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This is such a great question and a topic of debate between musicians, especially those that have had a formal musical education and those who have not. 

In general, knowing music theory does not ruin your creativity in songwriting. In many ways it can actually increase your creativity by providing names to the techniques and musical concepts that musicians use to write songs. This helps them understand how to get the sounds they are looking for and apply them in creative ways. 

So then why are there people who think that knowing music theory can negatively impact your creativity?

Sometimes people feel that by not knowing theory it helps them focus more on how the music sounds rather than how complicated the theory behind it is. 

Music theory is like a double edge sword. On one side, it really helps to know the concepts behind music so that you can put a name to the sounds that you enjoy using in your writing. As an analogy, if you’re building a house, it helps to know how to set up infrastructure and what materials you need.

On the other hand, you can get way too focused on the theory and lose sight of the overall sound and vision for the song. You could fall into the trap of thinking that the more complicated the theory used in the song is, the better the song. 

However, in music it doesn’t always work that way, so it can become a problem. Going with the house analogy, knowing how to build a complicated house doesn’t mean you know how to make it a beautiful one. 

So how can you make sure you don’t let music theory get in the way of your songwriting?

Know The Genre, Sound and Audience You’re Going For

Knowing the genre, sound and audience you’re going for can help to measure how much music theory to use in general. 

For example, if you’re writing a modern pop song, you might want to keep things more simple, because nowadays pop has a heavy EDM influence and its goal is to be short, dancy, catchy and accessible so the average person can enjoy it. They also want the song to be something people can play in clubs. 

Does that mean a pop song can’t have complicated music theory? No it definitely can, but if it’s there it will be in a way that it stays low key or hidden under simpler layers, because the average listener just wants something that sounds good that they can vibe to. 

So with this question of whether music theory can mess with your songwriting or not, you have to consider who you’re making music for. 

There’s music for musicians, and there’s music for non-musicians, and there’s a whole spectrum in between. 

If you set out to make a pop song but it’s 12 minutes long with 4 key changes and 3 different odd time signatures, modal interchange, jazz chords, etc well then you’re not really writing a standard pop song, even if the sound is kinda poppy. 

At that point, you used too much music theory, and it messed up your songwriting if you were trying to write a pop song in the traditional sense. It could still be good, it just won’t be what you were going for. Of course this is just an exaggerated example to get the point across. 

Simple Can Be Good Too

It’s been my experience and that of many musicians I’ve met, that when you get super deep into really complicated music and you see all the theory and you write songs like that for a while, you start to get saturated and really appreciate simplicity. 

This is why if you’re worried that people who know a lot will think your music is too simple, don’t. If it sounds good, it sounds good. 

I grew up listening to Prog Rock, Jazz Fusion, tons of instrumental music, some by bands, others by composers and I can tell you after years and years of only that, you can for sure get saturated. 

I still listen to all of that stuff, but I also listen to a lot of simpler, more accessible music most of the time (pop, folk, loungy stuff, lo-fi beats, etc). 

That’s because what interests me most as a songwriter right now is how songs sound as a whole and not just how complicated the musicianship is. 

It helps me keep a fresh perspective so I know when I’m worrying too much about jamming music theory into a song and neglecting the overall sound. I think it can help you do the same.   

It’s funny how much we overlook the beauty of simplicity. It can actually be harder to make something that’s really good and also really simple. 

Identify The Sounds You Like First, And Name Them With Music Theory Second

If you want to use music theory in a way that serves your songwriting rather than hurts it then forget about music theory and focus on the sounds you like first.

Maybe you like, for example, the chords and moods of Flamenco music. Great! Now that you know the sounds, bust out the music theory and check what chords and modes are common in Flamenco. 

Once you know that you like the Phrygian mode because they use it a lot in Flamenco, now you can use music theory to apply it to your own songs. 

Maybe you like Middle Eastern music because it sounds exotic and dark. Well then you can look up some Middle Eastern scales like Harmonic Minor and Phrygian Dominant and use them in your own songs. 

In my opinion this is the best way to use music theory. It’s supposed to help you make the sounds you want to make. The sounds are what matters most. 

Wrapping It Up

Music theory is a great tool and as long as you use it without sacrificing the quality of the song by forcing things, it won’t affect your creativity. 

Don’t overthink and remember to put yourself in the shoes of your listener, even the ones that are not musicians. Does it sound good? If yes then cool, go with that, even if it seems simplistic with your musician ears. 

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