting. For more technically advanced songwriters, modes are a great way to add interest to your songwriting. Each sequential note, or scale degree, has a specific function and evokes a certain response from the listener. Since each scale has its own unique sound, try using a scale that relates to the mood of your song concept to write your next melody.

[How to Create Specific Emotions With Chords]


You can use your knowledge of harmonic theory to figure out which chords work well with others in any given key. In the key of C, for instance, the chord family consists of C, D minor, E minor, F, G7, A minor, and B diminished. Start there, and the next step is to put them into a progression.

You can imitate a chord progression from a song that you like, or you can create your own on your instrument. Each chord in the diatonic chord family has its own function. For example, the I chord is called the tonic (stable), the IV chord is called the subdominant (usually resolves to the dominant), and the V chord is called the dominant (creates a feeling of movement). Try your own order of the chords and see what resonates most with you.

After getting comfortable with the different chords and organizing them into progressions, it’s time to make those chords a little fancier. Try different voicings or versions of your chords. Chord inversions are a great tool to find new sounds for chords that you already know how to play. You can rearrange the notes in the chords to make your melody stand out in the song.


Knowing how to transpose songs into different keys is a great tool for any musician, but especially for singer-songwriters. Experiment with transposition to see which key works best for the particular song and how each one sits in your vocal range.

If you’re new to transposing and want to learn the basics of how to do it, this article from EarMaster lays the process out very clearly.


Register for our hook-writing webinar to learn the proven formulas and songwriting tools you need to write strong hooks every time!


Joe Capalbo is an intern for SongwriterLink.

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