Music Theory Offers "Options," Not "Rules"

(Image credit: Cindy Moorhead)

In my previous column, I briefly touched upon how polarizing the topic of music theory can be for some musicians.

I described it as being a false choice, a line in the sand between the ardent supporters of theory and those who believe it's a hindrance to the creative process.

I say this is a false choice because it is not a cut-and-dry issue. Depending on your perspective, music theory can be thought of as a rule book or a road map. I prefer the latter.

The main benefit in treating music theory like a road map is that it can alleviate the perceived burden it holds over creativity. In this context, music theory offers us various options, not fixed rules.

We can now envision the process of songwriting as if we are driving on a main road or highway. Knowing even a little bit of theory will allow us to better navigate the ride. If we want to take detours, perhaps shift the tonal center in a given progression, then we know there are proven methods (reliable off-ramps) that can make the transition seem more deliberate and less random.

The subject of altering the tonic (root) chord in a given progression is of particular importance. Before understanding theory, I used to think that dramatic shifts in musical keys were truly an example of "outside the box" thinking. I still believe this, but I was also surprised to find out how much of these abrupt movements were explainable by certain precepts of music theory.

Transitions from one musical mood to another can be the most challenging component of writing a good song. If hastily constructed, some transitions will sound too indiscriminate and can upset the fluidity of the entire piece. For some listeners, this randomness can add an interesting and unexpected dimension.

But what if you want your transitions to sound smoother? Luckily, you have some alternate routes if you know how to read your road map. Changing from a major progression to its relative minor is one path that can yield a "best of both worlds" result. This clearly alters the mood and vibe of the entire song, yet it is still pleasing to the ears because no outside notes are being introduced into the equation. The alteration occurs within the boundaries of the same seven notes. (Check out my two-part column, "Knowing 'a Ton of Scales' Made Simple," for more clarification.)

However, this approach might be too predictable for your ears and you might instead want to introduce a chord that does not belong to a given diatonic progression. A common option is a secondary dominant chord. If we follow the "guidelines" of a diatonic chord progression, the V chord is what is known as dominant. A dominant chord usually gives the impression that it wants to resolve to the tonic (root) chord and is built upon the foundation of a major triad with an added flat or minor 7th.

So, logically, whenever we play a dominant chord during our progression, it's going to tell our ears that it wants to go back to the tonic chord (or a perfect 5th interval below its position). So what happens if we throw in a dominant chord that is out of place? By "out of place," I mean it's no longer the V chord, but instead, it's now the ii chord (for example).

In a major progression, the ii chord is usually minor. If we swap out this minor chord for a dominant chord, that dominant will gravitate toward another chord aside from our established tonic note.

Depending on how long we sit on this secondary dominant, we can totally reshape our listeners' perception of the tonal center. If this hypothetical progression started out in the key of "G" major, then the secondary dominant in place of the ii chord can shift our attention to the key of "D" major.

These are just two ways in which you can surprise your listener in a clever and creative way. You could also utilize the circle of 5ths to modulate your progressions, or you can dabble in the more advanced concepts of jazz chord substitutions.

The point is, there really are no right or wrong ways in the world of music theory. Just suggested paths. You don't have to do any of these things. You might even want to try your own thing and see where it takes your song. But wouldn't it be nice to have all of your options laid out for you in a logical manner? This is what music theory offers. Not a restrained way of thinking, but a plethora of potential scenarios where your music can flow seamlessly from section to section—or stagger unexpectedly.

Going back to the driving analogy, it's like having a GPS system built inside your head. You're no longer driving blind, afraid of getting too lost in your own creation. You know when you can diverge from the main road, and when to get back on, all without going too far off course.

Chris Breen is a New Jersey-based guitarist with 14 years of experience under his belt. He, along with his brother Jon (on drums) started the two-piece metal project known as SCARSIC in 2011. Due to a lack of members, Chris tracked guitars, bass and vocals for their self titled four-song demo (available on iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody). They have recently been joined by bassist Bill Loucas and are writing new material. Chris also is part of an all-acoustic side project known as Eyes Turn Stone. Chris teaches guitar lessons as well (in person or via Skype). If you're interested in taking lessons with Chris, visit for more info.

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