Music theory is basically the maths that underpins all of music. And while you can certainly get by without it, it's a really useful tool which can help enhance your musical output.
Knowing some of the key points of music theory is essential if you want to be a serious music producer.
These days, Music Theory seems to have developed a bit of a stigma surrounding it, which is understandable. The sheet music and all those complicated symbols can certainly be offputting, but this is an undeserved reputation.
In fact, familiarising yourself with music theory can have a profound effect on the music you're making. It gives you ideas on what key signatures and scales you should be sticking to when starting your musical ideas, and having a theoretical framework can help you if you're stuck and not sure where to go next with an idea you're working on.
So, forget the trauma of boring childhood piano lessons, or the holier-than-thou attitudes of jazz musicians arguing over which tone interval is better, and let's look at some practical music theory.
In this guide, we are going to look at 10 tips which can help you enhance your music through the power of music theory, so let's get started!
This is a simple technique, but it can work wonders on your music.
If you've got yourself a chord progression in your DAW, but you find it's sounding a bit flat or clunky, then using this broken chords technique can instantly add a bit of rhythmic interest to the sound.
The theory is; instead of playing your chords on the beat all together, break them up to play the notes separately, in mini arpeggios of their component notes.
So in this image you can see a simple progression of chords played in blocks. All the notes are played at the same time, and for the same duration of time.
Below, you can see the same chord sequence but split up using this broken chords technique. Not only is this a great way to add some variation to your music, but it can dictate some cool rhythms, and even give you ideas for some melodies too.
Try this technique out next time you're feeling stuck on a chord progression, and remember that there's no right or wrong way to do it. Just mess around with the variation between the notes and you can get some really fun results!
Make use of Chord Inversions
Another really simple trick you can work with is chord inversions. This is pretty basic theory, but it can drastically change the overall tone and sound of a chord progression, without actually changing the chords.
The way you do this is by changing the order (vertically) your notes are played in your piano roll.
So, let me show you what I mean.
The screenshot above shows four different chord voicings, but they're all the same D Major chord.
The notes comprising a D Major chord are D, F# and A, and you can see that all four of these chord voicings contain only these notes.
However, what's cool about this phrase of chord inversions is that they sound different. Try it yourself in your DAW, draw in a chord and then copy it, and use the keyboard shortcuts to move notes up or down an octave.
When you playback the phrase of inverted chords, it sounds different because the emphasis is being put on different notes at the top as well as the bottom of your chord voicing.
This is a really cool trick you can use to add some harmonic variation to your chords, and it leads nicely into the next tip.
All about that Bass.
So continuing on from the idea of chord inversions, let's talk about bass.
In music theory, you will often find the root note of a particular chord acting as the bass note, though this is not always the case.
So if you have a C Major chord (C, E, G) you would have a lower C note as your bass. But you don't have to do this. In fact, changing the bass note of the chord you're using can change the whole tonal focus of the music, and it works the same as the inversions trick we discussed above.
So let's continue with those chords for our example.
I've used the same chord inversions of D Major as we had in our previous example, and now I've added bass notes. If you're following along and copying this activity, try adding in some bass notes like you can see in the screenshot above.
I've used A, D, A and a lower D to underpin the chord inversions above.
When you listen back to this, you can hear how each time it sounds different. However, you don't have to stick to notes within the chord you're using. You can use any notes in key, and even try ones that aren't for some more discordant of weird sounding harmonies.
The point here is, it's all about the musical relationships between notes in a chord.
The relationship between the tonic D and the F# is a major third, and between the tonic D and the A is a fifth. But by changing the chord inversions, we are changing the perceived intervals that the listener hears.
It's why the above example of inversions sounds like 4 different chords, and this effect is amplified by changing the bass notes you put under your inversions.
We should all be familiar with scales in music. Even if you only know a couple, they're a basic part of creating music, and the most common scale is the C Major scale, which is simply playing the white notes of a piano from C to C.
But hiding within this simple and overused scale is a secret world of weird and evocative modes.
The key concept here is that by playing the C Major scale from a different starting note, you're creating a new sound because of the intervals between the notes in the scale.
So, to hear this, create a MIDI clip in Ableton and play or daw in the notes of the C Major scale.
Then, hit the Fold button, which will lock the notes in your MIDI clip to those on the scale. Shift it up and down an octave to expand the range of notes, and now you have a MIDI clip where you can move the scale around to start on different notes.
You can see this in the image here.
I've got a C Major scale, and because I've folded the MIDI clip, wherever I move it to, it's only going to be playing the white notes.
Try this yourself, and listen to how different the tone is for the different versions.
When we talk about music, and particularly scales and key signatures, we so often attribute emotion and feelings to different ones.
For example, the scale and key of C Major is the simplest key signature, and is therefore most common. It's used in lots of children's songs and nursery rhymes, and this gives it an association with happiness and simplicity. You hear C Major, and you think of happy children's songs.
But is the same true for the different modes within the scale?
Move the scale so the mode begins on E, does it still sound happy and child-like?
The same is true for all key signatures; the important thing is to retain the same notes on the scale, and move the scale pattern around to begin on different notes. They sound so different because it's a different sequence of intervals between the notes. You can emphasise this effect by playing the same bass note as the first note of your mode.
When you're writing music, and you have a knowledge of music theory, you realise how important intervals are between notes.
This is what we touched on with chord inversions, and changing the bass note underpinning your chords. It's also hugely relevant in the previous tip about Modes.
A cool trick you can take advantage of with this is by using a single note as melody, and changing the underpinning chords.
So even though your melody is the same note, its interval relationship to the chords underneath it changes each time, so this creates a perceived difference for the listener.
Above you can see the D Major chord progression from our previous example, and I've added a melody using just an F# note on the top of it, which then rises with an A and a D. (I've dimmed the chords so the melody stands out brighter and you can see what I mean.)
This is a simple example, but theory builds upon what we've learned so far in this guide.
If you use interesting chord inversions, and have a harmonic base which is making use of different chord voicings, with broken chords for some rhythmic interest, you don't need a super complicated melody.
Using a single note repeating can give a really nice effect as it contrasts with the different chords it's playing on top of!
Give it a try next time you're stuck, and then (as in the example above) throw a few different notes into the melody to give it some extra interest.
If you want to go in another direction for your melodies, you can create exciting effects by making a dramatic leap up the scale for your melodies.
In case you didn't already know, each note in a scale is a different interval relative to the tonic note of that scale.
So, in the scale of C Major, the notes are as follows;
You can see above that the Root or Tonic note is C, and the other notes in the scale are accordingly labelled as their intervals.
So, when you're creating melodies you can inject some big interval leaps to really grab the listener's attention. A good interval to use for this is a Major sixth, which takes a big leap up the scale and brings your melody into a new area of the music.
But you can experiment with different interval leaps in your music to see what works best.
There are some really cool things you can do with chords, and a particular feature in Logic Pro that I love is that in the transport bar, it will tell you what chord you're playing based on the MIDI notes you hit on your keyboard. There is an equivalent in Ableton through a M4L device, but it's not quite the same.
The point is, it allows you to see how different chords are put together if you add more notes.
So let's see what you can do with this concept.
There's some really complex theory that can go into chords when you're layering all sorts of different notes, but luckily you can get your head around it pretty simply, and with the help of technology, you can see exactly what chord you're playing.
Now, you can get some really fun and exotic sounds by layering chords on top of each other, in a technique called polychords.
A good example of this is to use two chords which share a note.
So, in the key of C Major, we could use C Major (C E G) and G Major (G B D).
The interesting thing here is that they share the note of G, so when you combine them on the keyboard, you get a polychord which is Cmaj9. C E G B D.
This works because the G Major chord's root note, the G, is a perfect fifth above the root note of the first chord, the C in C Major.
But this isn't the only chord combination you can create; experiment with different combinations and if you're stuck, try chords that share notes as in our example above.
If you're only using chord triads in your music, things can begin to sound a bit boring and plain. What you can do here is add extension notes to give a bit more character to a chord.
Embellishing a chord with an extension can come in many forms, but the theory is as follows;
Let's take the scale of C Major, with our first triad being C Maj - C E G.
This chord comprises the root note, the third and the fifth degrees of the scale. So, we can add other degrees of the scale to the triad to create a new chord.
You can see in the piano roll above that I've got the scale of C Major, and a chord to the right of it which is a C Major with the 7th degree of the scale added on top. So, accordingly, this chord is called Cmaj7.
But it doesn't stop there.
You can extend your scale into the second octave, and then there are more options available. If you extend the scale again, you can add the ninth onto a chord. In this case, the ninth is actually a D; it's the second degree of the scale, extended up into the second octave,
So you can have a chord comprising C D E G and it's a C 9.
To close out this guide, we will talk about pentatonic scales.
There's a cool trick I've seen on the internet, which is a 'hack' which allows you to fake being good on the piano.
Essentially, it says, only play black notes, and whatever you play will sound good.
And while this is correct, there's some interesting theory underpinning why this is true.
The black notes on a piano make up a Pentatonic scale, which is why they sound good together.
But you can play a pentatonic scale in any key.
The theory behind working out the pentatonic scale is simple;
A Pentatonic Scale only contains five notes, compared to the usual seven of a major or minor scale.
You can 'create' a pentatonic scale in any key by removing certain degrees in the scale.
In a Major scale, if you omit the 4th and 7th degrees, you have a Major Pentatonic scale.
In a Minor scale, you omit the 2nd and the 6th degrees, and now you have a minor scale.
A Pantatonic scale technially gives you fewer notes to choose from when crafting melodies, but they have a nice quality to them which can make for some really interesting and memorable melodies.
Get using this theory!
So, that was an overview of some basic theory concepts which should help level up your music making instantly.
Employing these techniques should help you create more cohesive music; with a better sense and understanding of the building blocks of music, you can create music you're more proud of, and which blends together nicely.
As I'm sure you can imagine, this is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the concepts of music theory, there is so much that goes into it, but there are some really useful and key ideas here which should get you to a better understanding of how to put music together.
Now, if you're looking for something to enhance your production theory as well as your music theory, be sure to check out our deals on Ableton Live project templates. We have an international team of producers, who are all working to recreate chart topping EDM tracks to as professional a standard as possible. These are a great opportunity for you to dig into a project and see the techniques that go into a studio quality, professional track.
Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and be sure to check back soon for more useful tips on all things music production!