8 easy tricks of music theory for beginners

Music theory has always had very little appeal for electronic musicians. It is often associated with classical composers of the past centuries or with jazz performers who are busy reading tons of professional books.
Technologies of creation of electronic music reached the point where you can create complex piano passages using only one arpeggiator on the channel or ready synth presets and loops to get a decent output. But it is at this stage that one can distinguish a good producer from an average one.

Without an understanding of "how it works" you will be limited by the capabilities of your devices. But knowing at least the basics of music theory, you can control what you are creating. The idea is to think of theory as a framework to support and inspire your musical endeavors, rather than inhibit and rule them.

1. Broken chords

To use this technique, we will have to break chords up into their component notes and play them as short arpeggios. The technique does not just add rhythmic interest, but it can be a great way of coming up with ideas for cool melodies that work naturally with the chord progression, since the notes you pick out are taken from the chords themselves.

2. Chords with inversions

Moving the order of notes around within a chord can create another mood without changing the actual chords. This is easily done by selecting notes and shifting them up and down an octave. These 'rearranged' chords are known as inversions.

3. Change the bass note

The notes a bass part plays can assume the role of root note for the chords played by parts above it. Sticking different bass notes underneath can radically alter the sound of a static chord sequence.

Let's have a look at a piano part playing a repeated rhythmic chord sequence over and over throughout the track. It sounds pretty boring. Instead of thinking up new chords, let's try injecting freshness by using a more animated bass part.

For example, for the first two bars, we stick to a C bass note, as it's the root note of the chord. After two bars, however, we shift the bass note down from C to A, forming a completely different chord - an Am7b5.

Keeping the same piano chord, we next move the bass from A to Ab, making an Abmaj7 chord. Then down to F, up to G and back to C again. If you're not sure what bass notes will fit, try picking notes that are already in the accompanying chords.

4. Playing a chord other than the tonic

Scales are a basic component of music theory - most people know one or two of the major scales, the most common being C major (C D E F G A B).

Everyone who has ever approached the piano, played C major scale just going along the white keys up from C to C. But there is a very easy technique that can completely change your approach to composing arpeggios.

Try it by playing C major in the conventional fashion, from C to C. Now, after few seconds, play the same scale again, but without starting on C. Try going from D to D. Notice a drastic difference in the mood while you continue playing the same scale. These arpeggios sound different because of the different sequence of intervals between the notes being played.
5. Borrowed chords

Diatonic chords are formed using only notes taken from a particular scale. So a C major scale containing the notes C D E F G A B would give you the diatonic chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim, formed by stacking alternate notes onto each note within the scale. However, a palette of only seven chords can be limiting, so why not borrow chords from other keys?

Borrowed chords are most often taken from keys that have the same root note as the original key. In the case of C major, it is C minor. So we have a whole new set of chords to choose from - Cm, Ddim, Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab and Bb.

6. Putting chords together

For more interesting sound, try combining regular triads together to form polychords.

Let's use C major as the first chord (C-E-G). Furthermore, we need to find the major chord that has its root a perfect fifth above the root of the first chord. In this case, that happens to be G major (G-B-D). Play the two chords together and you get a Cmaj9 chord (C-E-G-B-D).

7. Extension

Extending regular major or minor triads by adding extra notes can radically transform a track. For example, in C major, a Cmaj7 is made by adding the seventh degree of the C major scale (B) to a C major triad (C-E-G).

If we extend the scale up the keyboard beyond the octave, we get into the extended range, where a ninth is essentially the scale's second degree played up an octave.

8. Go pentatonic

Limiting yourself to notes from a pentatonic scale may give you a smaller choice, but it can give rise to some memorable melodies.

While a conventional major or minor scale contains seven notes, a pentatonic scale only contains five. Effectively, they're regular scales with a couple of notes removed. If we look at a normal C major scale, we can see that it contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

We can then number these degrees from 1 to 7. To make the scale pentatonic, we need to remove degrees 4 and 7 - in this case, that's F and B. Thus, we get C, D, E, G and A major pentatonic scale.

For a minor pentatonic scale, omit the second (D) and sixth (Ab) degrees. So we're left with C, Eb, F, G and Bb. Pentatonic scales sound great, and they're very easy to use.

Hopefully this article will expand the boundaries of your production. And if you want your music to be played in the establishments of our clients: cafes, restaurants, shops and malls – register on ExpertMusic portal. Soon we will launch a production portal which would offer your music for use in commercials, movies, video games and Internet.

We look forward to our cooperation,
ExpertMusic team.

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