Music Theory For Producers: What You Need to Know
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Do music producers need music theory? No, beatmakers don’t need to understand music theory to make music. After all, a lot of music theory is intuitive-- You can probably tell which notes work together and which don’t just by being an avid consumer of music. With that in mind, understanding music theory and the relationship between notes can improve your workflow and make you a stronger musician in the long run.
It can be tricky to decode the jargon of music theory, but we’ll break down the basics that every producer should know below. By the end of this article, you’ll understand everything you need to know about music theory to start incorporating these important concepts into your music.
Understanding Notes On a Piano (Or MIDI Piano Roll)
The best way to understand music theory basics is to take a look at a piano. The note “C” is usually considered home base since it’s the easiest key and scale (we’ll explain these terms soon) to understand.
To locate a C on a piano or MIDI piano roll, you’ll want to pay attention to the groups of black and white keys. There’s a cluster of two black keys and three black keys, and a C note can be found by moving to the white key directly adjacent to the first black key in the two black key cluster.
I know, it’s a lot to take in just to find a single note. That being said, most MIDI piano rolls have note labels like “C3” or “C4” next to each note, making it easier for you to identify what notes you’re playing. A higher number distinguishes a higher tone, i.e a C4 is higher pitched than a C3, and a C2 is lower pitched than a C3. The distance between one C note to the next is called an octave. The same goes for any other note, i.e the distance between A1 and A2 is an octave.
These foundational rules will also become more and more second nature to you over time. You can also tape labels to your piano or controller keys while you’re learning the lay of the land.
A couple of other things to note:
White keys = Natural
Black keys = Sharps (#) or Flats (♭)
A sharp or flat means that it’s a higher or lower pitched version of a particular note. A C# (C sharp) is a C note that’s been pitched up. A G♭ (G Flat) is a G that’s been pitched down. The term “Natural” simply refers to a note that isn’t a sharp or flat. A C sharp and D flat are essentially the same note and are named based on the context of a composition. Natural keys are the white keys, as labeled with the green boxes above.
In music theory, you’ll also hear a lot about half steps and whole steps. These terms serve as a way to describe the relationship between notes. Essentially, any two keys next to each other constitute a half step, sometimes called a semitone.
So, a C to C# is a half step. An E to an F or a B to a C is also a half step. Two half steps make up a whole step-- Makes sense right? So a C to D would make a whole step since it takes two keys in between a note to make a whole step. A whole step from E would be an F# since you have to first go to F, and then to F# to travel two keys.
Keys and Building Scales
If the building blocks of music are notes, the next step up are keys. Keys are essentially families of notes that sound a particular way. Today, we’ll dive into the two most basic groups: major and minor.
In general, major keys or major sounds have a “happier” tone. Most pop songs are built in major keys. Minor keys have a sadder tone to them. Keys, or families of notes can be used to create scales, which is basically arranging notes in a particular way to produce a certain type of sound. Keys are established in the key signature of a song, which on sheet music can be distinguished by the amount of sharps or flats present.
While there’s only major and minor keys, there are plenty of other scales used to create different moods in music based on omitting certain notes in a scale, adding a note, or lowering or raising a particular note in the scale.
The Major Scale
We’ll dive into major scales first. Major scales generally have a happier sound than minor scales. This scale can most easily be understood in the key of C major:
Note that this is key plays all of the white keys and runs from one C to the next, creating an octave. The C major scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B with no sharps or flats.
The convenient thing about scales is that the relationship established between the notes can be applied to any key. Hence, the formula for a major scale is whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (or WWHWWWH for short). You calculate this by seeing how each note relates to one another within the C major scale. For example, C to D is one whole step, D to E is one whole step, E to F is one half step, so on and so forth.
The Minor Scale
Minor scales have a sadder sound than major scales, but they’re used frequently throughout all genres of music. The scale is understood best using the key of A minor. Just like C major, A minor has no sharps or flats. Since they share similar key signatures in terms of tone quality (all natural notes), A minor can be considered C major’s relative minor:
You’ll note that this scale plays from A to A but has a much sadder tone than C Major despite using the same notes. This is because notes can sound completely different contextually. As we can see, the A minor scale is A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.
You can also derive a formula from this sequence. Based on the relationship between these notes, we can determine that the formula for a minor scale is whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step or WHWWHWW.
Scale Degrees and Creating Chords
Scales are great for soloing or creating melody lines, but they can also be used to create chords, basslines and anything else you might want to create in your song.
It’s helpful to understand scale degrees in order to build chords. Basically, a scale degree establishes a relationship based on the placement of note within a scale. The scale degrees are as follows:
1st Note – Tonic
2nd Note – Supertonic
3rd Note – Mediant
4th Note – Subdominant
5th Note – Dominant
6th Note – Submediant
7th Note – Leading Tone
So, the first scale degree or tonic of C major would be C. The 3rd scale degree or mediant of C major would be E. This all ties into how you create chords.
Chords are made up of certain type scale degrees. We’ll go over how you create basic major and minor chords, but there are plenty of chords that extend beyond these baseline structures.
A major chord is constructed by using the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees of a major scale. In C Major, this would be the notes C, E, and G. Therefore, a C major chord consists of these notes all played simultaneously.
Similarly, a minor chord is constructed by using the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees of a minor scale. In A minor, this would be the notes A, C, and E. When play together, you have yourself an A minor chord.
These principles can be applied to any scale to make any type of major or minor chord. As you expand your knowledge of music theory, you’ll also come across augmented, 7th chords, and plenty of other relationships to enhance your music.
Tools That Do The Theory For You
Whether you’re still learning music theory, or want to work around it altogether, there are a ton of tools that make it easy for you to produce killer music as quickly as possible.
MIDI Chord Packs
There are a ton of MIDI chord packs available for free or for sale on the internet. The benefit of these over samples is that you’re able to study the relationship between notes in the MIDI files if you want to, so they could theoretically double as a learning tool. Plus, it’s just a quick way to start crafting inspiring music.
Orb Composer, along with other AI-assisted music plugins, makes it easy for you to build chord, melodies, and harmonies just by clicking a couple of buttons. You can also adjust parameters within the plugin like velocity to craft more organic sounding creations.
There are plenty of stock plugins that come with your DAW that make it easy to build chords, scales, and harmonies. For example, Ableton Live’s included “scale” sets your MIDI input according to a preset scale or your custom parameters. This is particularly useful if you don’t have your controller available-- Open up scale and use your laptop or computer’s keyboard to play any keys with your set scale. There are plenty of presets within the plugin to introduce you to new melodic structures without understanding a lick of music theory.
Why Should Producers Learn Music Theory?
So, why is it worth learning music theory as a producer? Here are some ways that showcase why music theory, or at least understanding the basics of it, is certainly worth your time as a musician and beatmaker.
1. You’ll expand your production vocabulary and possibilities.
Music theory allows you to see what the “rules” of music are and understand how and when you should break them. You’ll also develop a stronger musical vocabulary allowing you to speak more plainly about the production process with those throughout the industry.
2. You’ll be better equipped to work with clients.
Your clients might have a beatmaking background. They might also be singer songwriters, composers, or someone with no musical knowledge whatsoever. In any scenario, you need to know how to effectively tailor your communication to bring your clients’ vision to life. This means understanding music theory enough to communicate with it as an authority figure. If you’re serious about this industry, it makes sense to learn the foundations behind it, even if it’s not the most exciting aspect of the creation process.
3. You’ll understand how pieces of a song fit together systematically.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of understanding music theory is being able to grasp how melodies, chords, and basslines all fit together. Music theory relationships will become increasingly easier to understand over time, until they are second nature to your sound and production.
All in all, music theory is a powerful tool that can expand your possibilities as a producer. Hopefully, this article makes it easier for you to understand the basics so that you can start incorporating scales and complex chord progressions into your beats.