Composition and Arrangement Tutorials for producers

Welcome to our music theory section, designed to help DAW-based music producers learn composition and arrangement techniques.  

This page covers essential music theory concepts with tutorials from functional harmony to bass patterns, and advanced rhythmic concepts like dotted bass lines, syncopation, and polyrhythms. Master arrangement techniques like Turnarounds and Automation. Everything music theory for a DAW.

Our guides will give you both Audio and Visual examples to walk you through each production step of music creation. Giving you new ideas and techniques to test and try.  

I have included help from respected producers and my favorite YouTube educators to demonstrate the ideas. You will find Drum and Bass tutorials from Stranjah and Techno Concepts from Oscar from Underdog Music School. Regardless of your musical preference, our tutorials provide versatile insights across multiple genres. From getting to grips with the basics to more advanced concepts, we're here to help with your DAW-based compositions.  

Composition and Arrangement Tutorials

Music theory is the study of the elements of music and how they relate to each other. It includes topics such as scales, keys, intervals, chords, rhythm, melody, and harmony. Music theory is the foundation of musical composition.  

This page is an overview of music production techniques, while we will touch upon the techniques and explain the terminology, please see the individual tutorials for more detailed information, examples, and exercises.  

Please see our individual featured tutorials for more composition and arrangement details and examples

Title Skill Level Description
Music Theory Beginner This music theory tutorial covers intervals, chords, scales, keys, modes, chord progressions, and more.
Turnarounds & Cadences Intermediate This tutorial explains turnarounds and cadences, demonstrating how they are used in songs to transition between sections.
Functional-Harmony Beginner Learn how chord progressions work, looking at common chord progressions, intervals, and tension and release.
Dotted Basslines Intermediate A tutorial on creating dotted basslines, an essential technique for funk, disco, and other groove-based genres.
Syncopated Drums Intermediate This tutorial looks at syncopated drum patterns, teaching how to program drums that are offset from the main beat.
Polyrhythms Advanced Learn how polyrhythms work, with examples of how to program and perform polyrhythms.



Is Music Theory Important? 

Music theory is crucial for musicians and producers, it provides communication of composition, improvisation, and performance. It offers rules and direction for creating harmonious and well-structured music. While some excel without knowing music theory, not knowing it will be their biggest obstacle to efficient progression. 

Basics of Music Theory 

This Music theory page will cover the following topics: 

  • Scales and keys 
  • Intervals 
  • Chords 
  • Rhythm
  • Melody

Scales and keys 

A scale is a set of notes arranged in ascending or descending order with a specific pattern of intervals between them. The key of a piece of music is the scale that it is based on. This means that the majority of the notes in the piece will come from that scale. There are many different scales, but some of the most common are the major scale and the minor scale. The major scale is a bright and happy-sounding scale, while the minor scale is darker and more melancholic.  

To understand how scales work, it is important to understand the concept of intervals;  

What is an interval?

An interval is the distance between two notes. Intervals are measured in semitones, which are the smallest unit of musical pitch on traditional Western instruments. They are used to create melodies, harmonies, and chords. 

The major scale is made up of seven notes, with a pattern of whole steps and half steps between them. A whole step is equal to two semitones, and a half step is equal to one semitone. 

The pattern of whole steps and half steps in the major scale is as follows: Whole step - Whole step - Half step - Whole step - Whole step - Whole step - Half step 

The minor scale is also made up of seven notes, but there are two different types of minor scales: the natural minor scale and the harmonic minor scale. The natural minor scale has a darker sound than the major scale, but it can also sound a bit unfinished. The harmonic minor scale is brighter than the natural minor scale, and it has a more resolved sound. 

The pattern of whole steps and half steps in the natural minor scale is as follows Whole step - Half step - Whole step - Whole step - Half step - Whole step + half step 

The pattern of intervals in the harmonic minor scale is as follows: 

Whole step - Half step - Augmented second (three semitones) - Whole step - Half step - Whole step + half step 

Tonic Chords and Root Notes 

The tonic chord and root notes play crucial roles in defining the tonal structure of a piece. The tonic chord, derived from the first note of the scale (the root note), establishes the key of the composition, while the root notes provide the foundation for chord construction. 

To identify the key of a piece of music, you can look at the chords that are used. If the majority of the chords in the song come from a particular scale, then that is the key of the piece. You can also look at the melody. The melody will often start and end on the root note. 

Some examples; 

The Root note in the key of C major would be C. The tonic chord will be the C major chord. 

The Root note in the key of C minor would be C, The tonic Chord will be the C minor Chord. 

The Root note in the key of G minor would be G, The tonic Chord will be the G minor Chord. 



The melody is the lead part that catches our ear, often played by vocals, keyboards, or guitars. Melodies bring memorable hooks and musicality to a track. They are created by playing single notes in rhythmic succession, forming musical phrases and motifs.

Intervals determine whether the melody feels uplifting, melancholic, or somewhere in between. A well-crafted melody leverages a variety of intervals to create tension, release, and a sense of musical journey. Whether it's the leap of an octave for emphasis or the stepwise motion for fluidity, the thoughtful use of intervals is paramount in crafting melodies that resonate with listeners and convey a range of emotions.

What are Roman numerals in music theory? 

Roman numerals in music theory provide a symbolic representation of chords within a particular key. They are a shorthand way of denoting the relationship between chords and the tonic (or root) of a musical piece.

This table illustrates the relationship between Roman numerals, their functional roles, and chord examples in three different major keys: C, D, and E. 

As you can see,  

The Roman numerals increase in ascending order, in line with an ascending note pattern (scale) starting on the letter of the chosen key. 

in the key of C, C will is the tonic chord - I 

in the key of E, then E will be the tonic chord - I 

Roman Numeral Function Key C Key D Key E
I Tonic C D E
ii Supertonic Dm Em F#m
iii Mediant Em F#m G#m
IV Subdominant F G A
V Dominant G A B
vi Submediant Am Bm C#m
vii° Leading tone (diminished) Bdim C#dim D#dim

Chord Progression Tips  

A chord progression is a sequence of chords played in succession. Chord progressions provide a harmonic framework and can carry an emotional impact on music.   

Here are some tips for writing solid chord progressions:  

- Start with a simple chord progression. Loop two chords together and then expand the phrase as desired. 

- Outline the key of your composition. Chords are derived from the scale of the key, so it is important to choose chords that are within the key.  


More Advanced Chord Tips 

- Experiment with chord substitutions. Chord substitutions are chords that have a similar function in a chord progression. For example, you can substitute a dominant chord for a subdominant chord, or vice versa.  

- Arrange your chord voicings carefully. Chord voicings are the way that the notes of a chord are arranged. You can spread out the notes of a chord to create an open sound, or you can invert the chord to create a different journey. 

- Expand your chord vocabulary. In addition to basic triads, you can also use seventh chords, ninth chords, and suspended chords to add color and complexity to your music.  

- Voice lead smoothly. Voice leading is the process of connecting the notes of one chord to the notes of the next chord. By avoiding large leaps and awkward voice crossings, you can create smooth and flowing chord progressions. Planning your chord progressions and voicings carefully can give your music greater depth and complexity.  

Common Chord Progressions  

Some common chord progressions include:  

  • I - IV - V (major key)  
  • I - vi - IV - V (minor key)  
  • ii - V - I (jazz chord progression)  
Progression Chords in C Major Style
I - IV - V C - F - G Pop, Rock
I - vi - IV - V C - Am - F - G Pop, Folk
ii - V - I Dm - G - C Jazz, Blues
I - V - vi - IV C - G - Am - F Pop, Rock
vi - IV - I - V Am - F - C - G Pop, Ballad
I - iii - IV - V C - Em - F - G Pop, Rock
vi - ii - V - I Am - Dm - G - C Jazz
IV - V - vi - iii F - G - Am - Em Pop, Folk

We have multiple tutorials to help you get started in music theory and composition. This includes how to construct chord progressions, how to write basslines, and how to keep the progression and melodies in key.  


Foundations of Music Theory Tutorials 

To learn more about the basics of music theory, constructing chord progression, using inversions, and working with Keys and scales, our Music theory for music production tutorial covers the foundations of Music Theory.

What to expect

Music Theory for Producers serves as a great introduction to music creation with the aim of demystifying music theory for new music producers. Specially created for those whose primary instrument is a DAW and MIDI keyboard. While music theory can be deep, it is crucial for creative music production.  

The tutorial covers fundamental topics, starting with the explanation of scales and keys. It introduces the concept of intervals, emphasizing their role in understanding keys and scales. Two main interval patterns, major and minor, are discussed, providing a foundation for creating melodies, basslines, and chords.  

The major and minor interval patterns are detailed with practical examples in different keys. The tutorial progresses to explain triads, 5th, 7th, and 11th chords, illustrating how to build and apply them. The importance of understanding intervals for chord creation and how they relate to the key of the track is emphasized.  

It concludes with insights into chord voicing, inversions, and practical examples of chord progressions. The importance of experimenting with voicing to match the direction of the track is highlighted, providing producers with a versatile understanding of music theory applicable to their compositions.  


Music Theory for Ableton Live  

Most DAWs will feature a chord, key, or scale tool that can help producers identify which notes belong to which scale, as well as help develop chord progressions and melodies.

What to expect  

Drum and Bass producer and YouTube educator Stranjah introduces a valuable music hack using Ableton. This is particularly beneficial for those with limited music theory experience. The tool is called "Scale" and can be found in Ableton Live's MIDI effects. It provides access to approximately 50 musical scales, facilitating the accurate and efficient creation of a musically correct composition. By setting the root note to match the key of the track, the tool ensures that any played or written notes adhere to the chosen scale.  

Drawing notes into the MIDI clip enables the tool to automatically adjust the notes to fit the selected scale, eliminating any out-of-key notes. Additionally, the "Transpose" parameter allows for quick key changes, although precise knowledge of semitone adjustments is recommended for optimal results.  

While this Ableton tool serves as a helpful shortcut for creative exploration and correction, the video emphasizes the importance of acquiring basic music theory knowledge for enhanced creative control. Despite being exemplified in electronic bass music, the technique showcased is versatile and applicable across various genres. The video demonstrates how this tool in Ableton is not just helpful but also a genuinely enjoyable, useful, and fun tool for music production.  


Advanced musical theory concepts  

For more advanced music theory concepts I would recommend looking at our Cadences and Turnarounds and our Functional Harmony and Logical Chord Progressions tutorial, which also includes information on Negative Harmony.  

What to expect  

This page provides information about turnarounds and cadences in music. A turnaround is a short piece of music signaling the end of a musical phrase or progression, allowing the track to return to the previous section or transition to a different part of the song. While the term is often associated with jazz and chord progressions, turnarounds can be applied to any genre.  

Turnarounds in electronic dance music (EDM) and techno are discussed, emphasizing their rhythmic and textural relevance. The page also introduces the concept of cadence, which involves using two or more chords to conclude a musical phrase. Cadences can serve as turnarounds, and the choice of cadence depends on the dynamics and chord progressions of the song.  

The page classifies cadences into two main groups: finished and unfinished. Finished cadences, such as the Perfect/Authentic Cadence (V-I) and Plagal Cadence (IV-I), end on the tonic chord (I), providing a sense of closure. Unfinished cadences, like the Imperfect Cadence and Interrupted Cadence (V-VI), end on a non-resolving chord, setting up new harmonic and melodic ideas. 

The Perfect/Authentic Cadence is described as a full stop, offering a strong resolution, while the Plagal Cadence sounds softer, using the fourth (IV) chord. The Imperfect Cadence sets up a new direction and ends on the fifth chord (V), while the Interrupted Cadence interrupts expectations by resolving to the sixth (VI) chord. 

It features a video from the Music Theory Academy on YouTube for further understanding of cadences. It concludes with a link to a resource for those unfamiliar with chord and scale terminology.  


Functional Harmony

What is Functional Harmony? 

Functional harmony is a concept in music theory that revolves around chord relationships and their role in tension and resolution. Categorized into functions like tonic (stable), dominant (tension), and subdominant (transitional), chords guide harmonic progressions, forming the basis for emotional and structural coherence in compositions. 

What to expect in the functional harmony tutorial  

The tutorial "Functional Harmony and Logical Chord Progressions" introduces the concept of functional harmony, a set of ideas for creating chord progressions with defined roles for each chord. The tutorial emphasizes the importance of the tonic chord (I) as the root of the scale, providing stability and resolution  

The tutorial categorizes chords into dissonance and consonance, using Roman numerals to denote their relationships with the tonic chord. Dissonant chords, like (ii), (vi), (IV), and (vii), create tension, while consonant chords, like (I), (V), and (iii), offer resolution.  

The guide suggests using dissonance and consonance strategically to build tension and resolution in music. Starting with weaker dissonance and progressing to stronger dissonance before resolving with consonance chords is a common approach.  

The tutorial concludes with examples of common chord progressions, such as (I) - (iv) - (V), emphasizing the interplay of resolved and unresolved chords. It also mentions the use of negative harmony as a tool for adding interest and complexity, often found in experimental genres like Jazz or avant-garde music.   

What is Negative Harmony?

Negative harmony is a technique that uses chords from the opposite mode of the key. For example, if a piece of music is in the major key, negative harmony would use chords from the minor key. This can create a sense of unexpected tension and dissonance.  

Rhythm Theory for music production  

Rhythm is one of my favorite subjects in music theory, music production, and composition. It can be a simple pulse to a more complicated mathematical timeline, with accents played in unpredictable places, or multiple rhythms, time signatures, and quantized grids being played at the same time.  

This page is an overview of different rhythmic theory techniques and concepts, it focuses on giving you an understanding of the terminology and the concepts behind the techniques. For a more detailed understanding, please see the individual tutorials listed in this section.  



What is syncopation?

Syncopation in rhythm is the placement of accents on beats that are normally unstressed. This creates a sense of surprise and excitement in the music. Syncopation can be used in any genre of music, but it is particularly common in jazz, funk, and hip-hop.  

There are many different ways to create syncopation. One common way is to use offbeats. Offbeats are the beats between the main beats, such as the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 time signature. When you accent an offbeat, you are creating syncopation.  

Another way to create syncopation is to use suspensions. A suspension is when you hold a note over from one beat to the next. When you sustain a note over a beat that is normally unstressed, you are creating syncopation.  

Syncopation can also be created by using different types of notes. For example, you can use syncopated rests, syncopated ties, and syncopated dots.  

Here are some examples of syncopation:  

- The drumbeat in the song "Good Times" by Chic is a classic example of syncopation. The beat is syncopated because it accents the offbeats.  
- The bassline in the song "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen is another example of syncopation. The bassline is syncopated because it sustains notes over beats that are normally unstressed.  
- The melody in the song "Hey Jude" by The Beatles is syncopated because it uses syncopated rests.

Syncopation is a powerful tool that can be used to add interest and excitement to your music. If you are new to syncopation, start by experimenting with simple offbeat accents. Once you have mastered the basics, you can start to experiment with more complex syncopated rhythms.  

What to expect  

"Syncopation in Music Production" explores the concept of syncopation as a means to introduce tension and release in music rhythms. Syncopation involves accenting weaker beats or divisions of beats, creating variation, character, and expression, especially associated with groove.  

The tutorial distinguishes between two levels of syncopation: Beat Syncopation and Division Syncopation. Beat Syncopation disrupts the main pulse, downbeat, backbeat, or offbeat, while Division Syncopation occurs outside the 8th note beat, accenting percussive hits on subdivisions like 16th or 32nd notes.  

The guide provides insights into using syncopation in music production. Examples of Beat Syncopation include missed beat syncopation, where occasional variations disrupt the steady rhythm, and suspended syncopation, where weaker beats are sustained to bridge over stronger beats. Backbeat syncopation is also discussed, highlighting the importance of accenting beats 1 and 3 instead of the traditional 2 and 4 in rock music.  

Division Syncopation is exemplified through examples from EDM, House, and Techno music, emphasizing how syncopation at the subdivision level impacts the rhythm. The tutorial encourages experimentation with different levels of syncopation to disrupt the rhythmic flow and make music more interesting.  


Dotted Rhythms  

A dotted rhythm is made from a note with a dot placed after it. The dot increases the duration of the note by half of its original value. For example, a dotted quarter note is equal to a quarter note plus an eighth note.  

Dotted notes are often used to create syncopated rhythms. They can also be used to create a sense of tension and release in music. For example, a composer might use a dotted note to create tension on a beat that is normally unstressed, and then resolve the tension on the next beat with a note of shorter duration.  

Here are some examples of dotted notes:  

- A dotted quarter note is equal to a quarter note plus an eighth note.  

- A dotted eighth note is equal to an eighth note plus a sixteenth note.  

- A dotted half note is equal to a half note plus a quarter note.  

- A dotted whole note is equal to a whole note plus a half note.  

Dotted notes can also be combined with other notes to create more complex rhythms. For example, a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note is equal to a three-and-a-half note pattern.  

Dotted notes are a versatile tool that can be used to add variety and interest to your music. If you are new to dotted notes, start by experimenting with simple rhythms. Once you have mastered the basics, you can start to experiment with more complex rhythms.  

Dotted Bassline Tutorial  

Dotted Bassline patterns

What to expect 

 "Dotted Basslines" introduces the concept of using dotted notes to create groovy and funky rhythmical basslines in electronic dance music. A dotted note sustains half the time longer than its original length and is denoted by a dot in standard music notation. The tutorial explains examples of dotted notes, such as a Dotted Bar extending a whole note to 6 beats.  

Oscar from Underdog demonstrates the application of dotted notes in creating rhythmic basslines, specifically in Ableton. The tutorial emphasizes that this knowledge can be transferred to any DAW utilizing a standard MIDI grid. While the focus is on basslines, the rhythmic technique can be applied to drums, percussion, and trance sequences.  

The tutorial references Stranjah's use of dotted rhythms in drum and bass fundamental bassline patterns, showcasing the versatility of this technique across different genres. The overall aim is to add funk and fun to music by incorporating dotted notes in basslines and other rhythmic elements.  



what is a polyrhythm? 

A polyrhythm is a musical technique where multiple rhythms or time signatures coexist, creating intricate patterns and depth in the groove. To qualify as a polyrhythm, the rhythms must operate on different quantization grids where the sizes don't evenly divide into each other. For example, Triplet is commonly used as a 3;2 polyrhythm when played against a standard backbeat. 

Polyrhythms can be challenging to master, but they are a powerful tool that can be used to create unique and interesting music. If you are new to polyrhythms, start by experimenting with simple rhythms. Once you have mastered the basics, you can start to experiment with more complex rhythms.  

Polyrhythm tutorial 


What to expect  

"Polyrhythms - What? Why? When? How?" explores the concept of polyrhythms in music production. The author shares their personal experience with polyrhythms and mentions influential artists who incorporate them, such as Radiohead, Mars Volta, Aphex Twin, and Tool.  

The tutorial clarifies the confusion around the terminology of polyrhythms and polymeters in electronic music production.

Polyrhythms: Multiple Rhythms in Harmony

Polyrhythms are the result of playing multiple rhythms simultaneously, creating a dynamic interplay of beats. This is particularly evident when combining odd and even numbers of beats. Common examples include 3:4, 5:4, and 7:4 polyrhythms.

Time Signatures: Polymeters

Time signatures dictate the number of beats in a bar, with familiar examples like 4/4 and 3/4. Polymeters, on the other hand, involve playing multiple time signatures together, creating a layered rhythmic structure. The tutorial emphasizes the use of standard quantization grids in polymeters and provides an arrangement example contrasting 4/4 and 5/4 patterns.

Euclidean Patterns

Euclidean patterns are rhythmic patterns evenly spaced within a bar or phrase. Their symmetry makes them particularly compatible with polymeters. A video tutorial is recommended for further exploration.

The tutorial encourages experimentation with polyrhythms and polymeters in music production, emphasizing their ability to add a unique and groovy element to compositions. A polyrhythm MIDI pack is also recommended for interested producers.

Polyrhythms and polymeters offer a rich tapestry of rhythmic possibilities in music production. By understanding their concepts and exploring their applications, producers can add depth and complexity to their creations.

I hope you enjoy learning about music theory for a DAW, as well as our selection of arrangement and composition tutorials. For other music production tutorials for information on mixing, mastering, Equipment, and Sound design.