It’s a common situation to find producers with a good knowledge of the technical side, but very little in the music theory department, which can work for a time but inevitably makes it difficult to compose tracks of a more melodic nature.
Relying on your ear
A lot of people can get quite far by trusting their ears, which ultimately is a good way to work, with ear training being a crucial part of the production process. However, when it comes to theory, and working out keys of songs or creating melodies for example, the ear can play tricks, and sometimes lead people to accidentally working in multiple keys.
Helpful MIDI Tools
Music software designers have helpfully created an assortment of devices, both DAW factory FX and 3rd-party plugins, which enable you to work in a particular key or create chord progressions for instance. These obviously make the whole process much simpler, and ease some of the pressure to have to learn theory for yourself.
Relying purely on devices can sometimes lead to confusion though, and a situation where something’s not right, and you can’t figure out why. A scale plugin, for instance, can sometimes create situations where you get a doubling in notes or one note missing, as it transposes notes up or down in an unsuitable way for the particular notes you’re playing. This is more the case for DAW-factory plugins, such as Live’s Scale:
…as opposed to more comprehensive software like Scaler, which responds more intuitively to the notes you’re playing.
Additionally, when you are forced to play only notes in the scale, then it’s impossible to play accidentals, or branch outside of the scale, which is sometimes desirable when creating a chord or melody. When wanting to do this, the limited controls of certain MIDI tools can make it difficult.
So, although all these tools can be life savers at times, at least some knowledge of the basics of music theory is highly recommended alongside this.
Fortunately, a lot of electronic music is very simple and all you need for the majority is an understanding of the main scales, like major and minor, as well as simple chords, like the triad. Our Beginner’s Guide to Music Theory for Producers Course teaches all the essential theory skills, to help you work out exactly what notes to use for making basslines, riffs and hooks in any key!
Check out the sample module on the triad chord and how inversions work below…