Tommaso Zillio
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Writing Music Without Music Theory - Can You Do It?

Lots of people who have never taken the time to properly learn theory will try to argue that you don't actually need it to compose music. I know this because I receive these kind of comments on my posts every couple weeks. So I thought we should take some time to break down if there is any merit to this statement.

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.

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 Discourages Creativity

I get it. From an outside perspective, music theory might look to you like a huge boring waste of time. But let us go back to the tool box idea. Does a wrench restrain the creativity of an architect? I would say it would do more to speed up then slow down their creative process. The architect still gets to build the exact house they want, all that's different is they will spend less time wondering how they are going to do it.

Same goes for writing a tune. Music theory simply explains how music can be made and why certain things work well together. The choice of whether or not to use these tools, and when to use them, is completely up to you.

Music Always Comes Before Theory

Not arguing with this one. Of course music was created before theory. Just the same as shelters were made before hammers existed.

Though if you are looking to build a skyscraper (or write something a little more complex), and you don't have the right tools to do so, you will start to find that pretty challenging.

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:


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!

I Don't Need Theory To Compose By Ear

True. Almost any random person you meet would be able to hum a little tune without even knowing the meaning of pitch. Though chances are that melody will end up sounding entirely diatonic, and would probably fit over a basic I IV V progression.

If you don't even know what the rules are, it's hard to break them in a way that sounds cool. So most people who don't know much about theory will tend to stay safe with what they know. Which is most cases are diatonic sounds and chords that are relatively easy to play on guitar.

However, if this turns out to be the exact the music you want to write, then more power to you! Though you might be a little surprised later on the find many others writing with the exact same chord progression you did.

Is It Possible To Compose Without Knowing Music Theory?

Composing music without knowing theory is entirely possible. If you are lucky enough to be working with musicians that are able to transcribe what you sing, or if you are able to take the time to work out chords that sounds okay over your melodies. It is possible.

But thats almost the same as slapping together a house somehow without fully understanding how you did it. Sure it is still a house (perhaps a little wobbly one). But it probably took you longer to produce than if you had a basic understanding of what you were building. And you may have a tough time if anyone ever asked you to build that house again.

At the very least, knowing even a bit of basic theory is going to do nothing but make your life a little easier. And it really isn't as complicated as it might sound. So why not give it a chance?

@flipnota   last year
Wow, It is a really inspiring article for me. It is really encouraging for everyone to just start and put some chords on a paper!
Basic music theory is not complicated at all. It is fun and will help you.
Music is just awesome!
Joseph Lopez
@josephlopez   last year
You're totally on point Tomasso, theory is a tool that is supposed to help you compose music more efficiently instead of hindering your creativity. Most of the best stuff I've written wasn't composed with theory in mind at first, but having knowledge of the progressions and scales I used helped me a lot to arrange the other parts later, something that would definitely harder for me if I didn't know theory. I also agree with what you say about finding out that others have come up with the same chord progressions that you do. This is more likely to happen when you don't know common chord progressions and basic theory. So I encourage all musicians I discuss this with to learn as much theory as they can, transcribe and analyze, it will make you a better composer without a doubt.