The importance of music theory knowledge is an argument as old as time. Some say it’s absolutely essential, some say it’s not, but we all can agree that having the basics down definitely won’t hurt. Regardless, few artists, other than academic musicians, know and use the theory. One of the main reasons is because they see it as a set of strict rules that are either too complex to grasp or too limiting for the natural flow of creativity.
While it may be a fair assessment from a beginner's point of view, music theory is primarily a tool to understand how music works. There is no need to overcomplicate things, you don't have to read and write musical scores. All you need are just a few guidelines, and they hold the power to significantly improve the quality of your music - help to structure your songs, write better melodies and put them together with chord progressions.
What’s more, the basics of music theory can be of use when you want to get ideas down before they fade away, arrange compositions for maximum emotional impact and understand how your favorite songs by other musicians were made. Here is what you need to know to expand your music knowledge and boost your skills.
Scales are the building blocks of all music. Understanding scales means you can break down pretty much any melody or chord you hear.
A scale can be defined as a set of notes based in a particular key or a grouping of notes that sound good together. In electronic music production, the most commonly used are Minor and Major scales, both of them consisting of 7 notes. Major scale invokes happy and uplifting feelings, whereas Minor scale gives off more serious and melancholic vibes.
There are several easy formulas that you can follow to make musical scales. But before you start, you need to know about the “whole steps” and “half steps”.
A half step (also known as semitone) is the smallest interval between two notes. A whole step is a distance between two notes that have one note in between them. Essentially, a whole step is equal to two half steps.
On a piano keyboard, note C is a whole step up from note D - you skip one key and land on the next. A half step from C would be C#, the very next note.
Major scale formula: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.
Example: If you choose the C key and count up using the formula, it would be C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
Minor scale formula: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.
Example: If you want to build the C minor scale, it would be C, D, D#, F, G, G#, A#. The correct way to write it down is actually “C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb.”
Wonder why some of the notes are written differently? More on that below.
The Difference Between “#” and “b”
The symbol # means “sharp” and “b” means “flat”. “Sharp” indicates that a note is played one semitone higher than normal. “Flat” means that a note is played one semitone lower than normal.
In the example above, we write “Eb” instead of “D#” (the third note) in the C minor scale because the note we normally play in the C major scale is E, and we are playing it one semitone lower (since we are in minor), so it is flat.
A chord is a combination of notes playing at the same time. Just like scales, chords can be Major and Minor with similar characteristics - Major chords sound happy, Minor chords sound rather sad or serious.
Chords are the tools for creating the emotions you want to portray through music, and there are a lot of ways to arrange notes in a chord. Below are the most commonly used chords in EDM and other music genres. All of the examples are given in “C” as a root note (the pitch that establishes the tonality of a chord), though you can create equivalent chords in any key by counting the intervals between the notes.
C Major Chord
Sounds: uplifting, simple
Chord type: triad (made up of 3 notes: a root, a third note and a fifth note from a scale)
Notes: C E G
Half-step intervals: root, 4, 3
C Minor Chord
Chord type: triad
Notes: C Eb G
Half-step intervals: root, 3, 4
C minor is similar to C major chord, except for the third note - it’s dropped one half-step which gives it a sad sound.
C Suspended Fourth Chord
Chord type: suspended
Notes: C F G
Half-step intervals: root, 5, 2
C Major Seventh Chord
Notes: C E G B
Half-step intervals: root, 4, 3, 4
It’s essentially a C Major chord, with the 7th note of the Major scale added.
C Minor Seventh
Notes: C Eb G Bb
Half-step intervals: root, 3, 4, 3
A chord progression is a succession of chords. Normally in electronic music, these chords are repeated over an 8 or 16 beat loop, so to get a better idea of how your chord progression sounds and feels, set your DAW to loop 8 or 16 beats.
Each note on a scale has a specific number assigned to it that indicates the name of the cord. These numbers are written in Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII). Major chords are labeled with uppercase Roman numerals, Minor chords are labeled with lowercase numerals.
Let’s see on the example of the C scale, which goes as C, D, E, F, G, A, B
Chord progression C – F – G would be written as “I – IV – V” with capital numbers indicating the Major notes, “I” meaning the first note from the scale (C), “IV” representing the fourth note (F) and “V” for the fifth note (G).
Chord progression C – Am – F – G would be written as “I – vi – IV – V” which is identical to the above progression except for the Am note labeled as “vi” where the lowercase indicates that is Minor and the numeral means that it’s the sixth note on a scale.
Regardless of Major and Minor, Roman numerals also have corresponding scale degrees:
i = Tonic
ii = Supertonic
III = Mediant
iv = Subdominant
V = Dominant
VI = Submediant
VII = Leading tone (in Major keys) and Subtonic (in Minor keys)
Tonic defines the name of the scale and serves as “home base”, the tonal center of the scale. Finish on this degree to give the listener a sense of resolution. As a beginner you don’t have to think too much into the degrees, the main takeaway here is that you should try to start and/or finish on the tonic.
Leading and Dominant create a longing for returning to the tonal “home”, so it’s a good idea to end a chord progression on V – i or VII – i.
Bass and Melody Notes
For the right bass notes, you can start off by copying the lowest notes of your chord progression and play along with your chords. The root note of the chord always sounds the best but you are free to try other scale degrees.
The first, third and fifth scale degrees sound the most harmonic both for the bass notes and melodies, regardless of the supporting chord. You can also change your melody notes to the notes that are playing in the current chord, but only for some portions of the song, otherwise it will sound too repetitive.
Write down some chord progressions using the information from this post as your and then start experimenting in your DAW. Even the basics may seem confusing at first but as you practice and progress, it will make more sense and help you come up with interesting chord progressions and catchy melodies for your songs!