3 Easy Music Theory Tips to Improve Your Music

Kodi Vonn

We’ve all heard that you have to know the rules before you can break them. So why not learn a little something that can make you a better artist?

There’s a definite science/math to creating music. There’s a reason some songs stick to your brain and why you can hum a tune years after it’s faded into memory. Rappers, singers, producers, songwriters, and engineers can all benefit from knowing a little more about the science that birthed their creative fields.

Scales

There are 12 major and 24 minor scales. Scales are important because they arrange the 12 notes of music into groups of notes that “go together”. For the uninitiated, a scale is an octave, or eight notes. While it’s helpful to know them all (it’s like having a garage full of tools as opposed to a single hammer), knowing the most popular ones provides a solid foundation.

Takeaway tip: major scales sound “happier” and minor scales are more solemn or sad.

According to Spotify, the most popular keys on their platform are G major and C major. This makes sense because they are the two easiest scales to play (i.e. if you look at a piano, C major includes no black keys and G major has one). The most popular minor scale on Spotify is A minor (again, a scale with no black keys).

Popular C major songs include “Some Nights” by fun. and “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. G major songs include “Come As You Are” by Nirvana and “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. Songs written in A minor include “Gucci Gang” by Lil Pump and “Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift. So as you can see, a major scale can still house a song that’s sad, and vice versa.

It’s also key (*wink wink*) to remember that C major and A minor are like two sides of the same coin — neither have sharps or flats (black keys) but begin and end on different notes. When you’re struggling to develop a melody or chorus, use scales to see what other notes in that grouping would fit your sound.

For producers, music theory expert, Robert Joffred explains, “Because there are no sharps or flats in C major/A minor it is very easy for someone who is not versed in music theory to program out in a DAW like Ableton or FL Studio.”

Arpeggios

If you’ve ever watched Disney’s Aristocats, you have a passing familiarity with arpeggios (it comes from an Italian word meaning “to play on a harp”).

They’re simply chords broken down into individual notes and played in ascending or descending order. Arpeggios are great for developing catchy melodies and harmonies.

According to Guitar World, “Arpeggios always sound good over their matching chord in a progression, therefore, they generally form the melodic home bases and safe notes for improvising guitarists.”

Arpeggios allow you to “jump” notes in a scale, but still make something that sounds like it fits together. “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers and “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin are famous songs with arpeggios (this chat board names some good ones too).

Tempo

If you’ve heard the advice to hum the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” while performing CPR/chest compressions, it’s because the song’s 103 BPM (beats per minute) is closest to the human heart’s 100 BPM (most people fall between 60 and 100 BPM). Also, it’s a catchy song.

Tempo is the pace of a song, for every beat of the tempo there’s a note. This is incredibly important for musicians (producers and engineers especially) because a song needs to maintain a tempo to make sense. Of course, there are deviations, but knowing your song’s tempo gives you something to build from.

For example, Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” is 150 BPM, and you can feel it in the driving beat under his lyrics. Now think about Ed Sheeran’s slow and warm “Shape Of You”, which clocks in at 96 BPM. Once you’ve got the feel for your own tempo, you can play with switching it up — like Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

Secrets of Songwriting also provides some cool examples of tempo changesbetween the recorded and live versions of a song — and how the same song can feel different with different tempos. This chat board also provides the average tempos for most genres of music, to get you started.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a reason Prince made such amazing music and could play dozens of instruments. Music theory is the key to a larger world of music creation.