Songwriting comes from the heart. Most songwriters have no idea where inspiration comes from. I guess if we knew, we would bottle it and sell it on street corners. Generally, there’s no correlation between knowledge of music theory (which includes sight reading, harmony and chord theory) and the ability write a good song.
This is probably why I love Jason Blume’s book (6 Steps To Songwriting Success) so much. Blume admits that he doesn’t sight read and with that out of the way, proceeds to describe the most important elements of a good song. Clue: it does not include any music theory. He briefly goes on to mention all our songwriting heroes who don’t read music (Lennon/McCartney, Seal, and so on…). While I find this comforting, I know that *some* music knowledge is never bad.
This is in stark contrast with my other songwriting books (all from Berkley professors) that state from the start that music-reading abilities are a prerequisite for writing good songs. These books focus mainly on melody writing and arrangement, which is pretty hard to explain without any type of musical notation. I must admit that these books have all the allure of a math treatise and totally fail to keep my attention more than 30 minutes at-a-time. And, no, I’m not A.D.D.
I recently went back to reading those Berkley books, and I have to admit, knowing just a little helps in a big way. I find that the real value in music theory lies in the ability to be more efficient at finishing and arranging a song. Instead of being stuck with the few chords I know on guitar and keyboard, I find myself experimenting with new ideas early in the writing process.
There’s also an interesting by-product of practicing scales and chord theory: you fumble into some neat ideas that are outside of your comfort zone. For example, while practicing alternate chord voicings on the keyboard, I accidentally found an interesting combination that had a very sophisticated, yet simple sound to it. In a matter of minutes I was fleshing it out with lyrics and a great chorus.
Now, every time I’m out of ideas and don’t feel like noodling, I just open one of those boring book and try to learn something new. The way I see it, I ain’t got nothin’ to loose.