For many Electronic Musicians, learning music theory can seem like a daunting task.
Everyone says you should learn the theory behind music and apply it to your productions, but you may not know where to start or what is relevant to electronic producers.
This leaves electronic producers frustrated and lost.
That’s why I compiled a list of five important music theory tips that you can start applying right now with only a very basic understanding of music theory.
These may not be the only principles of music theory you need to learn. I have, however, found them to be the most relevant and useful for producing electronic music. These tips are intended to get you excited to go from this tutorial and into a DAW with the knowledge of how to create compelling musical passages without guess work.
There will be an assumed knowledge of very basic music theory in this article. from topics like scale degrees, triads, and scales.
1. Octave Doubling
Doubling octaves is one way to write professional sounding harmonies.
Think of it this way. An orchestra will have piccolos and flutes playing notes up in higher registers, strings playing in the middle and low registers, and double basses and tubas playing notes in the very low registers.
To achieve this thick harmonically rich sound in your productions, you double certain notes an octave up and/or down.
The best notes to double are the root note and the fifth interval or the third note in the triad, as they give the chord its identity.
Taking it a step further, you can create even more timbral interest to your sound by taking these doubled octave notes and putting them on a separate synth or real instrument.
2. Triad Inversions
When strictly playing triad progressions, the musical movement can often feel stiff.
The main reason for this is that playing triads in root form is boring and also hard to play with all the moving up and down on a keyboard.
There is a solution for this and it is to use inversions.
A triad inversion is created by taking the lowest note of your root chord and moving it up an octave.
There are, however, two types of inversions for triads. The first inversion and the second inversion.
Taking the lowest note of the root chord and moving it up an octave gets you the first inversion and taking the lowest note of the first inversion chord and moving it up an octave gets you the second inversion.
The next time you're writing out progressions, try a couple of inversions to add more interest and movement to the tracks.
3. Voice Leading
When writing chord progressions, you want the chords to create rich textures that carry strong emotions.
You can do so by tricking the listener's ears into thinking that large spans of triad jumps sound smaller.
This is known as voice leading.
Voice Leading is the process of writing chord progressions while keeping the relationship between successive notes of those chords simplified and keeping with the proper quality of the chords themselves.
To write these chords, keep the rule of common tones in mind when moving from chord to chord, meaning keep notes the same if they are common to both chords.
For example, if we are in the scale of C-Major and want to use voice leading to go from a C-Major chord to a G-Major chord, we keep the root note, C, the same.
If you remember back to the tip on using inversions, you can see that the G-Major is a second inversion.
Inversions are your friends when voice leading as they keep the quality of the chord the same, but allow for movements in the octaves in order to create seemingly smaller triad jumps.
If you don’t have a common tone in the chord you want to jump to, keep the same inversion of the previous chord. This will ensure that all notes move at a minimal distance.
I'll give another example with a C-Major scale.
Say you wanted to go from an F-Major second inversion to a G-Major (If this was an F major with no inversion the jump up to the G major would already be in proper voice as the jump contains the least amount of movement possible and is the same inversion).
The jump from the bottom notes of the chord, C (bottom note of the second inverted F-Major chord) to G is quite drastic, so you want to close the gap between the chords. You want to find notes that have the smallest jump from the C and that are in the chord of G-Major.
The note that fits this is the D in the G-Major chord, which is the top note of the triad.
Moving the D down an octave creates a G major second inversion chord which is the same type of inversion as the chord you moved from.
Since there are no common notes in these chords, copying of the inversion creates proper voice leading.
Here is an F-Major second inversion chord going to G-Major second inversion chord with proper voice leading. There are no common tones in these two chords, so we copied the inversion of the previous chord to achieve this
To recap, use voice leading to create rich textures. To do this, keep notes that are common to both chords in the same position on the following chord. If there is no common tone, then keep the same inversion to keep the note movement to a minimum.
4. Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Chords
Successful and memorable songs can and have been created with just the use of triads, but you can add more emotion and complexity to your chords by using seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords in your progressions.
A seventh chord is a chord consisting of a triad plus a note forming an interval of a seventh above the chord’s root.
A ninth chord is a seventh chord plus a note forming an interval of a ninth above the chord’s root.
An eleventh chord is a triad or seventh chord plus the fourth scale degree.
Finally, the thirteenth chord is a triad or seventh chord plus the sixth scale degree.
Next time you're writing chords, add a couple of these chords and listen to the complexity and mood change that occurs with the added notes.
If you want to add even more colors to the palette, think back to my tip on inversions. Inversions can also be applied to these chords, but with even more possible combinations.
In a triad inversion, you could only invert twice before you cycled back around to the same root triad, but with these bigger chords, you can go past the second inversion as there are more notes to invert. In the seventh chord, you can now invert the chord three times.
With ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords you can invert four times, depending on whether you added onto a seventh chord or a triad.
The use of these chords and their inversions alone allow you to explore new harmonic possibilities, so build up your triads and start adding these extra notes.
All memorable songs consist of at least one recognizable motif.
A motif is a short part of a melody that is recognizable because of its distinct rhythm and theme.
Think of the Mission Impossible theme song. The song’s strong rhythmic identity makes it catchy.
This is important because the lead is one of the most important elements of the track as it is the most memorable part to the listener. This is what they will be humming back to themselves if you have written a catchy melody, so ensuring that you can create a compelling melody is of great importance to the success and likability of the song.
To write a convincing motif, work on creating a distinctive rhythm first that will be easily recognizable. How you create this motif should be dictated by the genre of music, the key you are in, whether you want a fast paced or slow rhythm, and the emotion you are trying to convey to your audience.
After you have chosen your rhythmic pattern, it’s time to start creating by adding melodic intervals to these notes.
The one rule of thumb to use when choosing different notes for your rhythm is to make yourself feel the emotion of the note change.
If you can feel some emotion from the interval change, then the listener is likely to have the same feeling. Once again, you should also consider the genre and key you are in. Listening to other songs that have distinct and catchy motifs will give you a better sense of how to create one.
Here are a few examples that make great use of motifs.
- All We Need (Autograf Remix)—Odesza
- Ghosts n Stuff—Deadmau5 Firestone—Kygo
Writing music is all about expressing your ideas and emotions in the chords, harmonies, and melodies. Using these five tips will give your productions more depth, interest, and excitement, without having to learn an endless amount of Theory.
As always, practice here is key. Don’t feel the need to force anything. Keep turning out melodies and chord progressions with these tips and you will start to develop professional musical passages that take your songs to the next level.
The next step, to complement these theory tips, is to start ear training.
Knowing what specific notes, intervals, and chords sound like and what emotion they carry will help convey your idea to the listener in a more detailed and effective way. Check out this excellent free tool for ear training practice. musictheory.net