Note: This is a quickstart guide for absolute beginners with no background in music theory. I plan to gradually add links to resources, but in the meantime a quick Google search should land you useful info on all of these concepts.
A lot of aspiring songwriters/producers who don't have a strong background in music theory feel overwhelmed because it seems like there is so much to learn. While this is true, I actually think that by learning just a few things, you can get enough in your toolbox to be able to write your first songs and have a foundation that you can build upon. Here are those things:
1. Learn the C major scale and its relative minor (A minor)
2. Learn to extract the pentatonic scales out of those, and initially stick to those when writing your melodies
3. Learn basic rhythmic patterns and syncopation
4. Learn a couple of common 8-measure structures
5. Learn a basic song form (verse-prechorus-chorus-verse-prechorus-chorus-bridge-chorus is a good place to start)
6. Learn how to extract chords from the C-major/A-minor collection
7. Initially, stick to the following chords: C, Dm, F, G, and Am (you can play around with the order and with the number of chords in your chord cycle)
Getting a basic grasp on the above skills shouldn't take super long, especially if you already play an instrument, and should be enough to allow you to start playing around and write some songs. If you have a good enough ear you can actually write pretty good songs with only the above skills (sans lyrics, of course).
The next step would be to learn what Roman numerals are and how to transpose your melodies and chords to different keys.
After that there's a lot you can learn, but those are the things that I generally suggest to absolute beginners who feel intimidated by music theory.
Top40 Theory is a project aimed at providing advanced music theory knowledge and composition tools to pop songwriters and producers. Join the small but growing community of highly accomplished songwriters, producers, theorists, and composers at the Top40 Theory Facebook group. You can also follow Top40 Theory’s Twitter account and Facebook page, as well as join the mailing list via the form located in the sidebar, to receive updates about new posts and other pop music theory related musings.
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Asaf Peres is a music theory Ph.D. who researches and writes about pop music.
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