When working with songwriters, I frequently use a principle that I call “Direct or Indirect”. Or I call it “Going Forwards or Going Backwards”. When a client writes a song and brings it in to show me, I’ll ask them “what key is your song in?” Sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t. I don’t think it’s necessary to understand theory in order to create a killer song, but I think it’s a great benefit. If you understand a little about chord harmony, you can learn a lot about how your favorite artists write songs. You can discover chord progressions you like and even things you don’t like.
Now, let’s talk about the two approaches. When someone’s got a completed song and we set out to analyze it (figure out what key it’s in, learn what the chord progression is etc.) I call it “Indirect or Going Backwards”. The other approach, which I offer, is to “Go Forwards” or “Direct”. This is where I give some specific boundaries to stay within. I may say, “Write a two part song. Part one must use a chord progression in the key of A minor. The second part must be a riff using an E minor pentatonic scale.” This is how we “Go Forwards or Direct”.
Ultimately, I would like to think that you want to have the theory side of your brain working with the creative side, instead of doing one or the other. That’s when the really fantastic creative moments surface.
So here’s what I’d like you to do. Try both approaches. Go “Indirect/Backwards”: write a song now. Don’t think about any theory, just create something that sounds cool to you. Then when you are done, analyze it by figuring out what key it’s in, what the chord progression is etc. Tomorrow, go “Direct/ Forwards”: choose a key or scale to use before you start. Create your chord progressions or riffs using those pre-selected keys or scales.
Is that enough information for you? Ok, now go for it and have fun creating some new ideas!
Looking for some great songwriting ideas? Check out these video lessons.