“If I’m a pop/rock songwriter, should I still learn about music theory?”

Guest writers are always welcome to contribute to “Ask OP” as we value the diversity of perspectives and experiences and aim to make this section of the site as valuable and interesting as possible. We are proud to welcome Greg Daulton for this post. Originally a self-described “metal guy” from Oakland, Greg hadn’t studied any theory before attending Berklee College of Music, where “having to play catch-up” forced him to find “practical application of the techniques and theory studied,” which in turn influenced his philosophy as an educator. At Berklee, he completed an honors degree in film scoring. Currently Greg lives in Orange County and is the founder of The Rock Band Experience, a program where students form bands, write and perform original music. Greg is also the author of “The Complete Guide to Modern Songwriting.” He can be reached by email for more information about his projects.

One question I get asked all the time from aspiring musicians and students is:

“If I’m going to be a rock/pop star why do I need to know music theory?”

While the mention of music theory may seem intimidating to the emerging musician, it doesn’t necessary refer to the studies of fugue or species counterpoint. True, countless bands have put out tons of great music with little to no formal education but the techniques employed by these artists generally DO tend to follow the concepts studied in music theory whether they know it or not. No matter what instrument you play, understanding and applying theory can help you and your bandmates sound better.

Johnny Cash once said, “There’s no money past the third fret.” However, guitarists who can spell and construct chords will discover that the same shapes found in open chords may be played anywhere on the fretboard. This broadens the guitarist’s palette by facilitating different voicings in different registers and it also enables branching out beyond the common keys of “A”, “C”, “D”, “E” and “G”, providing a good weapon against songwriter’s block.

Understanding the characteristic sound and construction of scales and being fluent with them can help guitarists, keyboardists and bassists elaborate on musical ideas when playing lead or accompanying melodies. By understanding the relationship of diatonic notes to non-diatonic notes, musicians acquire the ability to create tension and release, add dissonance and make their ideas more vibrant.

Do drummers get a free pass from learning theory? Absolutely not! At the very least, a good drummer understands song form and can set up choruses, pre-choruses and other sections appropriately. Understanding beat placement and subdivisions is also important; supposedly Pete Best’s inability to play anything other than quarter notes on his bass drum was one of the reasons he was fired from the Beatles. Good drummers are adept with, or at least have an understanding of, odd times and polyrhythms; many working cover bands play songs such as Pink Floyd’s “Money” (7/4 time) and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (3/4 over 4/4). In the Doors’ “Light My Fire”, drummer John Densmore accents organist Ray Manzarek’s solo with some polyrhythmic figures, helping to build excitement. Lastly, remember that since drummers are often the butt of musician jokes (“how do you know when the stage is level? The drool comes out of both sides of the drummer’s mouth”) you can do your percussionist brothers and sisters proud by mastering theory and out-geeking your lead guitarist.

Each instrumentalist has their own contribution to make to the group’s collective sound: the bass line connects the drum beat and the harmony while the harmony connects the rhythm section to the melodic lines. Players who understand the inner workings of music can help their band break away from the traditional formulas of pop and rock and help create memorable exciting music that stands out from the masses.