Writing Music Without Music Theory: Is It Possible?

Author: Tommaso Zillio

Author: Tommaso Zillio

Every other week or so I will get a comment on one of my articles or pages that argues that players do not require music theory in order to write music. And honestly, I do agree with this statement to a certain extent, but without any further explanation, it can be quite misleading.

It may sound like the whole point of the article has been revealed already, however there is plenty more to discuss and much more to be learned. Especially if you are wanting to know more about composition and theory.

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What people often get confused about all of this is that music theory is not made of rules, rather it is simply a set of tools that can be used or not.

I like to compare music theory to a box of tools. In this box you will generally find a wrench, a hammer, and so on. Perhaps you have some electric tools as well. All of which can be used to build a house (or say, build a chord progression, or write a song)

With this comparison, writing music without theory is like you are trying to build a house without proper tools. Instead you do what you can to find other methods to make it work, such as picking up a near by rock to hammer a nail in. It is definitely possible, but perhaps not the most efficient.

While it would be pretty amazing to watch someone try to go their whole life building houses without ever using actual tools, I think I will continue to use the tools that I have and that I know work well.

This isn’t where the discussion ends though. I know there are probably still many objections to this statement, so lets look into a few.

"Music Theory And Creativity Do Not Go Together"

I understand where this statement comes from, but just try to think of the theory = tools concept. Would you say a hammer stifles a constructions workers creativity? The construction worker is still free to build a house in any way they see fit (5 floors, 3 floors, balcony, no balcony). These tools actually help them to build more freely without having to waste time wondering, "Hmm, how am I going to stick these two pieces of wood together?"

Often times, the people who find music theory to be stifling are the ones that use theory as a crutch instead of a tool. Theory isn’t there to tell you what you can and cannot compose. It only explains how music works and how to achieve certain sounds if you so choose to use it.

"Music Before Theory. Always."

For sure, people started making music before anyone really took the time to understand what they were doing. All music came first from a few claps of the hand and singing a little melody. Just like all sky scrapers came from a hut made out of sticks.

But if you are looking to dream a little bigger, and build that sky scraper (or write a full orchestral piece, or even a hit song for the radio), you are going to need to learn a little more about your craft.

"I Can Put Together A Chord Progression Without Music Theory"

If you too are having a tough time believing that I get these comments, take a look at the screenshot for yourself:

Theory Comment.jpg

If this sounds like something you’ve said or heard, then in short: Chords and chord progression are in fact music theory. What often gets people thinking this is the notion that music theory is this difficult and convoluted thing. However, almost every musical thing we do comes from theory, whether we are talking sales, pitches, notes, and yes. Chord progressions.

As with most things, you can choose to delve deeper into the more advanced side of music theory. Just as you can choose more high tech tools to build something bigger and better. Looking to write your first song to share with some friends? Then a few basic tools should be enough. Looking to compose for a classical chamber orchestra? You might want to expand that tool box a little.

No matter how big or small your aspirations might be, you need to start with, at the very least, a basic set of tools. You can’t build something out of nothing!

That original posted comment actually went on to say "Chords do not require theory, as they are simply 3 notes played together", which would probably be the first thing you would read if you opened a theory book. Enough said!

"People Compose By Ear Without Theory All The Time"

This is another one that is not technically a wrong statement. You could probably find any random person on the street to hum a melody for you. That melody would probably end up sounding diatonic and could be harmonized with a basic I V IV chord progression.

If you aren’t familiar with music theory, chances are the music that you create is going to sound like most of the music that other people in the same boat are creating. It will probably sound diatonic, using the few set of chords you’ve taught yourself.

But perhaps this is just the kind of music you are hoping to write, in which case thats great! However, just don’t be surprised when you hear someone who also hasn’t learned theory using the very same chord progression you did.

Do I Need Theory To Compose?

You technically do not. If you have the time to play around with sounds and find chords that fit over top your melody lines, and if you find a band who also has the time to figure out what you are playing without you being able to explain it to them, then you could get by without actually understanding theory.

Though that’s kind of like someone building an entire house without actually knowing what they were doing. First off, you might not trust living in that house very much. But also it probably took them a lot longer to do than if they had some basic knowledge.

At minimum, knowing a bit of theory is going to help you to create a little faster and more efficiently. It also helps you to think of new ideas you have never considered before, and so on and so on. Don’t knock it till you try it!

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher. Visit Tommaso’s site to know more about music theory for guitar and visit his YouTube channel for more videos

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