Music theory I'm sure is a dreaded subject for most new music producers, especially if their first instrument is a DAW. But it really isn't as difficult, scary or boring as most would think. Yes it can go deep, very deep, but so can anything that's considered art, and that's the joy, the bottomless pit of learning and understanding, but please keep reading as music theory is as important to music production as letters are to words, or words are to sentences. If you want to make good music you must understand the basics of music theory.
The aim of this tutorial is to give you enough understanding to create your own chord progressions, basslines and melodies by learning the differences between major and minor chords and knowing which notes will fit to the key your working in, as well as to ignite your thirst to learn more and more about the fundamental rules of your hobby, passion or even future career.
Key and scales
A Scale refers to 7 individual notes which make up the Key, the key is determined by the starting note in the scale, also known as the root note. The notes in the scale can be played in any sequence to create melodies or basslines which will harmonically work with the key your instruments are playing in. The picture below demonstrates the scale of the C major Key
Understanding interval patterns is the key to understanding keys and scales. Knowing 2 simple interval patterns will allow you to identify the key of your track, know which chords to use, and differences between major and minor progressions.
So firstly, what is an interval?
An Interval is the distance between the notes, the interval between one note to the next is know as a half tone, or half step. eg, the interval between C and C# is a half step, the difference between E and F is also a half step. The interval between C and D is a whole step and the interval between E and F# is also a whole step. Now any chord or scale can be worked out by knowing the interval pattern which is a lot easier than memorising the individual notes of each key or a chord.
The 2 main interval patterns you will need to know to recreate the majority of western music are the Major and Minor patterns. As a side note, I will not touch on modes within this tutorial, this will just cover the fundamentals of western music as I want this tutorial to be as accessible to new producers as possible.
Major interval Patterns
The essential rule when using these interval patterns is, you need to start the pattern on the note which matches the key you want to work in. For example, if you want to play in the key of C major then you must start on the note of C, which is the keys root note, you can then move up the keyboard using the following interval pattern.
Start. Root Note
1. Whole Step
2. Whole Step
3. Half Step
4. Whole Step
5. Whole Step
6. Whole Step
7. Half Step
To put this pattern to practice, following the major interval patter, using the C major scale, the notes you play will be the white keys only.
C major scale
C - (1. Whole step) - D - (2. Whole Step) - E - (3. Half Step) - F - (4. Whole Step) - G - (5. Whole Step) - A - (6. Whole Step) - B - (7. Half Step) - C
Following this pattern from the note C, you will play only the white notes, starting on C and ending on C an Octave higher. This pattern can be used for any Major Key, but again, you will need to start on the root note of the key you want to play in.
Using the same pattern for the D major scale would look like this
D major scale
D - (1. Whole step) - E - (2. Whole Step) - F# - (3. Half Step) - G - (4. Whole Step) - A - (5. Whole Step) - B - (6. Whole Step) - C# - (7. Half Step) - D
You can apply this same interval pattern to play any major scale providing you start on the Keys root note. Yes I know I've repeated this multiple times, but it is essential that rule is understood.
Minor Interval Patterns
Much like the major interval pattern, this pattern can be applied to any key, again as long as you start on the note of the corresponding key.
Different to the Major interval pattern, the Minor Interval pattern is
Start. Root Note
1. Whole Step
2. Half Step
3. Whole Step
4. Whole Step
5. Half Step
6. Whole Step
7. Whole Step
Putting the minor interval pattern to practice in the key of C would look like this
Notes in the key of C Minor
C - (1. Whole step) - D - (2. Half Step) - Eb - (3. Whole Step) - F - (4. Whole Step) - G - (5. Half Step) - Ab - (6. Whole Step) - Bb - (7. Whole Step) - C
The same minor interval pattern, but starting on the note D, would play you the D minor scale.
Notes in the key of D Minor
D - (1. Whole step) - E - (2. Half Step) - F - (3. Whole Step) - G - (4. Whole Step) - A - (5. Half Step) - Bb - (6. Whole Step) - C- (7. Whole Step) - D
With these interval pattern, you can now play any major or minor scale, or work out the notes which will sound harmonically pleasing with the key you wish to work in.
Congratulations you have now learnt your major and minor scales.
Intervals for Chords
To work out how to play a chosen chord then intervals are used again to determine if the chord is a minor or major and which notes to play together to build the chord. When building the chord or a chord progression it is important to understand the key you want to work in. This is the reason i started this tutorial by demonstrating how to work out the notes of each key, for example, If you are playing in the Key of C major you would not use a C minor Chord as the notes in the C minor chord do not belong to the C major scale.
To build a chord we first need to pick a Key or scale. For this first demonstration I will use the Major interval pattern and the C Major Key. Following the interval pattern as set out in the first section we know that the notes in the key of C major are
(I)C - (ii)D - (iii)E - (IV)F - (V)G - (vi)A - (vii)B and Back to C an octave higher
Each note is traditionally labelled with a roman numerals, this allow us to name the interval distance from the root note. If the scale changes, the notes we are using will also change, but the interval distance from the root note will remain the same and can be described using the roman numeral. To demonstrate what i mean by this, I will use the notes in the D Major scale
(I)D - (ii)E - (iii)F# - (IV)G - (V)A - (vi)B - (vii)C# and Back to D an octave higher
The root note (I) in the D major scale is D, the 5th note (V) in the D major scale is A.
Now we know how to work out which note we can use to fit your chosen scale, we can play different note combinations together to make chords. I will start with a chord type known as a triad, this term describes 3 notes played together using the intervals (I) - (iii) - (V) of your chosen Key.
An example of a triad is this C major chord.
C Major Chord
The C major Chord is made up of (I)C - (iii)E - (V)G. The (I) refers to the root note and dictates the name of the chord, the (iii) gives us information as to whether the chord would be a major or minor chord and the (V) perfectly harmonises with the (I) root note.
So a D Major Triad would look like this, again using the interval values (I)D - (iii)F# - (V)A
D Major Chord
If we apply this to a minor scale you will see the (I) root note and the (V) perfect harmonic note will remain the same as the notes used in the major scale, however due to the different minor interval pattern used, the (III) note will make a C chord a minor chord instead of a major. Eg (I)C - (iii)Eb - (V)G
C Minor Chord
5th, 7th and 11th Chords
As we have learnt so far a triad uses the (I) - (III) and (V) notes of the scale, this information is usually all that's needed to create a rich and harmonically pleasing chords, or chord progressions, with enough information to determine if the chord is major or minor. Chords can contain less information, or more information, the choice normally depends on the instrument your using and the style of music your making.
A 5th chord doesn't contain the (iii) note in the scale, but instead focuses on the root note and the perfect harmonising 5th interval. The root (I) and the fifth (V) notes played together work like peas and carrots, although surprisingly, its got nothing to do with food. The actual reason for this is mathematical, the frequencies the (I) and (V) resonate at are a direct multiple apart and this makes it great for distorted instruments, bass instrument or rich wave forms which are harmonically rich. With some instruments. and sounds you will find that adding too many harmonics can end up sounding muddy or harmonically dirty.
C Major 5th
The reasons to use a 7th chord are opposite to the reasons to use a 5th chord; by using a 7th chord you are creating extra harmonics to make the chord richer than the usual triad. As per the logic we have applied to the chord types so far, I'm sure you can guess how we make this a 7th chord. If we play the triad plus the 7th note in the scale you will get a 7th chord.
C Major 7th
You can also add an 11th to this making it a C major 11th, which will typically contain the 7th note also. You can also opt to just add the 11th and miss out the 7th, this would be expressed as C add 11 as per the illustrations below
C add 11
Inversions and voicing
A chord voicing or chord inversion describes the arrangement of the notes within the chord. The illustrations I have used to this point are chords played in the root position only ((I) - (iii) - (V)), however the notes don't have to be arranged in that order. Inversions are used for multiple reasons, which include ease of playing, by keeping the progression within the same octave range, and to make a chord progression sound less disjointed.
The first inversion of the C major chord would look like this. As you can see the (V) note in the chord has dropped 1 octave. The order of the notes are (V) - (I) - (iii)
C Major Inversion 1
The second inversion uses the following note arrangement (iii) - (V) - (I)
C Major Inversion 2
To illustrate the benefits of using inversions, I have played a chord C major chord and A minor chord, both chords fit to the C Major scale. Played in the root position the chords are quite a jump from each other.
C to Am root position
If I use the 2nd inversion of the A minor chord then it sounds more pleasing and, for a keyboard/piano player, is much easier to play. This is because both the C major and A Minor chords share the notes C and E. Using the 2nd inversion means only the G note moves up 1 step to the A.
C to Am inversion 2
Now you understand voicing and inversions I would encourage you to play with different voicing to match the direction of your track, different inversions will add harmonic direction and arrangement to your music,
Examples of voicing ideas
To give you some theory and ideas to apply to your chord voicing, I have illustrated the following 2 examples.
In the first example I have arranged the notes of the chords C, A, G, F to create an ascending progression. This allows the track to build while using a consistent walking bassline, this cant be achieved with chords played in the root position only.
The chords I've used here are C root - Am 2nd inversion - G 1st inversion - F 1 inversion with add 7 - C 1st inversion, Am root - G 2nd inversion - F 1st inversion.
I want to finish with one last idea you could apply when voicing chords. This idea goes back to the reasons for using 5th chords, which, as I have previously mentioned, a 5th chord is great for lower frequencies, or distorted instruments, as too much harmonic information in the lower frequency range can result in a muddy sound. With that I mind, you could ensure that the notes occupying the lower frequencies don't contain too much harmonic information and leave the higher frequencies to add the major or minor third (iii) or 7th or 11th notes.
A good example is the following chord progression arranged with this in mind. I have arranged the chords C7 - A - D - D7. As you can see, the notes in the lower frequency are either an octave higher than the bass note, or a harmonic 5th of the bass note. The notes in the higher frequency range contain major, minor or 7th information to help with a clean mix and arrangement.
I hope you found this tutorial useful and you can start applying this new understanding to your own chord progressions, melodies and basslines which leads to success in further developing your musical abilities, tracks and future career.