Welcome to Popgrammar. This website is something like an online textbook, intended for pop songwriters who either haven’t yet taken music theory courses or who have gaps in their theory knowledge.
Everyone is at a different stage in their understanding of music theory, so feel free to skip around this site as you see fit. In fact, reading this site straight through might not be the best idea for most readers. For example, some of you might be able to skip several early chapters, but need to read later chapters several times.
This site covers much of what might be the first year of college music theory, along with a number of concepts from the second year. College music majors take a long time to understand some of these ideas, and they have the benefits of lectures and regular feedback from professors. There’s no easy way to cram all of that into one site that you might be able to read and understand in a week or two.
So feel free to treat this site as a resource that you continually refer to over a long period of time. Read a page or two until you understand the concepts, then experiment with them, perhaps writing a couple verses or choruses that reflect what you’ve learned. Then return and read another page or two. Listen to the songs that appear as examples and try to get a sense of what the devices I’m describing really sound like.
If you’re confused about a new concept, the Internet contains a vast number of music theory resources, including many that apply to pop songs, and you might find it helpful to consult the broader web for clarification. A lot of it is terrific, and some of the sources mentioned throughout this site might be good places to start.
Be warned, though, that a ton of information available online is incorrect. Message boards, especially, often prominently feature commentary from very confident people who in fact have no clue what they’re writing about (frequently directly alongside commentary from people who do). And the ubiquitous sites that provide the chords for pop hits are frequently incorrect as well. The Internet can be very useful for finding music theory help. I’ve unabashedly looked to message boards to find song examples of theory concepts I’ve written about here (and I thank the many folks whose comments ended up pointing me in the right direction). But, paradoxically, you first have to have a fairly good grasp of theory to figure out who to trust.
One other note: Unlike most texts that deal with songwriting, this one uses traditional musical notation. In many cases, I wanted to make points about the melodic motion in vocal melodies, and notation made those points easier to convey. If you’re among the many pop musicians who are unfamiliar with notation, maybe this site can provide reasons to start learning it – Appendix B is a primer on reading music from a staff.
If you’re not fluent in notation, though, that’s okay. Since most of the examples come from very familiar songs, I hope you’ll know what’s going on most of the time simply from reading the words and looking at the chord changes. Don’t let the notation intimidate you.
I intend this site to be a living document. There will surely be concepts here I could explain better, or songs that would be better examples than the ones I chose. I’ll also likely add examples from newer songs in the years to come. If you have a question or a tip, please contact me. I’ll include a list of important changes in the About section.
Advice for Beginning Songwriters
I began writing songs when I was 12. They sounded more like punk than like the heavy metal I listened to at the time, mostly because I lacked the technical knowledge to make anything too complex. When I was 14, I was lucky enough to take a music theory course, and suddenly, new musical worlds presented themselves to me. With the understanding of how chords fit into keys and complemented one another, my songs became more focused and logical. Suddenly they became catchier, too.
In college, I continued studying music, and as I became an adult and a music teacher myself, my songs began to feature complex devices like borrowed chords and modulations. I had an easier time understanding songs by bands I liked, too, improving my ability to pull from their bags of tricks and add to my own.
Not that I’ve had any more than modest success, either as a composer of classical music or as a singer and guitarist with my long-running band, Fox Japan. I’ve never written a hit song, so I can’t promise to teach you how to do it. You’ll need a great deal of luck to write one, and you’ll need connections. And if you’re a performer, you’ll probably need the sort of magnetism – the “it” quality – that draws listeners in long after you’ve written down the lyrics and chords.
I don’t know much about those things, regrettably. What I can teach is how to generate musical ideas and how to connect them. I can show you how to make the various elements of your songs (melody, harmony, and so on) complement one another. Maybe you have the beginnings of great song ideas in your head, but you don’t know how to organize them into actual music. If so, this site will help you.
The most important thing you can do to become a great songwriter is to practice. If you’re just getting started, your first songs probably won’t be very good, but you’ll improve rapidly. You’ll probably learn more quickly by writing lots of them, quickly and without much regard for their quality. Experiment, find out what you like and develop a style. You can perfect it later.
Be curious. Study your favorite songs, and if there’s a musical moment that’s especially striking, try to figure out why it works. Go to websites that provide the chords for those songs, or figure them out yourself (keeping in mind, again, that websites and your ears can both be wrong). Actively listen to music, new and old, and try to appreciate things you normally wouldn’t be interested in. Read books. Learn to play a chordal instrument like the piano or the guitar, if you don’t already. Learn to read music, or learn to read it better. If you have the time and opportunity to take music theory classes, take them.
There is a strain of thinking in pop music that it’s best to retain a sort of mystery by remaining ignorant of the technique behind what you do. I won’t knock that approach if it works, and it does speak to a truth about music – some percentage of what makes great music great is unknowable. And musical technique exists to serve music, not the other way around. Just because you can play a harmonic minor scale at lightning speed doesn’t mean you should actually do so in a song. The same goes for songwriting techniques. You shouldn’t use complex devices like secondary dominants just because you can. Sometimes a simpler approach is best.
But sometimes it isn’t. As a songwriter, you want to have as many tools available as possible. Perhaps writing songs without technical knowledge helps you maintain a sense of mystery in your music, and maybe if you’re very lucky you’ll have a distinctive style that comes partly from your lack of awareness about how things are typically done. But it will be difficult to grow and change. Personally, I’d rather know what I’m doing, even if I lose an innocent or mysterious quality as a result.
What This Site Is, and What It Isn’t
This site focuses on harmony, which is traditionally the main focus of music theory. There are many crucial musical elements other than harmony, however, and music theory doesn’t help us that much with them. Rhythm is one obvious one, and this site deals with rhythm only sporadically. Music theory doesn’t have the vast taxonomy for rhythm that it has for pitch. That doesn’t mean rhythm is unworthy of consideration or study, however.
Timbre, which is the sound color of a particular instrument or voice, is also mostly outside the scope of this site, even though it’s a crucial musical element. Let’s say you know you know the melody you want to use for an instrumental break in your song. Will your band play it on a violin? A flute? If you play it on a keyboard, what sound will you use? If you play it on electric guitar, what pedals will you use, and how will you adjust the settings on your amplifier? The wrong instrument or tone might make your beautiful melody sound ridiculous.
Then there are the many elements that go into making the pop song you’re recording sound good. If you’re playing a piano part, is your rhythm perfect? Is your singing in tune, and is each syllable of your vocal performed well? Have you mic’d the drums correctly? Have you added the right amount of reverb to the performances? If you’re using electronics, do they blend well with any acoustic instruments you might be using? Is the music mixed in such a way that all the important musical elements are audible? Is the master recording loud enough while still being aurally pleasing? There are innumerable factors to take into account when making a song, and it’s important to be good at lots of them, or at least to collaborate with musicians and engineers whose strengths complement yours.
While creating this site, I was often reminded just how much of the craft involved in making pop songs has to do with considerations that are outside the domain of music theory (which perhaps suggests that “music theory” isn’t really an all-encompassing organizational framework for music, but rather a framework that applies most crisply to European music of a certain era and less crisply to other kinds of music). Does the beat sound good? Are the lyrics memorable and on point? Can the singer really sing? If not, is it appropriate to try to hide his or her lack of ability? How is the mix? Then there are the not-directly-musical elements, like whether the band has the right look, or whether the dance steps are right. However good you might get with the materials and techniques discussed on this site, there is infinitely more to learn.
Why Are so Many of These Examples From Older Songs?
You’ll notice that many of the examples from this site come from older artists. Often, that’s because it was simply easier to find certain melodic or harmonic techniques in older songs.
That’s not to say that newer songs never use them, or that newer songs aren’t complex in plenty of other ways. But pop songs today do tend to be harmonically simpler than they were in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, and in the process of creating this site, I wondered if something had been lost since then. Pop music is now built to be smooth, sleek, and harmonically straightforward. There’s some truth to the “It’s all just four chords!” accusations that old people and non-fans lob at it. A wide-ranging recent study of over 400,000 pop songs by a group of Spanish scholars found that, over the last several decades, transitions between pitches came to vary less than they once did. This probably comes as no surprise to anyone who’s ever tried comparing the chords of a radio hit by the Beach Boys or the Beatles to pretty much anything on the radio today. The study also found that pop music today features less variation in timbre than it used to.
The study did not take into account rhythm, and it seems likely that while pop music is not as harmonically or timbrally complex as it once was, it is more rhythmically complex. Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing for two decades, for example, hip hop got far more rhythmically intricate as MCs experimented with increasingly fragmented and irregular rhyme patterns.
Maybe, though, there’s the possibility of an exciting new trend in pop music that mates the rhythmic complexity of hip hop with the relative harmonic complexity of pop music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Perhaps I’m just yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, but part of the message of this site is that pop music doesn’t have to be as harmonically simple as it frequently is in today’s radio hits. It can veer in unexpected directions. It can, and perhaps should, surprise us harmonically more than it does.
You can take the most control over your musical destiny by learning as much as possible. You don’t want to be beholden to the “rules,” and in spite of my proselytizing above, the last thing you should do with this site is to use it to judge certain kinds of musical technique as being superior to others. That’s not why I want you to learn theory. I want you to learn it so that you can be creative with it, and make it yours. It’s impossible to forget something you haven’t learned. Learning what’s in this site will help give you the freedom to forget it.
This site is not exhaustive, and sometimes, the best solution to a songwriting problem might be a mutated version of a device you learn here, or something that isn’t theoretically “correct” at all. That’s great. Embrace those possibilities, and let your ears guide you. My own experience, though, has been that even when you’re considering a non-standard solution to a songwriting problem, you can use ideas from music theory to understand why your non-standard idea sort of makes sense. You might also be able to use ideas from this site as paths to those kinds of non-standard solutions.
Good luck, and happy songwriting.
Charlie Wilmoth, 2018 (updated 2020)