Basic Music Theory For Music Producers

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Music theory can seem daunting for self-taught musicians and producers, particularly when you haven’t had any formal musical education.

However, ensuring you have a solid foundational understanding of theory can help you reach new heights of musical creativity.

Music theory can help you with your musical projects by helping you understand the basics of melody and harmony and the importance of rhythm.

However, all beginner music producers asked themselves the following question at some point: “What is music theory?”

In this article, I will break down the basics of music theory in a way that is easy and accessible to beginners. You will learn the following:

  • What music theory is;
  • The basics and foundations of music theory;
  • How you can apply music theory in practice.

I am a self-taught music producer with 20 years of music production and sound design experience. The music theory concepts explained below have helped me improve my songwriting and the quality of my music production projects.

If you want to improve those skills, I’m sure this article will help.

You will learn the basic music theory terms, how to put a proper note in a chord, the circle of fifths, and you’ll lose the fear of playing black keys on a piano. ;)

Let’s get into it!

A Brief Introduction to Music Theory

In a nutshell, music theory is the study of music and its elements and characteristics.

Music theory dates back to the ancient world. Ancient Greeks developed intervals and scales, laying the groundwork for modern-day music theory.

Music theory was initially developed to organize religious and ceremonial music and ensure the pieces were the same every time they were played.

As music continued to evolve throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, music theory became more complex and included the study of harmony and counterpoint. It also began to have strict rules regarding composition in classical music.

In the 20th Century, music became less rigid, making way for complex and avant-garde styles like jazz and electronic music.

Advancements in technology also changed how music was produced and recorded, changing what was even possible for artists and producers.

Modern electronic musicians and producers now have access to digital sound synthesis, sampling, and sound manipulation technology that would be beyond the imaginations of early musicians and music theorists.

However, it’s so easy to start making music on a computer nowadays that many musicians start their songwriting journey without any music theory knowledge. This isn’t necessarily bad, but understanding the fundamentals can help you create music more easily.

For producers looking to incorporate music theory into their work, there are some key advantages, including:

  • Better composition: Understanding the basics of music theory means you can make informed decisions regarding your compositions. Knowing the rules and theory behind chord progressions, melody, and harmony can make your compositions more compelling and nuanced
  • Enhanced creativity: You know the old saying: you have to know the rules before you can break them! While originally stated by Picasso, this doesn’t just apply to visual art. Understanding the rules and structure of music theory means you will feel more free to experiment with unconventional composition techniques, including scales and rhythmic patterns.
  • Technical prowess: A deep understanding of music theory will help you create music and improve how you use your music production tools! Understanding music theory will also help you use your sound equipment, making it easier to create your desired sound.

The Basics of Music Theory

So, what are the basics of music theory?

Music is essentially broken down into three main parts: melody, harmony, and rhythm. We create melodies using scales and modes. We add harmony using chords.

In my music theory guide, I’ve broken everything down into six components to make the theory as easy to understand as possible.

Keep reading to learn more about:

  1. Musical Notation
  2. Scales and Modes
  3. Chords and Harmony
  4. Melody and Counterpoint
  5. Rhythm and Meter
  6. Timbre and Texture

1. Musical Notation

Musical notation is how music is recorded and visually represented. This creates a written language for composers and musicians to record their ideas and share musical communication.

Understanding musical notation can also help you grasp the ideas of music theory more efficiently, as it makes ideas of arrangement and composition more straightforward.

The basic elements of music notation.

The basic elements of music notation.

It may seem difficult at first, but learning notation is actually not very complex. It’s a simple system consisting of notes, rests, time signatures, and a few additional components that help us represent music visually.

The main components of musical notation are:

Notes and rests

In musical notation, the note symbols show not only the note’s pitch but also their duration. So, by looking at a note, you can see its pitch and length.

In addition to notes, rest symbols indicate periods of silence. By combining notes and rests of different lengths, we create melodies.

Staffs, clefs, and ledger lines

The staff represents different pitches on a piece of sheet music.

A clef symbol is placed at the beginning of the staff to nominate the pitch of the notes. Ledger lines are added above and below the staff to extend the range of the notes.

Time signatures

Music notation also designates the rhythm of the piece. These are located at the start of a piece of sheet music after the clef, and they describe the meter of the music; how many beats in each measure, as well as which note is equivalent to a single beat.

2. Scales and Modes

Scales and musical modes are the foundation of creating both melodies and harmonies!

They form the basis of all musical compositions and are pivotal to achieving the desired mood and tone.

In Western music, a Scale generally consists of seven notes and repeats at the octave.

Octaves, Tones, and Semitones

In Western music, an octave is divided into 12 semitones, which include the seven natural notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and five additional notes that come from sharping (#) or flatting (b) some of the natural notes, except between B and C, and E and F, where there are no sharps or flats because they are naturally a semitone apart.

An octave begins at any given note and spans 12 semitones (including both whole tones and semitones) up to the next higher note of the same name, where the cycle repeats.

The distance between each note can be either a whole tone (two semitones) or a semitone (the smallest step), creating the chromatic scale that forms the backbone of Western music theory.

Major and minor scales

Major and minor scales are key for creating the mood of a piece of music.

The major scale has a bright, upbeat sound and consists of seven notes with specific intervals that give it a cheerful sound.

For example, the C major scale is built around the note C and features the sequence of notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. It stands as one of the most frequently utilized musical keys.

Conversely, the minor scale, while also built from seven notes, has a more emotional and sometimes sad tone.

Here's an ilustration to help undestand major and minor scales. I hope you can read my handwriting. :)

Here’s an ilustration to help undestand major and minor scales. I hope you can read my handwriting. :)

The A minor scale, originating from the root note A, comprises the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. This scale is characterized by having no sharps or flats in its key signature, and its corresponding relative major is C major.

Relative keys refer to major and minor scales that possess identical key signatures or are enharmonically equivalent, indicating they contain the exact same notes. However, these notes are sequenced in varying patterns of whole steps and half steps.

Modes

Modes are a type of scale; they’re all variations of the major scale that begin with a different note on the scale.

Each mode has its distinctive sound and vibe. While there are many different modes, there are seven that are the most common in Western music: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

The Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths visually represents the relationships among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys.

It’s a powerful tool for musicians to understand and memorize key signatures, see the relationship between keys, and even compose and improvise music. I will cover it in a separate article. Until then, you can read more about it on Wikipedia.

3. Chords and Harmony

Chords and harmony provide depth to melodies and form the foundation of most modern music.

Chords are made when at least three notes are played together simultaneously. Harmony is the study of how chords are built and how the different notes go together.

Major and Minor Chords

Major and minor chords are made from either the major or minor scales. Like the keys, a major chord sounds cheerful and bright, while a minor chord is more emotional and somber.

The middle note of the chord is what designates a chord to be major or minor, based on whether it is a major or minor third above the root note.

Refer to my handwritten diagram below to learn how to create a major chord for any root note (please excuse my handwriting).

It's easy to create major chords once you know the formula.

It’s easy to create major chords once you know the formula.

So, to play a major chord, choose the root note and play it together with the second note (four semitones above the root note) and the third note (seven semitones above the root note). This way, you can play the major chord in any key.

And every chord type has a formula; you just have to remember them.

Minor chords are almost exactly the same as their major chord counterparts, except the second note is three semitones above the root note (instead of four semitones).

Minor chrods are very similar to major chords.

Minor chords are very similar to major chords but result in a completely different mood.

 Refer to the diagram above and change the root note to find the minor chord in any key.

Seventh Chords

Seventh chords add an extra note to major or minor chords for a fuller sound. Depending on the combination, they can add a jazzy or tense feel to the music.

Seventh chords include four notes: the root, third, fifth, and seventh intervals from a root note within a scale. They are called “seventh” chords because the fourth note is a seventh interval above the root note. There are several types of seventh chords, each with a distinct sound and emotional impact:

  • Major Seventh Chord: This chord consists of the root, major third, perfect fifth, and major seventh. It has a warm, bright, and slightly jazzy sound.
  • Dominant Seventh Chord: Consists of the root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. It has a tense, unresolved sound, often used to lead into another chord.
  • Minor Seventh Chord: This chord is composed of the root, minor third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. It has a softer, more melancholic feel than its major counterpart.
  • Half-Diminished Seventh Chord: This chord features the root, minor third, diminished fifth, and minor seventh. It has a tense, mysterious sound and is often used in jazz and classical music.
  • Fully Diminished Seventh Chord: Contains the root, minor third, diminished fifth and diminished seventh. Its taut, unstable sound makes it effective for dramatic musical passages.

Seventh chords add complexity and emotional depth to music, making them popular in many genres, including jazz, blues, classical, and popular music.

A friend of mine often jokingly refers to seventh chords as “Oasis” chords. In his own words, “Change any chord to a seventh to sound like Oasis.”

Ninth Chords

Ninth chords are extended chords that go beyond the basic triad (three-note chord) structure by adding a ninth interval above the root note. They are built on seventh chords with an additional note:

  • Major Ninth (Maj9): This chord includes the root, major third, perfect fifth, major seventh, and a major ninth. It has a bright, expansive sound.
  • Dominant Ninth (9): This consists of the root, major third, perfect fifth, minor (or dominant) seventh, and a major ninth. It’s known for its bluesy, rich character.
  • Minor Ninth (m9): It’s formed with the root, minor third, perfect fifth, minor seventh, and a major ninth, offering a smooth, slightly melancholic texture.

Ninth chords are another way to add depth and complexity to your music. Unlike minor and major chords, extended chords have a more nuanced sound, letting you implement a wider range of emotions in your chord progressions.

Modes and Chord Progressions

Modes influence chord progressions (chords played in a sequence). Every mode designates a set of chord progressions, which affects the mood of a piece of music!

A thorough understanding of how chords interact means music producers can create harmonic structures that are more compelling to listen to.

4. Melody and Counterpoint

Melody is a sequence of notes that stands out in a piece of music. Counterpoint is when melodies are combined into a cohesive whole while maintaining their identities.

Creating strong melodies

It’s easier to create strong melodies with a basic understanding of music techniques. A melody usually matches the scale or mode in which the piece is played.

Using techniques like repetition can help your central melody resonate with your listeners.

Applying counterpoint to melodies

Counterpoint adds depth to music when multiple melodies interact in a way that complements each facet of the music.

This is a great technique for electronic musicians to create layers of sounds that enhance the overall impact of the music!

5. Rhythm and Meter

Rhythm is how sounds and silences are placed within a piece of music.

Meter, on the other hand, refers to how the beats of the music are grouped into ‘measures’. Rhythm and meter are crucial for determining the pace and flow of your music.

Patterns of rhythm

Patterns in the rhythm are how the groove of a track is determined. The genre has a lot of influence on rhythm patterns; for example, jazz is famous for its syncopated rhythms, while the tresillo or triple rhythm is common in Latin music.

Groove

The groove refers to the overall rhythmic ‘vibe’ of a piece of music.

It took me some time to find out how much you can change the groove of a track simply by applying some Swing (also called Groove or Shuffle) to the hi-hats in the DAW‘s MIDI editor.

Paying attention to rhythm and groove gives you control over the energy of your song, enabling you to create and release tension. The rhythm often defines the song’s music genre – you will easily recognize a hip-hop beat, a house track, and a rock ballad simply by hearing the rhythm section.

6. Timbre and Texture

Timbre is sometimes referred to as ‘tone color,’ and it refers to the unique sound quality of different instruments or electronic sounds. It’s why the same note can sound completely different when played on two different instruments.

Different instruments like pianos, guitars, and flutes have completely different timbres. A flute has a much softer and smoother timbre than a guitar which is much more percussive.

Texture, on the other hand, relates to how sound layers are combined within a piece of music.

Creating timbre

For electronic music producers, the world is your oyster when it comes to timbre.

Synthesizers and software programs can create a huge range of sounds that can be endlessly modified to fit your goals. An understanding of timbre will let you choose and create sounds that fit your piece perfectly, enhancing the overall piece.

Creating texture

When producing music electronically, you can layer sounds and use counterpoint techniques to create a richly textured soundscape.

This is a great way to add depth and interest for your listeners and create a memorable and polished track.

How To Apply Music Theory in Music Production

Music theory isn’t just about reading textbooks; it can also mean enhancing your technical skills, creativity, and self-expression.

No matter your genre or the size of your audience, understanding and applying the basics of music theory can deepen your music production and songwriting skills.

Music theory can be practically applied to songwriting, whether you’re writing a song using your guitar or in a Digital Audio Workstation. Most importantly, I think understanding music theory is a true game-changer for electronic producers.

Some basic ways to apply music theory include:

Chord progressions/harmonies

Use your theory knowledge to enhance the foundation of your tracks: the chord progressions.

Understanding minor and major scales and modes is a great way to create more compelling harmonies and progressions. Use your DAW’s MIDI editor to improvise and experiment with different chord progressions and harmonies to find the ones that sound best.

Use of scales

Try using different scales when writing melodies. In the beginning, I used to come up with melodies entirely by ear. After learning how scales work, it became much easier to improvise and develop new melodies without hitting the “wrong” notes.

Your knowledge of music theory can also help you apply concepts like counterpoint to your melodies.

For music producers (including those working with electronic music), mastering these elements can open creative doors and help you share and record your ideas.

I learned music theory several years after starting to make music, and it improved my ability to collaborate with other musicians and share my musical ideas with other musicians and producers. It’s like learning a new language, except the language of music theory helps you communicate with other musicians.

Conclusion – Learn Music Theory Now!

Music theory is not just a set of rigid academic rules; instead, it’s a tool that can be used to expand creativity and increase innovation across all genres of music.

Once you have a basic understanding of music theory, you’ll be able to access a whole new world of creativity.

Music theory can also help streamline your work. Once you understand the basic music theory explained above, there will be less trial and error.

Instead of experimenting for hours until something sounds right, you’ll know why something works (or doesn’t) – which can save plenty of time! You’ll also be better able to collaborate with other producers and sound technicians,

Music theory is not a fusty relic of classical musicians; it’s a dynamic set of concepts you can use to your advantage, whether you’re a jazz musician or EDM producer.

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About Author

Tomislav is a music producer and sound designer from Belgrade, Serbia. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief at Bedroom Producers Blog.

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for this introduction. I never really bothered to look deep into theory, because I always assumed that was more for classical music, but I realized even electronic music can sometimes have pretty complex chords and progressions. Especially progressions are usually just a trial and error discovery for me. Is there any material you would recommend for a beginner willing to dive a little deeper?

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