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I'm a novice when it comes to music composition and I'm trying to expand my knowledge on scales, chords, intervals and progressions. I've been playing lead guitar in a thrash metal band for quite a while now and most of my compositions are like trial and error method where I hear a tune in my head and I have to search for the exact notes on the fretboard and start writing the piece. I feel this approach would render me as an eternal novice composer..haha!. Many say that learning too much theory could hinder creativity, but I feel that creativity backed-up with music theory can help us experiment and compose better.

Hopefully, I'd like to reach a level where I stumble upon a tune in my head, I should be able to see its position accurately on the fretboard of my guitar or on the piano keys and start writing the piece and improvise on it. To achieve this level of mastery, I'd like some expert advice on what to learn and internalize first in Music Theory.

Should I start learning scales of all the notes first (which I believe it also helps in memorizing the notes on the guitar or piano), then learn chord construction (bcuz, I understand to a certain degree that chords are built from major scales, hope I'm not wrong) and then followed by chord progressions? Or is there a better starting point to learn in Music Theory?

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    Difficult to build a house without tools. The same goes for writing music. That thinking is erroneous and naïve. I know it’s all very overwhelming; it doesn’t matter where you start, just start somewhere. Buy some beginner theory books and learn. It will take time but you’ll get there. – jjmusicnotes Dec 27 '18 at 12:41
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You are right in that some theory knowledge will help. Knowing major and minor scales might be confusing coming from a thrash metal background, but worth finding out about, as they are the things that just about everything else is based. Chords come from scales, so probably worth doing them in tandem.

Blues scales are also worth knowing, although their translation into chords takes a bit of believing!

As a budding composer, it's also worth looking at timings, note values, etc., particularly if you intend committing your songs to paper.

  • Coming from a thrash metal background does make music theory a bit complex for me. I've recently picked up interest in writing cinematic/epic orchestral music and I feel that without knowing a bit of theory, it would be hard for me to commit the songs to sheet music despite the creativity. But the dilemma lies in which resources to refer to and where to start. I feel that something that I already know from the metal genre will have to be unlearned and start afresh. Hence any pointers or sites of reference I could follow would greatly benefit me...Thank you. – DSNadig Dec 27 '18 at 15:50
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Like Tim said, chords come from scales. You build chords by stacking thirds in sequence. In theory the major scale is the basic building block of western music. More primitive ideas are intervals. There are definite mathematical patterns in western music and knowing them will not make you a worse musician but don't fall into the trap of thinking that theory provides a prescription or recipe for composition. They best way to compose is to hear an idea in your head and work it out. If you want to improve on the "search for the exact notes..." part of composing work in ear training. Some of the most interesting songs do not follow the patterns of theory.

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Harmony (chords) and melody (scales) are two sides of the same coin: tonality.

You should study both at the same time.

You should also think about which school of theory you want to study. There are basically two schools: classical and jazz.

In super-general terms classical theory treats chords as the result of voice leading (think choir music) jazz uses a chord & scale system that matches chords to scales. There is some overlap between the two schools of thought.

A common beginning study approach in both schools is to play cadential patterns in all 24 major and minor keys. A common classical pattern ⅱø65 | V7 | i is similar to this jazz pattern dm7♭5 | G7♭9 𝄀 cm6. The point here isn't to give you a specific practice pattern, but to show that both schools share a play patterns in all keys method. Those patterns are often combinations of chords and scales played simultaneously. Certainly that is the case with piano.

...I stumble upon a tune in my head, I should be able to ...start writing the piece and improvise on it...

Theory study and the ear training that comes with it should help with this.

If you are thinking of metal specifically, you might find theory about minor keys, chromatic harmony, and non-diatonic scales more appropriate for that style. Keep in mind those theory topics are often placed in some kind of 'advanced' category. They aren't really advanced in the sense they are difficult to understand, rather the label reflects the basic theory approach starts with diatonic tonality.

...learning too much theory could hinder creativity...

If you think of it as a set of rules, yes. If you think of it as a system of terminology to describe music, no.

...to a certain degree that chords are built from major scales...

To a degree, yes. But also no. Example, some theory says the seventh of a dominant seventh chord is the result of voice leading rather than stacking thirds. It depends hugely on the musical style. When theory is separated from history and style it can lead to misunderstandings.

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Theory won't tell you what to write. It can help you understand what other people have written, so you can steal their ideas :-) But if you come up with something original, it's unimportant whether you can justify it with 'theory'.

Yes, know about how scales and chords work. But, most of all, study music that you like to see how it's put together. A knowledge of notation is very useful here. It's difficult to study literature with a view to writing your own unless you can read and write English.

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I think that the claim "chords come from scales" has unfortunate misleading interpretations. As a composer, you're essentially writing stories or plays that take the listener through various feelings, scenes, twists of the plot - the harmony with its tensions and resolutions. In my opinion, chords, not scales, should be your most essential painting brush for developing the story, its tensions and resolutions. Chords and voice leading are the thing you want, it's the rope you pull, the steering wheel you turn, in order to develop the story, the tonality, tonal center i.e. where "home" is, and how far away your plot is from a happy end, returning home. Scales are more or less only a locational reference map for handling what happens in your story. Chords rule, scales follow. Chords don't come from scales, chords come from the composer's mind, and scales are some kind of a sketching tool, a reference grid the composer uses for aligning things and keeping track of where everything is relative to the tonal center.

I think what you should do is, learn the major scale, just so that you have at least some kind of conceptual means for seeing what chords and notes you have and where they are, and where home base is. Then, because you want to be a story-teller, read (listen to) already existing good stories, i.e. compositions, songs. Analyze what chords they use, what notes the chords consist of, how the melody notes work together with the chord notes, and how they are all used together for creating harmonic tensions and resolutions. Get familiar with the role of each note: would the plot essentially change if you left out a note, or if you replaced it with something else. Is there some particularly elegant voice leading, i.e. step-by-step movement of notes from one chord to another? Where is the (more or less temporary) tonal center at various points in the song? Through what kind of chord changes is it moved around? What do the changes make you feel like?

After you're familiar with how chords and notes are used in common songs, when viewed on the reference grid of the major scale, then it might be easier to understand the rest of the reference grids, like the various modes of the major scale, the whole-tone scales, the diminished scales, etc.

As an outcome of the first step of your studies, you should be able to re-create (play live or write in a sequencer) common simple songs in terms of basic three-note chords and a melody. Where the bass note of the chord is, is it major or minor, and where the melody note is. If you cannot do this, then studying any of the more advanced things doesn't make much sense yet, in my opinion.

After you can produce "melody and chords", pop song kind of musical expression, then you can start thinking about orchestration, instrumentation, voicings. But if you cannot reduce the essence of your composition to a melody and chords to whistle or hum with guitar accompaniment, then you can't see the forest from the trees, and you're not in control of the situation. (I'm assuming you want to create tonal western music with "hit potential" - the kind of things most composers seem to do for movies and games)

  • Thank you for the advise. I'd like to know if there are any compositions you'd prefer for a starter to listen to. I've recently picked up interest in writing cinematic/Epic orchestral music with a goal in mind of becoming a film score composer. With no disrespect for other music genres, I feel that classical music has better range and utilization of musical notes as opposed to metal or any other genre (may not be true, just my opinion). I believe it carries more stronger emotions and better narration of an event or a story. – DSNadig Dec 27 '18 at 16:06
  • Start with something very simple and progress to more complicated songs. Can you play by ear the melody and chords to Incy Wincy Spider in C major? Then in F major? G major? If not, big BZZZZT alert sound, time to practice! :) If that's no problem, do something basic in a minor key. Für Elise, Am? Then proceed to pop songs like The Beatles. Yesterday? Let It Be? Then TV series themes, movie themes, classical melodies, whatever you dig. Reproduce the songs as "chords and melody", in C major / A minor, then in other keys. It's a long road, but you can do so much with chords and melody. – piiperi Dec 27 '18 at 19:30
  • If chords don't come from scales, why do you suggest playing a major scale first to hear where home base is? Without knowing where home base is, chords have no meaning. Chords do come from scales. – Heather S. Jan 5 at 21:44
  • @HeatherS. I did not try to nullify or deny the plausibility of all possible interpretations of the sentence "chords come from scales". I tried to say ... well, it's basically written in my answer. Too bad I couldn't say it any better. You just go on with scales and keep receiving the awesome chords that the scales bring to you, like eggs come from chicken, chords come from scales. Not happy with your chords ... find a new scale, maybe some better chords come out of it? Nah. If you know the C major scale, you don't need to learn a new scale before you can use a D7, Fm or Bb chord in the song. – piiperi Jan 6 at 21:24
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I'd say start with scales first as chords are produced from scales, for example, the E major chord has the same notes an E major scale would, also, learning the notes would help you in writing down what you hear. It would also help you in determining what chords are being used as well!

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