Welcome to Popgrammar, a music theory site for aspiring pop songwriters.


Part I: The Basics

1. Scales and Keys. Major and minor scales and key signatures.

2. Intervals
. The distances between pitches, and why they’re so important to how we listen to music.

3. Chords in Major Keys. The chords that typically appear in major keys and the best ways to use them. Axis Of Awesome, “4 Chords”; Imagine Dragons, “Thunder”; Aretha Franklin, “Baby Baby Baby”; R.E.M., “Fall on Me”; Weezer, “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”; Taylor Swift, “Back to December”

4. Dominant Seventh Chords. How these seventh chords can increase our anticipation, and how they appear in the blues. The Contours, “Do You Love Me”; Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”

5. Other Seventh Chords and Extended Chords. Using other seventh chord types and extended chords to add subtle flavor to our songs. Sixpence None The Richer, “Kiss Me”; Peter Frampton, “Show Me the Way”; Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”; the Beach Boys, “God Only Knows”; Pink Floyd, “Breathe (In the Air)”

6. Inversions and Bass Lines. Why bass lines sometimes highlight notes other than the root. Chicago, “You’re the Inspiration”; Elton John, “Your Song”

7. Chords in Minor Keys. Why minor keys are sometimes only subtly different from major, and how we can use the V chord to make that difference more pronounced. Iyaz, “Replay”; Bruce Springsteen, “Radio Nowhere”; Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”; Lukas Graham, “7 Years”; Hall and Oates, “Sara Smile”; the Human League, “Don’t You Want Me”

Part II: Advanced Concepts

8. Modes and Scales. How using modes and the blues scale can change the character of your songs. Simon & Garfunkel, “Scarborough Fair”; Lorde, “Royals”; theme song to The Simpsons; Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”; Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

9. Transposing Instruments. How to write and think about parts for transposing instruments like the trumpet and saxophone. Beyonce, “Crazy in Love”

10. Writing Melodies. Matching your melodies to the underlying chords, and balancing steps and leaps. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz; Katy Perry, “California Gurls”; Elton John, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”; Kygo & Selena Gomez, “It Ain’t Me”

11. Nonchord Tones. Adding variety to your melodies with passing tones, neighbor tones, suspensions and appoggiaturas. The Beatles, “Yesterday”

12. Sus Chords. Using sus4 and sus2 to highlight your song’s chords, or to create a uniquely modern sound. Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”; the Who, “Pinball Wizard”; Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, “What I Am”; The Police, “Message in a Bottle”

13. Harmonizing Melodies. Making your vocal harmonies sound right. Stevie Nicks, “Landslide”; the All-American Rejects, “Dirty Little Secret”

14. Secondary Dominants. Using chords from other keys to lead the listener in unexpected directions. Charlie Puth, “One Call Away”; the Bangles, “Eternal Flame”; Billy Joel, “For the Longest Time”; Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; the Wallflowers, “One Headlight”; the Foundations, “Build Me up Buttercup”; Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”; ABBA, “Dancing Queen”

15. Borrowed Chords. How chords from parallel minor or parallel major can create surprising harmonic twists. Radiohead, “No Surprises,” “Creep” and “Exit Music (For a Film)”; Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World”; Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier; the Zombies, “Time of the Season”; Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”; Idina Menzel, “Let it Go”

16. Other Harmonic Concepts. bVII chords, augmented chords and creating harmonically ambiguous progressions. The Beach Boys, “In My Room”; J. Geils Band, “Centerfold”; the Beatles, “Oh! Darling” and “Real Love”; Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”; Leadbelly, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”; the Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”; Nirvana, “Heart-Shaped Box”; Smashing Pumpkins, “Cherub Rock”

17. Modulations. The art of changing keys. Kelly Clarkson, “Because of You”; MGMT, “The Youth”; Bryan Adams, “Summer Of ’69”; Faith Hill, “The Way You Love Me”; the Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”; the Four Tops, “Baby I Need Your Loving”; Eric Clapton, “Layla”

18. Rhythm. Syncopations, polyrhythms and tempo changes. The Specials, “A Message to You Rudy”; DNCE, “Toothbrush”; the National, “Fake Empire”; Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”; No Doubt, “Just a Girl”

19. Irregular Meters and Phrases. Breaking from standard measure and phrase lengths to keep listeners guessing. Dave Brubeck, “Take Five”; Cream, “White Room”; Pink Floyd, “Money”; Soundgarden, “Outshined”; the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”; Blondie, “Heart of Glass”; OutKast, “Hey Ya!”

20. Setting Lyrics. How to match your lyrics and music. Rebecca Black, “Friday”; Will Smith, Theme Song To The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Part III: Four Pop Songs

21. The Beatles, “Oh! Darling”
22. Beyonce, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”
23. Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
24. Chicago, “You’re the Inspiration”


Appendix A: Scales
Appendix B: Reading Musical Notation