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Old 06-21-2013, 04:35 PM   #1
Jake P
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Question Do I have it backward?

For the past couple of weeks, I've been attempting to write my first song on guitar. The process seems to be going alright, but I seem to be having some issues- let me elaborate. Along with at least a couple of people on this forum, I'm sure, I consider myself to be predominantly left-brained. I am quite analytical, logical, and (when at all possible) I like to do things "by the book".

This brings me to the crux of my question. When writing a song, riff, or lick, is it advisable to have theory as a starting point, or not? As much as possible, I'd like to compose my piece in a way that is as "theory-correct" as possible, such as avoiding accidentals and non-diatonic chords (a la Cobain). I'd feel much more comfortable, I think, during the process remaining conscientious of the technical aspects of theory- topics like tension, resolution, and avoid notes. Interestingly, I find that my best original riffs come when my mind is far away from theory.

Again though, I don't know if I should do this at the beginning of the process, or simply create something, and then edit it with theory in mind. Also, I feel that this would make songwriting easier for beginners like myself. I know that some of you are going to say something like, "Just be creative. Let your imagination take over." However, I would like to have a songwriting style that complements my personality and cognitive style. I do have plenty of creativity- it's simply not the predominant aspect of my personality, though.

Again, is my songwriting process of putting the theory before the music going to put me at a disadvantage? Are there any other "left-brained" musicians on the forum? If so, how do you accommodate for this when you write riffs, licks, or songs?

Thanks in advance for the guidance.

Last edited by Jake P : 06-21-2013 at 04:39 PM.
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Old 06-21-2013, 04:46 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by Jake P
I'd like to compose my piece in a way that is as "theory-correct" as possible, such as avoiding accidentals and non-diatonic chords


From this sentence I conclude that you don't know as much about 'music theory' as you think you do. If this is what you mean by 'writing with theory in mind' I suggest you forget about it.
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Old 06-21-2013, 04:55 PM   #3
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Music theory is gaining an understanding of patterns of sound by analyzing historical musical works.

The whole right/left brain theory is pop psychology. All musicians need to have that 'left-brained' side procedural learning if they want to learn their instrument. That 'right-brain' side is there too if you appreciate music.
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Old 06-21-2013, 05:22 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by Nietsche
From this sentence I conclude that you don't know as much about 'music theory' as you think you do. If this is what you mean by 'writing with theory in mind' I suggest you forget about it.

This. I had a bit of a phase where I was sort of like that. You just don't know enough theory to justify what you think is "not correct".

Don't edit things out because you think they aren't correct. Instead, try to explain with theory why they do work. Theory doesn't dictate anything, it just explains why things sound the way they do.

Also, accidentals and non-diatonic chords are ubiquitous and completely in line with basic music theory.

Last edited by sickman411 : 06-21-2013 at 05:24 PM.
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Old 06-21-2013, 05:57 PM   #5
Jake P
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Originally Posted by sickman411
This. I had a bit of a phase where I was sort of like that. You just don't know enough theory to justify what you think is "not correct".

Don't edit things out because you think they aren't correct. Instead, try to explain with theory why they do work. Theory doesn't dictate anything, it just explains why things sound the way they do.

Also, accidentals and non-diatonic chords are ubiquitous and completely in line with basic music theory.


Now that you mention it, it does seem like a good idea to be inclusive rather than exclusive. I really like your next sentence, "Theory doesn't dictate anything..."; I'll really try to keep this in mind. I know that things like accidentals and non-diatonic chords do somehow fit with theory, but I just think that, as a beginner, I should try to use more conventional methods. To me it seems that topics like these are more "advanced" topics better-suited to musicians with more experience.

Thanks for the replies, everyone!
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Old 06-21-2013, 06:12 PM   #6
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i sort of try not to think while i'm coming up with new melodic ideas. i find theory useful as a starting point when doing harmony/countermelody/stuff that isn't the melody.
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Old 06-21-2013, 06:18 PM   #7
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Think of it more as "Music Guidlines"...
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Old 06-21-2013, 06:46 PM   #8
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You don't need rules and theory knowledge to write a song. The best songs are from inspiration, that turn into an idea in the head, which are then translated to the instrument. All of this can be accomplished without knowing any theory. However, I'd say to get to the point where you can translate the song in your head to the instrument you need to have a good grasp of the instrument, and learning theory helps you get this grasp, to give you a language that you're playing.
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Last edited by Lavatain : 06-21-2013 at 06:47 PM.
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Old 06-21-2013, 06:48 PM   #9
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I'm pretty left-brained too, I've tried what you describe several times and to be honest it never ends in something good enough for me. It has always been a very frustrating process. Obviously I'm not an expert in music theory, but I do know some things.

The best songs/riffs I've ever written were completely spontaneous, I don't know enough music theory to work them into "music guidelines", often I don't even know if they're even close to a scale or if my chord progression is even "legal" musically so I just enjoy what I'm listening and stop caring.

Who knows, maybe someday I'll be able to write in that way, it does bother me not doing it right now but the reality is I can't so I just try to have the most fun I can, after all that's what playing guitar is to me.
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Old 06-21-2013, 06:51 PM   #10
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you're treating music theory as if it were etiquette rather than a guide to what sounds good and what doesn't. Everything you play will be based in theory whether you know it or not if you get what i'm saying.
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Old 06-21-2013, 07:11 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jake P
This brings me to the crux of my question. When writing a song, riff, or lick, is it advisable to have theory as a starting point, or not? As much as possible, I'd like to compose my piece in a way that is as "theory-correct" as possible, such as avoiding accidentals and non-diatonic chords (a la Cobain). I'd feel much more comfortable, I think, during the process remaining conscientious of the technical aspects of theory- topics like tension, resolution, and avoid notes. Interestingly, I find that my best original riffs come when my mind is far away from theory.


You're onto a total non-starter here. As I'm sure others have mentioned, theory is not a rulebook. Avoiding accidentals? Welcome to the world of bland musak.

You already pre-empted the answer you knew you'd get: just go with your natural creativity. This "left-brained" stuff is nonsense. It's holding you back. If you don't drop it as a conceit, you'll get nowhere.
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Old 06-21-2013, 08:32 PM   #12
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Dude just write a song. Sheesh.
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Old 06-21-2013, 11:19 PM   #13
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First, please excuse me for my lame english :v

Now, advice from someone who went through the same experience... every concept you learn theoretically, bring it to your instrument. That means, play with that concept, write etudes, see how other musicians apply that concept, learn how it sounds. If you do, you'll soon begin to see how those ideas come into your improvisation naturally. If you don't, you'll just be stocking up on theory that you can't apply.

If you keep learning and trying new things, you'll begin to UNDERSTAND the language of music, and all that theory will be common sense to you. But meanwhile, if you come up with something you don't get, try looking for the most important/prominent tones (some non diatonic chords may be just embellishments). Also, look for the cadence, cause it may tell you what the important tones are, and where you can go next.

If you really want to dig deeper into theory, I can recommend you some books/articles (some free, but still VERY good). If you just want to play basic blues or rock, maybe digging that deep is not necessary. If you are into progressive or fusion music, then learning theory is the right choice.

About my "left brained" composition approach:
I found out that I get the best results by first singing a melody (you know, they say the voice is the most direct connection to your musical ear or something like that). That often results in appealing but simple melodies (perfect for development). Then it just depends on how abstract or progressive you want to get. You can take that simple melody and create variations from theory, or improvise them. You may also try different harmonizations, or try throwing in a few accidentals here and there, or try modal interchange, or whatever. I think a good melody is the best foundation from where you can explore different theoretical ideas.

Last edited by adrian.mb : 06-21-2013 at 11:21 PM.
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Old 06-22-2013, 05:33 AM   #14
innovine
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Here's a proper left-brain approach.. instead of spending weeks on a single song, and asking the internet for how to do it, write several simpler, faster songs. Write half of these by theory, and half by intuition and what feels good. Decide empirically which approach suits you better, and what the pro's and con's of each is.
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Old 06-22-2013, 06:04 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by FrauVfromPoB
Dude just write a song. Sheesh.


Probably the best advice here. Write song. Think later.
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Old 06-23-2013, 10:50 AM   #16
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Why would you want to avoid accidentals and non-diatonic chords? I mean, write what you hear. Don't limit yourself. You need to improve your ear. And there's no such thing as writing with/without theory. The theory is there all the time. You can't write without it. You can write without knowing it of course but it's still there to explain what you have just written. And you can't really write with the help of theory because theory doesn't give you any ideas. If you know theory, you can just explain all the things you have written.

Try not to think with your fingers. Try to think about the sound you want to achieve. I sometimes just get inspired and write a song. But I need inspiration to do it. If you already have an idea, listen to it. What should come next? You might not be able to figure it out today. Sometimes writing a song takes a long time and sometimes you write a song in 30 minutes.

Don't only write guitar parts. They alone sound boring, you also need other instruments to make it really sound good.

Also don't force yourself to write songs. If you think too much about it, nothing's going to come to your mind.
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