Is It Possible To Compose Without Knowing Music Theory?

Has anyone ever tried to tell you that you do not need to learn music theory to write a song? I get people commenting the same thing on my videos and articles all the time. While I understand where people are coming from with this statement, it is a little deceiving.

I guess that kind of gives away the point that I am going to be trying to get at with this article, though keep reading to learn more about why I think this is important.

The problem with this usually stems from the misconception that music theory is a set of rules. I find it more helpful to think of theory as a set of of tools that may or may not be used.

Let us imagine music theory as a tool box for a moment. Open that tool box and you will find a set of pliers, a hammer, a screwdriver, and maybe some more advanced power tools. If you are looking to build a house (or improvise a solo, or write a song), you can open up your tool box and use what you have.

Or maybe you don't want to use the tools that have been proven to work, and you just want to kind of make it up as you go along. Which is do-able. Maybe you find a rock lying around to bang that nail in, or some mud to hold things together.

Not trying to dismiss mud huts or anything. Being able to build an entire house without proper tools is actually pretty commendable. Though I'm more of a tool box kind of guy myself.

So with this analogy set, let us look deeper into some of the objections you still may have.

"Music Theory And Creativity Do Not Go Together"

I understand where this statement comes from, but just try to think of the theory = tools concept. Would you say a hammer stifles a constructions workers creativity? The construction worker is still free to build a house in any way they see fit (5 floors, 3 floors, balcony, no balcony). These tools actually help them to build more freely without having to waste time wondering, "Hmm, how am I going to stick these two pieces of wood together?"

Often times, the people who find music theory to be stifling are the ones that use theory as a crutch instead of a tool. Theory isn't there to tell you what you can and cannot compose. It only explains how music works and how to achieve certain sounds if you so choose to use it.

"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.

"You Don't Need Music Theory To Make A Chord Progression"

If this one has you scratching your head too, I swear I didn't make it up. Here is a real screenshot of the original comment:

The explanation for this one is pretty simple. Chords and chord progressions in fact are theory. Often times, people will over complicate for themselves what music theory actually is. But the truth is that the minute you begin playing a set of chords and realize that the C, F and G chord seem to sound good together, you are on your path to learning the theory behind music.

Music theory can get more complicated than that if you choose, just the same as choosing to use bigger and more industrial tools (beyond a hammer and nails) to create a more complex projects. It all depends on what you hope to accomplish.

If you are looking to compose for a string quartet, of course the theory will be a little more beyond what 3 chords sound good together. If you are looking to write a simple tune, even then some basic theory is involved. And the more music theory you know, the more tools you have to work with.
If the only tool you have to work with is a hammer, then all you are going to be able to do is hammer in nails.

As far as that first comment goes, it continued saying "Chords do not require theory, as they are simply 3 notes played together" which in fact is exactly what a theory text book would tell you. So there we go!

"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 that's 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?

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio