You Don’t Need Music Theory to Create Music


“Go with the flow.”

This is a worn and tired expression. But like many cliches and platitudes, it’s got a compelling power behind it once you live it.

I often get asked about music theory.

Indeed, out of over 7,000 guitarists and artists that I’ve asked over the years… the question of music theory––and other topics that fall under that very vast umbrella––get mentioned almost daily.

But here’s something I’m going to suggest (and I’m certainly not the only one making this suggestion):

Forget music theory.

You don’t need it.

Now, I’m being playful here. I’m inviting you to go on a thought experiment with me. You can take or leave everything that I’m about to say, but I recommend you try it on as a creative catalyst (or challenge).

For the vast majority of my career as a musician, I didn’t know a lick of theory.

And compared to what I could know… I essentially don’t know music theory.

Plain and simple.

Of course, I’m also not a smash success story as a songwriter.

But I’ve had some modest accomplishments (I’ve produced multiple albums of different genres, my songs have been viewed millions of times, I’ve had my music in video games, I get to be a full-time musician, and so on). 

Most importantly: I’ve created that which I wish existed.

And there’s something sublimely––dare I say divinely––fulfilling about that, {first_name}.

Some people criticize others for digging their own creations. They call it vanity or self-obsession or narcissism or megalomania.

I respectfully disagree.

Although I don’t often listen to the finished music I’ve made, whenever I do, I almost always derive immense pleasure from the experience.

And when I first made it? I listened to it countless times to make it better during the production process, and shared it without abandon when it was finished.

Because I had made something that I wish existed. The impulse to create something in the first place seems to stem from this desire. 

If you have an idea that is already fully expressed and represented out in the world, you tend to let that idea go (and sometimes bitterly, or with disappointment).

But when you have an idea of something that you’ve never encountered, you tend to feel passionate about making it happen.

I’ve tried learning music theory many times. I’ve made a smattering of meager process here and there over the years.

I’m convinced that if I knew more music theory, I would be a better songwriter and producer. 

There would simply be more for me to work with (and more for the Muse to make out of me, so to speak).

But for now, and for 20 years as a musician, I don’t know music theory. Not really.

And I don’t need it.

All I need to do is go with the flow.

More specifically, I go where the song wants to go.

I mess around with ideas until I find something that moves me, if only a little bit. It moves me enough for me to keep messing with it.

And then I mess with it some more and start to flesh it out. I add some layers and details and nuance to it.

Usually this means making the damn thing more difficult to play.

But often it means making it more beautiful. More pleasing to the ear (or eyes, oddly enough. Sometimes riffs are made more enjoyable simply by what it looks like to play them).

But after I’ve put some clothes on the naked idea, I quickly capture it in some way.

If I don’t do this, the thing is bound to get lost. I probably won’t remember it. And I almost certainly won’t ever do anything with it (not the end of the world, but this can be a bummer).

I flesh these ideas out and capture them regardless of what happens next.

Never mind that 99% of these ideas will never be used. And virtually all of them will never be shared.

I still capture them.

And here’s the key: The context in which you capture an idea determines what will happen next.

Put another way: The container you use to capture an idea will determine the idea’s destiny.

If I capture an idea on my phone (either as a voice memo or a video), it is almost certainly doomed to lie dormant and collect digital dust indefinitely.

But if I capture the idea in my DAW?

That completely changes the game.

Capturing an idea in a DAW means business. The software is entirely designed for production. So my brain is bombarded with all of the cues (and tools) that trigger me to go on producing. 

Suddenly that idea is much more than an idea. It’s a seed that practically demands to be grown into a tree.

This comes down to intuition, I suppose.

But I feel like most of us have a sensitivity to these things.

The main reason why I suspect this is the case is because we listen to music and love it enough to want to play it ourselves.

We have varying tastes, of course. But when you are creating something of your own, all that matters is your own taste. 

So you have a sense of where you want the song to move next, and that’s all that matters. You don’t care about what others might want (at least, not if you are committing to an authentic artistic act, not bound by the rules and constraints and assumed judgments of the invisible and irrelevant others who buzz in your ear as the stifling dictators of the creative process).

You listen carefully. 

With intent. 

And then play around with what the next note needs to be. 

All it takes is a note. You can mess around with chords later. You can layer things endlessly once you’ve got the foundation in place. For now, you’re just listening for things to “click.”

You’re flying by the seat of your pants, utterly unarmed with any music theory, and yet a song structure is starting to take shape.

You are feeling the music. Hearing how it sounds. Simple enough. We’ve been doing this forever.

When you know music theory, it’s just another ingredient that you can use in the creative process. And it’s possible you’ll get a disproportionate benefit from it.

But it might also get in the way. It might harden your emotional sensitivity and transform it into cool, calculated, unfeeling logic. And too much logic can blind you to the bigger picture. It can make the song’s theme and story become blurry or unreachable. 

You can become deaf to the soul of the song.

And I’m not picking on music theory here. 

The same can be said about any and all of the variables or ingredients that are at play during the creative process, from the obvious to the subtle:

  • Your expectations.
  • Your technical proficiencies.
  • The technology you use (its sophistication, its functionality or lack thereof, its complexity or simplicity…)
  • Your repertoire of skills.
  • Your musical influences and the library of songs stored in your memory, however vaguely.
  • Your self-doubt.

All of these things are ingredients that will influence the creative act, for better or worse. 

They are all things that you can use or be used by. 

And some of them enable and some of them disable. And some of the things that once enabled can become turncoats and start to disable you and stop the flow.

But in every moment, regardless of who you are and what you are working with, you are engaged in a straightforward (though sometimes far from easy) process:

Paying careful attention to which note comes next.

And all of these variables––your mood, your skills, your knowledge, your aims––will affect what notes you try and what notes will move you and be selected as what comes next. 

But that’s all that is going on. 

And you roll with it, or you don’t. But it doesn’t require a lot of stress or hassle.

And what you already know is already enough.

Happy creating,

Joshua

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.