music theory rules

3 songs that break music theory rules – and are better for it

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Sometimes going against common music theory rules ends up being exactly what a song needs.

At first glance, it can feel like music theory is full of “rules.” Pick up any good theory textbook and you’ll find detailed descriptions of how to name, construct, and analyze scales, intervals, harmonies, chord progressions, compositional forms, and a lot more that can make any creative person’s eyes glaze over.

These descriptions are often communicated in such a way as to imply that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” way to write a song. However, this way of thinking just does not reflect the real world of music. Theory is a way to name things, not a set of rules to be followed, and can be a good starting point to help you get the sounds in your head onto paper. But it’s not the end all be all.

Music theory is really a practice of learning the “rules” so you can break them. As you’ll see here, there are countless examples in music where going against common music theory rules ends up being exactly what a song needs.

Parallel perfect intervals: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”

One of the most commonly broken rules in music theory is the avoidance of parallel perfect intervals.

If you have ever played a power chord, you have played a perfect interval. In classical theory, parallel perfect intervals are avoided because (among other reasons) they cause the individual voices to lose their independence, resulting in a thinner and even blocky sound.

You can hear this for yourself. Try playing a perfect fifth, perfect fourth, or a perfect octave, then follow it with another perfect interval and see how it sounds. Try it again and this time follow the perfect interval with something like a third. You’ll notice that the perfect interval sounds almost “at rest” or “comfortable” for your ear. Hanging around that too long can get boring, so classical composers used more dissonant major, minor, diminished, and augmented intervals to add movement within a piece.

However, if Chuck Berry had decided to follow these rules, the guitar parts for “Johnny B. Goode” and the slew of classic rock music that came afterward would have been lost to all of us.

Nowadays, just about all of rock and pop music depends on parallel perfect intervals.

Playing the wrong chord: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”

Another common rule in music theory is to play the correct chord qualities for each of the chords in a particular key. So, if you were playing in C Major, the diatonic chords (chords within the key) that you would build your progression from are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim.

Following this rule is a great starting point when looking for strong chord progressions. Diatonic chords will almost always sound good together, so you can put a decent chord progression together without much thought. But, this rule has been broken many times in the service of great songs.

David Bowie’s musical catalog is a great example of this. Consider the acoustic guitar breaks in “Space Oddity” (which is also in C major). The chords in these breaks are C, F, G and A. Notice it is not an A minor chord. Instead, Bowie intentionally plays the wrong chord quality – and it sounds AWESOME!

Just because you are playing the “wrong” chord quality doesn’t mean you’ve played the wrong chord: sometimes the wrong chord is exactly the right thing for the song.

Playing in the wrong key: Rage Against the Machine’s “Fistful of Steel”

Finally, a typically unspoken rule in most tonal music is that you don’t play in the wrong key. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: playing in the wrong key can sound downright awful (we all know that cringy feeling when we hit a wrong note). However, there are some fantastic ways that even this rule has been broken.

A great example of this is the introduction of Rage Against the Machine’s Fistful of Steel. The song is basically in F# minor. However, half of the guitar part is made up of harmonies from G major. Juxtaposing F# minor against chords from G major is incredibly dissonant because G major has very little to do with F# minor.

As a result, the guitarist is essentially playing in the wrong key half of the time. And yet, the part totally works! Instead of just sounding harsh, it conveys the angst of the song very effectively.
It really goes to show you that anything goes in music and music theory.

All rules have their limits and are worth being broken sometimes – but breaking them is usually more effective when you know what the rules are in the first place and why they are there. Know the rules so you can intelligently break the rules, right?

If you are interested in discovering more about music theory and how it can help you in your creative work, consider checking out the music theory course, HIT Music Theory.

If you want to learn more about music theory and how it’s used in modern music, you can download this free eBook, Inside the Hits: the Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs.

Dave Kusek is the founder of New Artist Model and Berklee Online. Over the years he’s worked with tens of thousands of musicians around the world across every genre imaginable and in many different markets. New Artist Model is an online music business school designed especially for indie musicians. Learn how to turn your music into a career, understand the business, and start thinking like a musical entrepreneur.

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9 thoughts on “3 songs that break music theory rules – and are better for it

  1. Sorry, but this is all pretty silly, and if you actually know anything about music history, theory, and composition, you’ll know there are tons of examples in the literature of the masters breaking these rules. There was a time when parallel perfect intervals were used exclusively (early organum,), and many, many examples of “wrong” chords and scales being used, in “classical” music and especially modern jazz.

    I think you are referring to simple 18th century 4 part harmony exercises and rules. But a simple perusal of Bach’s harmonizations of the Lutheran chorals will show numerous examples of him breaking those rules. The rules are guidelines based on what was normally done in practice.

    All of this stuff existed before. And the more you know, the more freedom you have. To misquote Santayana, those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.

  2. Sorry to point this out to ya, but if what
    you call an F# minor scale has a C and
    a G note in it, its an F# Locrian mode,
    which has the same scale notes as the
    G major scale (G Ionian mode).
    I haven’t listened to the tune, but soloing on those changes would
    not really be dissonant, especially if
    you treated the C note as an “accidental” and emphasized a C#,
    and stuck with the G note (the flatted
    second in F#). I know this is kind
    of technical, but you would essentially
    be making a strong emotional state-
    ment much like older Chick Corea
    tunes, where the solo section of a
    tune would go back & forth between
    E Phryggian (the darkest mode) to
    F Lydian (the brightest mode)–
    a pretty exciting, kinda manic-depressive result using exactly the
    same scale notes for both changes!

  3. The rules of Harmony and the rules of Composition are two different things: harmony training has to do mostly with four-part voice leading (choral arrangement), and rules such as avoiding parallel octaves or fifths are meant to keep voices (SATB, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) distinct from one another at all times. Harmony rules are almost ALWAYS broken in composition regardless of genre or style, in classical as well as popular music, especially in instrumental music. Some popular rock groups, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, got their distinct sound from group singing using a lot of parallelism.

  4. Sorry, but I wouldn’t call what Bowie did in Space Oddity a rules infraction. First, C, F & G spell I, IV & V in the key of C. Second, F, G & A can easily be construed as VI, VII & borrowed I from the parallel keys of A minor and A major, respectively. There is even a name for the use of a major third in the i chord of a minor key. It’s called a “Picardy” third. The F & G are common chords in both C and A minor–thus making a particularly compelling modulation. One of the best arguments for detractors of R & R is the insipidity of tunes that fail to change keys or use borrowed chords. Because of this I find great respite in Classical and Jazz. That being said–blues-based tunes like JBG get their charm from breaking the number one rule in harmony (avoid parallel fifths) and I often say that R & R is based on doing so–right out of the chute. So to fully appreciate this reckless abandon for the rules (often a good thing) one should spend some time developing an appreciation for the adherence to them. Oh, and by the way, eventually classical composers themselves would come to eschew those same pesky rules. Check out Debussy’s use of parallel ninth chords. There’s a name for that, too!. It’s called “planing”

  5. None of these examples “break” music theory rules. Either the author misunderstands what music theory is or he is engaging in clickbait headlines to drum up traffic. In the the Bowie song the progression he mentions is I IV V VI major. The fact that the VI chord is major is not a violation of anything- Bach did it all the time!
    Similarly the parallelism in the Chuck Berry was anticipated by not only Debussy but by Gregorian Chant.
    The last example is just a modal inflection of F#minor namely the Phrygian mode- one of the ancient Greek/Church modes. There isn’t anything you can play, write or improvise that can’t be described by music theory so it’s impossible to “break the rules” of music theory.

  6. Many years ago, I walked into a San Diego music store to buy some guitar strings. And I saw Barney Kessel, on a stage they had set up, and he was riffing away, getting the crowd in a great mood. After the song, some GIT know-it-all started analyzing all the melodies, asking about dominant this and augmented that and diminished other stuff with blah blah blah….he was showing everyone how smart he was at music. And the GIT grad finally asked was that a common technique or not. And Barney’s response was awesome. “I didn’t do that! I just start playing….” and he started to riff. “Oh….that sounds good…..yeah, this too…..OK, not this…… That’s how i write music!!”, followed by the sound of thunderous applause. Both FOR Barney and AGAINST the person trying to turn art into science.
    Food for the thoughtful.

  7. Wrong on Space Oddity. If you substitute the A minor with an extended chord (A Dom7), it would be a secondary dominant, more specifically, V/ii. This is a common chord substitution in Jazz standards and great American standard-type music (see Randy Newman’s “Guilty” as a example).

    Wrong on Fistful of Steel. F#minor and GMajor are scale degrees of the D Major scale. F#minor is the third degree and G Major the fourth. In that context, one can play F# Phrygian.

    If you want to learn more about chord substitutions, diatonic and chromatic harmony, and other music theory bits, find me on instagram. Thanks and keep making music!

  8. I’ve taught music theory classes for over forty years. I teach my students that there are no “rules.” There are just stylistic tendencies. If you want to write in a particular style you follow the patterns and tendencies in that style.

    When I write a score for a client, film, etc. I use the stylistic tendencies that are needed to convey the period, dramatic meaning, and/or context of the music. And for sure, when I can compose something where no particular style is specified, then there certainly aren’t any rules.

    Claude Debussy is reported to have said: “Works of art make rules, but rules do not make works of art.”
    And Paul Hindemith left us with these insights: “There is a notion, springing from ignorance of the working-processes of the artist, that the true artist can be as ‘wrong’ as he likes; that if he does something ‘wrong’ it makes sense and sounds better than much that would be ‘right.’ This notion assumes the presence of a special guardian angel that permits liberties in artistic work which are not granted in the other domains of human endeavor. . . . According to this idea, composing, writing, and painting would be ideal occupations for all sorts of know-nothings, and one would have to pity those who sullied their fresh, unspoiled point of view with comprehensive technical knowledge. But things are not as simple as that. What is ‘wrong’ in the usual sense is so only with reference to inadequate theories of composition, which apply a narrow measure to the abilities of the composer.” “Those industrious ones, too, who think that by memorizing and working hard at rules and precepts they will come by a recipe for producing convincing music had better give up the search.”

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