When I was young…

When I first started composing, I had already completed grades 1-5 of the ABRSM music exams for piano. However, I am pretty sure I had not taken the separate music theory exam. I composed largely by ear, with only a basic understanding of chords and scales. When writing songs, I usually chose a key, typically C or G, and stuck to the diatonic chords present in the key, occasionally adding a dominant seventh.

Despite my musical background, I spent an excessive amount of time trying to figure out chords that were present in certain songs, but I often failed miserably. There was something different about these songs that I really loved, but I couldn’t find the right chords that sounded good. As a result, I would typically skip the chords or give up on the songs completely.

How did this happen?

At 18, I received a QY70 as a gift. This fantastic little sequencer came with a “List Book,” which mainly contained lists of instrument patches. However, a particular section caught my attention: the lists of chord shapes that could be used with the auto-accompaniment feature of the sequencer.

The problem was that I took each of those chord shapes and played them one after another in isolation. As a result, I only heard the diminished, augmented and other jazzier chords in isolation and immediately disliked them. I mentally noted that those chords were not for me and decided to stick to the diatonic-only chords that I knew. However, at the time, I didn’t know them by that name.

Unfortunately, I missed the context. By hearing only those chords in isolation and never hearing how they fit into a larger piece, my progress was stunted for a very long time.

How did it affect me?

For almost 20 years, I could not grow in my compositions because I missed out on the richness of using certain chords. It was only within the last 5-6 years that I began to understand the context of such chords within a piece. I learned how they enabled certain walking bass lines, how they allowed for a certain crunching of chords, and how they added a sweetness that was not possible without them.

Are you telling me to learn music theory?

No. The point of this post is not to say that you cannot write music without learning music theory. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of not missing the context of things. I used to be naive and assumed that I knew better than the people who wrote the List Book. I wondered why they would include chords that sounded so horrible and had no apparent use in music.

However, when understood in the context of a larger piece, these chords enable some of the most beautiful music imaginable. Therefore, my point is not to encourage everyone to learn music theory, but to give things a chance and learn the reasons why certain things that we may not like are so popular. By understanding the context of things, we can avoid stunting our growth like I did.