music theory for producers

Music Theory For Home Studio Producers: The Key To Unlocking Creativity

Music theory is often thought of as too difficult, especially by home studio producers who make electronic music and those who don’t play an instrument. The premise of music theory is pretty simple. Let’s get to it.

Music theory for producers should involve knowing what a “Key” is and how it relates to the scale they are using, along with the relevant chords in that Key. The Key will outline a particular starting note, scale, and chords that can be shifted through the musical scale. All genres use this.

This article will cover the basics of music theory that a producer needs to understand to create better tracks, melodies, chords, progressions, harmony, and songs more quickly in any genre.

Music Theory For Producers

Suffice to say that almost anybody can power on a laptop or pc, open up their DAW and start creating music with a few clicks of a mouse button. However, many home studio producers neglect the fact that understanding music theory can take their tracks from mediocre to a hit song that is world-renowned just by understanding the most fundamental keys, scales, progressions, and chords.

This applies to all producers, including beat makers, EDM producers, electronic musicians, and home studio producers.

Take into consideration that all the great producers have a solid understanding of music theory and not just that of knowing how to use their DAW well. From the likes of Quincy Jones to David Guetta, the greatest producers in the world know music theory.

The misconception that music theory, especially the amount necessary to produce unforgettable melodies, progressions, chords, and songs for a track, is demanding and pushes producers away. Thus, they never learn or understand it, and as such, they produce lackluster songs at best. Additionally, many producers think that learning music theory also requires learning to play an instrument, which it does not.

Correlating Music Theory And Digital Music

It’s one thing to know that music theory will give you an edge when you create digital music, but where to begin is the real question.

It all starts with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). As a producer, you will create, record, and compile live and digital audio to make music in a DAW. All DAWs pretty much work the same way. They might look a little different, but they are essentially identical when stripped down to their nuts and bolts.

Every single DAW has a “piano roll.”. This is a section in the application that functions as a digital piano. Its purpose is to allow you to use MIDI (digital audio) to create music. By using a piano roll and any form of VST instrument (drums, beats, strings, synth, bass, etc.), you can create any type of music you like.

If you are reading this article, then the probability is high that you have experimented with some form of a VST instrument in your DAW, created some sounds by plotting notes on the piano roll, and played it back. However, you don’t know where to go from here.

The Basics Of Music Theory (Knowing The Musical Scale)

We will now cover the basic principles of music theory so that you, as a producer, can understand how to utilize it when trying to create music in a digital workspace. Comprehension of this section will allow you the create, manipulate, fix and master most aspects of digital music, no matter the genre. Take note that we are breaking down music theory into a broad generalization, but the principle of understanding this is foundational and applies to everything.

The most basic premise you will need to understand is that music is made up of 12 notes. If you look at your piano roll in your DAW or an actual piano, it is easy to understand. The notes of the musical scale are;

C | C# | D | D# | E | F | F# | G | G# | A | A# | B

Find a C note on your piano roll and move up in pitch one note at a time as you play. You will play through these notes. Once you have played these notes, then the musical scale repeats. Take note that when you move down the scale (lowering the pitch), you will be playing the scale in reverse. 

Playing the musical scale in reverse will essentially yield the same notes in terms of sound, but they are labeled differently. The musical scale played in reverse is;

C | B | Bb | A | Ab | G | Gb | F | E | Eb | D | Db

Take note that “#” means “sharp” and “b” means “flat.”. If you have to play the musical scale from C and move up three notes, or play the musical scale backward from C and move down nine notes, you will hit the exact same note. However, the former will be D#, and the latter will be Eb.

No matter if you play the musical scale up or down, the notes will always be in the same place, and this applies to any instrument, real or virtual.

Grouping Notes Together (Understanding Root Notes And Keys)

Music theory can be understood in its most basic form as that of grouping specific notes together that produce a particular sound. Grouping certain notes together can create an infinite number of sounds that effectively invoke a certain feeling or create a specific genre of music.

We can define grouping notes together as putting them into a “Key.”. A key comprises of one note and then a scale (group of notes) built around that note. That one note is typically referred to as the root note and is the first note in the Key’s scale.

Understanding the Key will allow you to understand what starting note you build a scale from, the scales chords, the progressions, and the harmony.

Hence, grouping notes together is referred to as a Key, and a Key always has a starting note (first note/root note). The problem arises when you aren’t sure which notes go together.

Understanding Scales

We said that grouping notes together would provide you with a specific type of sound. A scale is a cluster of notes that, when played, will offer a particular sound. The only way to know which scales provide which types of sounds is to go about learning them. That is, you actively memorize which notes work together to give you the sound you are looking for. 

Now, there are many scales, far too many to cover in this article. However, there are two main scales that musicians and producers use in modern music that pretty much make up 95% of popular music today, including EDM.

Understanding The Major And Minor Scale

The two main scales that are used in popular music today are undoubtedly the Major and Minor scales. If one understands these scales, one can produce an infinite number of melodies, sounds, and songs no matter what instrument one uses. This includes using all VST instruments in a DAW.

The Major scale, one could say, has a “happy” or “uplifting” sound, while the Minor scale can be seen as “sad,” “ominous,” or “scary.”.

We will now discuss how scales are made and how and why specific sounds are produced from them. Take note that these principles are applied to all scales, and in order to grow as a musician, an electronic musician, a producer, a beat maker, or anything else, you should take these principles, apply them and study further.

Making The Major And Minor Scale (Understanding Intervals)

In order to make the Major and Minor scale, we need to group specific notes together (as we said). Now there is a particular formula (method of grouping notes together) that we will use to create these scales, and each scale will have its own formula.

Moreover, every other scale in existence also has its own unique formula. This unique formula that gives us a scale is what produces each scale’s specific sound.

Thus, we can say that the scale formula is a fancy way by which we use a particular method to group notes together that will give us the sound we are looking for.

Now, if you take the formula for a Major scale and apply it to any note in the musical scale (we discussed that there are 12), you will effectively create a Major scale centered around that note (the root note).

For Example, If you use the Major scale formula on a C note, you will produce a C Major scale. Applying the formula to an F# note will create an F# Major scale. The same concept applies to the Minor scale. Using the Minor scale formula on a Bb note will create a Bb Minor scale. If you apply it to C#, it will yield a C# Minor scale.

The formulas we use to create the Major, Minor, and all other scales are produced by combining various intervals. Intervals are simply the spaces between notes. That is, we said that the musical scale has 12 notes;

C | C# | D | D# | E | F | F# | G | G# | A | A# | B

If you play a C note and G note together, it will produce a particular sound. Playing a C note and an F note will give you a different sound. Thus playing a C note and any note in the musical scale will produce a particular sound. These different sounds are called intervals.

Hence an interval is the distance (space) between two notes. Take note that if you play any note with a specific distance, it will always give you the same interval. For example, if you play a C and G note together, that is a space of 7 notes. Then, If you have to play an A note, count 7 notes, and play an E note, it will produce the same sound (same interval).

Grouping particular intervals together is how we build scales. Below are the names of all the intervals. We are using the C note as our example, but these interval spaces can be applied to any note, and the resulting sound, spaces between notes, and intervals will be identical.

Interval Name Chart

Notes Played TogetherSpace Between NotesInterval Name
C | C#1 NoteMinor Second
C | D2 NotesMajor Second
C | D#3 NotesMinor Third
C | E4 NotesMajor Third
C | F5 NotesPerfect 4th
C | F#6 NotesMinor Fifth (Diminished Fifth)
C | G7 NotesPerfect Fifth
C | G#8 NotesMinor Sixth (Diminished Sixth)
C | A9 NotesMajor Sixth
C | A#10 NotesMinor Seventh
C | B11 NotesMajor Seventh
C | C12 NotesPerfect Octave

Al that is left to do now is to group particular intervals together to give us specific scales. As we said, there is no other way but to memorize scale formulas and apply them to notes.

The formula for a Major scale is;

Root (starting note) | Major Second | Major Third | Perfect Fourth | Perfect Fifth | Major Sixth | Major Seventh | Perfect Octave

The formula for a Minor scale is;

Root (starting note) | Major Second | Minor Third | Perfect Fourth | Perfect Fifth | Minor Sixth | Minor Seventh | Perfect Octave

If we take a C note and apply the Major scale formula playing one note at a time moving through the intervals, you will have created a C Major scale. Thus the notes of a C Major scale are essentially;

C | D | E | F | G | A | B | C

If you have a look at your piano roll, you will notice that all the white notes are these notes in order.

If we apply the Minor scale formula to a C note, we will get;

C | D | Eb | F | G | Ab | Bb | C

Grouping Scales And Root Notes (Keys)

It would help if you now try and understand that a Key is a group of notes (a scale) centered around a starting note (the root note). Different scales provide us with various sounds. These sounds are made because the scale formula (method of grouping notes together) is derived from combining specific intervals (spaces between notes) together.

The Key of D Major, for example, will infer that the starting (root) note is D and that the notes in that Key are based on the Major scale, and the notes would be;

D | E | F# | G | A | B | C# | D

This is the basis of all music theory.

Understanding Melodies And Chords

As a music producer of any fashion, you must know that a song is made up of rhythm, harmony, and melody. Now that you understand the two most popular scales in recent modern history, you will only need to know how to make a melody and chords and put them all together.

Creating a melody is simple enough to understand. You will only need to take notes from the scale you are using and then improvise (play the notes in any random order) until you create something that is pleasing to your ear.

The next thing that you as a producer will need to understand is that melody sits on top of harmony (chords). Chords are simple enough to understand now that you know how a scale is made. As with a melody created by using notes from the scale, so will you use those notes of the scale to make chords.

That is, you will use a formula (use a method to group notes together) to create particular chords using the notes of the scale.

Major And Minor Chords (Triads)

The two primary chords you will build from the Major and Minor scales are aptly named the Major and Minor chords. There is a theory behind making these chords, but as a producer, it is more important to know how to quickly make the chords from a scale than to see the theory behind them. The process is simple enough.

For each note of the scale you are using (all seven notes of the scale), you will take each note and group it together with every second note in the scale, grouping together three notes at a time.

If we take the C Major scale, for example, then use each note in the scale and group those notes with every second note in the scale, grouping together three notes at a time, we will get all the chords of C Major.

Here is C Major;

C | D | E | F | G | A | B | C

If we take C and group it with every second note, only grouping three notes, we will get the notes;

C | E | G

Playing these notes tighter will give us the first chord of the scale. One thing to note is that these notes are effectively called Triads because of the three-note grouping.

If we then have to go to the D note and apply the same methodology, we will get the notes;

D | F | A

This is the method you will use to create Triad chords (namely Major and Minor chords) on each tone of the scale you are using. This technique can be applied to any scale.

Consider that EDM, Pop, Blues, Rock, Soul, Funk, and all the other genres build chords, utilize scales, create melodies and make songs this way.

Below is a list of the chords, notes, and names so you can grasp this concept better.

Major And Minor Diatonic Chord Chart For C Major

Notes Played TogetherMajor / Minor TriadNotes Of The Scale Used
C | D | EMajor1 | 3 | 5
D | F | AMinor2 | 4 | 6
E | G | BMinor3 | 5 | 7
F | A | CMajor4 | 6 | 8 (1)
G | B | DMajor5 | 7 | 2
A | C | EMinor6 | 1 | 3
B | D | FDiminished7 | 2 | 4

Understanding Progressions

The last aspect of music theory you will need to understand is progressions. Songs in all genres run in a loop of sorts. That loop can be anything from between 5 seconds to 5 minutes. It all depends on what you are trying to do.

However, most songs in most genres run in a loop of chord progressions that typically utilize 3 or 4 chords.

The progressions are again based on the scale you are using, but this concept is the easiest of them all. A handful of progressions are used over and over again, and you might be surprised to find out that many of your favorite songs actually use the same progressions and chords.

Due to the fact that these progressions can be played in any Key, as with scales, they are grouped in patterns that refer to the scale’s notes. Here are some very common chord progressions that are used in all types of music;

I | IV | V

I | V | VI | IV

II | V | I

These are roman numerals that denote the intervals in the scale. For example, the first progression is a “one, four, five” progression. To play this progression, you just find those notes of the scale you are using, play the appropriate chord that is made at that position and then loop those chords over and over again.

Hence, if we use C Major as an example, we will see that a one, four, and five progression in C Major are the chords;

C Major | F Major | G Major

The best thing that you as a producer can do is just to go out and learn all the popular progressions and then utilize them in the Key that you are using.

Applying Theory To Music Production

We have now covered the basics of music theory, and applying this to producing or music creation in your DAW is simple enough.

Using your piano roll and VST instruments, you will create a chord progression in a Key using your chosen scale. You will then use another VST instrument and create a melody using the same scale playing it over the chords.

This is the basic principle that music producers need to understand to create better music more easily and quickly.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need to understand music theory to be a great music producer?

Typically, music producers who understand music theory can create better-sounding tracks quicker than ones that do not. However, producers who don’t essentially know music theory can make good music just by using their ears.

Do you need to play piano to learn music theory?

You do not in any way need to learn to play the piano in order to learn music theory. As the name implies, it is theoretical and can be put into practice using any instrument, even a DAW’s piano roll.

How important is music theory in EDM production?

Music theory is undoubtedly critical not only in EDM but in all genres of music. Understanding music theory opens up all avenues that allow one to experiment by knowing. Music theory can be thought of as paint brushes (the tools required to create amazing works of art). Imagine trying to paint without paint brushes.

Why should you consider learning music theory?

Learning music theory will allow you to create music with your eyes open. It will be quicker, easier, and, more often than not, much better. No matter the genre of music, the instrument you are trying to record, or the track you are trying to make.

What parts of music theory do producers really need to know?

Arguably the most crucial part of music theory a producer needs to know is “what is a Key and what is the Key.”. A key defines the root and tells you the scale (grouped notes) and thus all the resulting chords. After that, understanding progressions is an essential aspect of music theory.

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