What parts of music theory do producers really need to know? And which parts are just intellectual snobbery?
Of course, a theory exists for a valid reason. Music exists in the abstract space where words aren’t ever quite enough – and so we try to pin it down by using even more words to explain it. As humans wonder about how music works, we find complex explanations to teach each other. But music theory is only theory – it’s an explanation of why things work after we realise that they do; it’s not a great way to come up with inspiring new music.
But after centuries of doing just that, does a producer need to know about Half-Diminished Chords? Will knowing the theory behind Chromatic Mediants make your tunes instant bangers? Will a Neapolitan Sixth be the difference between summer hit and a Soundcloud bargain-basement upload?
In electronic music, some music theory will make you understand how things work and give you the tools to know why; while some knowledge can only go so far. Here’s what we think is really necessary, and what it’s worth throwing out.
INTERVALS – Useful For More Than Just Exams
An interval is the distance between one note and another. For example, an octave is the 12-semitone gap between the same notes; a four semitone jump up in pitch is called a ‘major third’, and a seven-semitone gap is called a ‘fifth’ or ‘perfect fifth’.
You might not be communicating musical scores in intervals to other producers, but these pieces of knowledge play a role. Intervals are, at heart, the basic building blocks of both melodies and chords, and so it becomes useful to be able to talk about them with other people. In fact, the rest of this article even starts to use intervals to help describe the other concepts that are worth knowing about – knowing intervals goes a long way, then.
As well as the knowledge, it’s worth giving yourself some basic ear training in intervals once in a while. Sites like ToneDear and MusicTheory.net have some great quick exercises for familiarising yourself with the sounds of different intervals, and can train you to know what notes to reach for next.
One more thing to know: understanding how different intervals can work together, and how they sound, can be great for sound-design and synth programming. Patches built on oscillators stacked by fifths (seven semitones), for example, give a different quality that might be useful in your own patches.
HOW SCALES WORK – Essential Knowledge
Musical scales are sets of notes. While you could play a tune using every single one of the 12 notes in an octave, it rarely sounds quite right (although techniques like Serialism try and do just that.) A scale forces us to use a combination of notes out of those 12 (usually seven of them), across all instruments.
If you’re playing alone with a single instrument, you don’t need to think as much about scales in music. It’s when different instruments are playing together that the power of scales comes into focus. Having multiple instruments playing notes from the same scale means they’ll all be in key, and the music will sound… like music.
There are limits to how far knowledge of scales will take you. You don’t have to memorize hundreds of exotic scales – we have Scaler for that – but knowing a few basic ones and how they sound can take you further into making better music.
SHARPS AND FLATS – Relics of the Old World
OK, OK, sharps and flats exist, and you should still know that a D# is the same as an Eb if you want to make music – even if it’s just so that you can interpret your DAW’s piano roll properly. What’s less useful for producers, though, is when an extreme scales calls for Bbb or F##.
At one point in history, some keyboards were designed with both sharps and flats as options. Sharps and flats were often tuned slightly differently in the past, but we’ve left this system behind; the trouble is, we’ve kept a lot of the naming conventions attached to it, and these can be unhelpful for basic musical tasks.
MODULATION – It’s Not for Everyone
When you want your music to move from one scale to another, there are certain ways to do it effectively. We call this modulation – not as in an LFO but as in a key change. There are a few ways to modulate nicely, saving you and your listeners from jarring transitions, but it’s not necessary for all producers.
One hallmark of modern electronic music styles is that they tend to remain in the same musical key throughout the song. As well as being in keeping with the repetitive grooves of electronic music, this also helps to keep mixes controlled in a world that demands super-tight mixdowns. Not everyone requires a 90s boyband-style key-change, but there’s something to be said for knowing how to use them if this is how you want to keep your music interesting in other styles.
TRIADS AND OTHER CHORDS – Know them!
Simple triads are the building blocks for almost all harmony in music. Stringing together major thirds, minor thirds is a key skill, and a very easy one to learn – both types keep the exact same gaps between notes (intervals), whatever note you play them on, and the set of chords that fits in with the musical key you’re in will define the progressions you’re able to build according to music theory (although breaking the rules here can easily make more interesting music).
A major chord has semitone gaps of 0-4-7 between its first note (eg, C, E and G; or F#, A# and C#). A minor chord has gaps of 0-3-7 from its first note (eg, C, Eb and G; or Bb, Db and E). Diminished and Augmented chords use 0-3-6 and 0-4-8, respectively – see more about Triads at MusicTheorySite.
As a fundamental unit of music, triads – or at least major and minor chords – are very important to know, and you can build almost any existing song using them…
Extended and Suspended Chords
…but simple triads can only get so far before they become repetitive. This is where a little extra flavour can come in handy. By knowing how to extend chords into four or even five notes – as you can discover in the video below – you can add more spice to your existing simple major/minor chords, where appropriate.
On the other hand, a suspended chord (usually a Sus2 or Sus4) still contains three notes, but tweaks one of the notes from a normal triad and has a particular function to ‘lean into’ another chord that comes after. Check out how they work in this tutorial by PianoKeyboardGuide.
CHORD INVERSIONS – Great Production Tools
If you want to make a chord sound different but keep its identity, it’s time to try an inversion. A chord like C7 (C-E-G-Bb) is usually played exactly like that, with C as the lowest note, then E, then G and then Bb at the top. Inversions mess with that order, moving, for example, the C up an octave to the top, or both the G and the Bb down an octave to the bottom.
This gives a bit more of an interesting character to the usual chords, which can be especially useful if you’re changing a tune’s basic flavour in order to remix it.
Also the ability to move a chord slightly lower or higher in sound can help a lot when mixing, Reducing clashing frequencies on an EQ is a standard technique when constructing a song’s mix, but how about moving a chord out of the way of another instrument entirely? Useful stuff.
QUICK ESSENTIAL THEORY JARGON BUSTED
A scale made up of every single one of the 12 notes
Most simply, this means that you’re using a seven-note standard scale just as major or minor, and the notes and/or chords you select confirm to that scale – they are ‘diatonic to it’.
The starting note of a scale, and usually the starting note of any melodies made from that scale. In the D minor scale, the root note is D; in the A# major scale, the root note is A#.
Technically a three-note chord, but more often used to talk about simple three-note major and minor chords, and sometimes diminished and augmented chords.
Circle of Fifths
A chord progression created by moving between chords up and down a fifth (seven semitones up or five semitones down). An example would be five chords built on F – C – G – D – A in that order.
A musical scale (usually the major scale) is played not from its first note (the root) from its second, third, or fourth note, for example, reaching that same note at the top before coming down again. This results in a mode, which is technically a different scale.
Related to the interval of the fifth (seven semitones). In the D major scale, A major is the ‘dominant chord’. A is the fifth of D.
Extended ‘seventh’ chords have a few flavours, depending on the scale. A dominant seventh is a major chord with a minor seventh interval attached, eg C-Eb-G-Bb.