Part I is this-a-way.
What’s music theory good for?
You might hear claims successful musicians don’t need understanding. After all, if you have heart, isn’t technical knowledge irrelevant? For me, music without heart is worthless, but music without theory isn’t much better.
A few years ago my friend sent me a piece he’d created by layering guitar sounds in Audacity. Now, I know I defended Audacity last time (destroying any nascent reputation as a respectable producer) but the inadequacy of Audacity wasn’t the problem. After listening to what can only be described as a shambolic, rhythm-less meander through plastic atmospherics, I asked him what key it was in.
‘No idea. It’s completely spontaneous!’ he said.
He knew full well how ridiculous it was, so don’t send me hate mail telling me to be nicer.
It throws up an important point. Key signatures (which his piece lacked) are an integral part of music theory. Without understanding, you either chance upon something good after fruitless experimentation or create endless streams of chaos.
But if something sounds good, who cares if you don’t understand why? After all, respected composers create their own rules all the time.
Any successful musician creating music without the rules knows the rules. Often boredom with conventional forms is the driving force behind experimentation like this. To become bored of something you have to be intimately familiar with it. To break the rules, you must first know the rules, and you must be comfortable using the rules.
If the blog image escaped your gaze, welcome to On Composing: Part II, a brief overview of music theory for amateur composers and producers. For most only basic theory is necessary. If after learning the basics you’re gripped by a sudden urge to explore complex modulations, appoggiaturas and the CM7add9♭13 chord, go nuts. I won’t be going that far today, thank God.
I warn you even the basics of music theory can take a while to master. Reading one blog isn’t guaranteed to help you understand anything. There are plenty of other resources on the internet to aid you should my explanations be insufficient (which is pretty damn likely). I won’t blame you if you go elsewhere for this topic…as long as you return for Part III.
A Note on Sheet Music
It isn’t necessary to understand sheet music to write excellent music. It’s pretty helpful when explaining things though.
If you’re considering becoming a composer or producer, I’ll take it for granted you’re at least familiar with the arrangement of piano notes. Are you aware that a piano features a repeating pattern of white and black notes (all equally spaced), that the distance between two of the same notes is called an octave, and that the same notes/chords/whatever can be played in any octave? If you do, good. If not, I hope that was enough explanation because that’s all you’re getting.
For the rest of this post you’ll need to know the note names. Use this as a reference if you’re unsure.
Sheet music uses a series of horizontal lines called the stave. Each line and each space refers to a note, though the note in question changes depending on what symbol (clef) is at the start of the music. The most common is the treble clef (which I’ll be using throughout). With the treble clef in effect, the notes shown on the stave are as follows:
Staves are broken into bars (shown with vertical lines across all notes). I’ll explain why once I get to rhythm.
There are plenty of methods, mainly mnemonics, to help remember the order of these notes. Find or create one you like.
It’s possible to extend the stave beyond its usual boundaries with ledger lines. These are lines and spaces above or below the stave. You’ll notice one in the first C above. Ledger lines can theoretically go as far up or down as the instrument allows, so although impractical, you can actually figure out what the following notes are if you just keep counting for each line and each space.*
Notes can be modified from their natural positions (i.e. the white notes) using flats and sharps, collectively called accidentals.
A flat sign (♭) next to a note means you should play the black note below it instead, and do the same for every copy of that note afterwards in the same bar. A sharp sign (♯) means it’s the black note above, and the same rule applies for the rest of the bar. If a natural version of a flattened or sharpened note appears later in the same bar, it’s denoted with a natural symbol (♮).
A key is a subset of notes which work together without excessive dissonance (clashing). For my purposes I’ll be using the term interchangeably with the word scale, although it should be noted the two mean slightly different things.
If you start on any note and follow a set pattern of steps upward, you’ll produce a scale. The notes you’ve traversed in the process are those available to use in a particular key.
Usually these steps are measured in semitones (one step upward) and tones (two steps upward). The simplest key, the major key, is generated with the following pattern: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. If you start on C, this produces the C major scale. If you start on F, you get an F major scale and so on. Keys and scales aren’t confined to one octave – the same pattern repeats for each octave, so if one B is in your key, every B is in your key. Notice the F major scale includes B♭, a black note.
A common misconception for absolute beginners is to view black keys as inherently different to white since they’re named in relation to white notes. Scales can be translated up and down to any note you want, and thanks to our tuning system the same scale will always have the same distances between notes. Some major scales are made up almost entirely of black notes (such as F♯ major). There’s no fundamental difference.
There are other types of scales. Major scales are the bread and butter of Western music, stereotypically for happy or self-confident music, but they aren’t always useful. Minor scales are much better at sadness or threat. The natural minor is built with: tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone. For example, here’s B♭ natural minor. Notice that it’s the same as the D♭ major scale, just shifted along. The difference is that pieces in D♭ major usually converge on a D♭ major chord for their cadence (explained in the next section).
More complicated scales include the harmonic and melodic minor, useful for more exotic types of sadness. Plenty of other scales exist for further purposes, but for now I’ll stick to major and natural minor.
So why use a key?
By using the rules of a scale to build a set of notes, you give yourself a canvas on which to paint your piece. The exact mechanics behind this are a story for another day, but in essence a key signature is a guide for which notes are good and bad to use given your scenario. For your first few attempts I suggest you stay rigidly within a key, i.e. never using a note outside of it. For a piece or section of a piece in a given signature, notes from other signatures played at the same time will sound uncomfortable or amateurish unless used carefully. Sometimes this is desirable, and I’ll touch on this later.
Keys are shown on sheet music using a key signature. Thanks to a handy bit of symmetry, every major key uses every letter once, either as a flat, natural or sharp. Though B♭ and A♯ are the same note, it’s for this reason (amongst others) we say the black note between A and B in the key of F major is B♭, since A has already been used. On sheet music in a major key, every note is always the same variant. In A♭ major with no cheeky voyages into other keys, every E will be E♭. Rather than write a flat sign next to every E, we put it on the E line at the beginning of each line, neatly reminding us to flatten all the E notes.
Keys are also essential in the construction of chords. A chord is a group of notes (three notes in their most basic forms). Chords don’t have to be played as three notes at the same time. You could have them spread over the keyboard, between different instruments, or not even play some of the notes at all. You could play them as a broken chord or arpeggio, which means playing one note of the chord after another. Either way, you’ll trace out a chord for the ear to latch on to.
After keys, chords are the second layer of guidance on what notes to use at a particular moment for melodies, harmonies and everything else While keys generally apply to an entire piece, chords do the same thing less rigidly for a short span of time. If played over a chord, notes which are themselves part of that chord will sound whole and strong, whereas others may be weak.
Like keys, chords are built with a starting note and rules for selecting other notes. All major chords use the first, third and fifth notes of a major scale (or the first, fifth and eighth notes counting up in semitones). For instance, the chord of C major uses the notes C, E and G, while G major uses G, B and D. Minor chords (denoted with a little m – Dm is D minor and so on) are the first, third and fifth notes of a natural minor scale (the first, fourth and eighth notes counting up in semitones). They’re easily remembered as major chords with the middle note moved down by one semitone.
If all the notes of a chord are part of the same key, that chord can be used within the key. In C major, the chords C, Dm, Em, F, G and Am are all possible. The final note, B, is more difficult to build a chord for. Its major and minor variants don’t fit in the scale, so what chord do you build from B to use it in this key?
There are two other basic chord types, diminished and augmented. Diminished chords are the first, fourth and seventh semitones counting upwards from a root, while augmented chords are the first, fifth and ninth semitones. Cdim (C diminished) consists of C, E♭ and G♭. Caug (C augmented) is C, E and A♭. Using the keyboard as reference, you’ll see Bdim fits within the C major scale. Augmented chords never fit inside a major scale. Be careful – diminished and augmented chords sound dissonant and are difficult to use.
One important property of these basic chords is that they retain their character however you arrange the notes. A C chord is a C chord whichever of its notes is placed lowest. These different forms are called inversions. Any inversion in any octave using the notes C, E and G is C major. The exception is the augmented chord, since every note is the same distance from its neighbours as both others, so there’s no way of knowing whether it’s an inversion or an augmented chord with one of its other notes as its root.
Chords can be extended by adding more notes, but I don’t have the time or skill to explain that here. I’ll leave it to the wonderful Michael New. Go back and watch his first video on chords if my whistle-stop tour was too brief. In fact, watch all his videos. Make all my ramblings redundant.
Throughout a piece, chords will move from one to the next in repeating (or non-repeating) patterns. Chords are referenced using Roman numerals relative to the root of the key. The chord built from the first note in a key is the I chord. The major chord built from the fourth is IV. Minor chords use lower case, so in a major key the second chord is ii since only its minor variant fits within the key. If instead you’re using a natural minor scale, the second chord is II, major.
Using this reference technique, you can take chord progressions and apply them to any key. In a fabulous musical parody, the Axis of Awesome mashed together multiple pop songs featuring the same chord sequence. The progression I-V-vi-IV is ubiquitous in plenty of genres, not just pop, but to create 4 Chords the group had to transpose (move the key of a song up or down) most of the songs featured. Even though the songs used the same chord progression they did not use the same chords. If a song was originally in C major, they needed to move every note by several semitones to fit in the same key as the rest, but this didn’t change the progression (I-V-vi-IV) which makes the whole thing work.
Different chord progressions generate different aesthetics. I-V-vi-IV is great for the emotional tension and quick release needed for pop songs. Many songs have chords moving stepwise, that is the starting note for generating the chord moves by one note of the scale each time (such as I-ii-iii-IV or something), which is generally a pretty strong movement.
As a rule of thumb, the more notes two chords share, the more successfully they’ll move into one another. As a second rule of thumb, the shorter the collective distance moved between notes of two chords (usually involving an inversion), the stronger the movement too.
One effective use of chord movement is the cadence. This is a sequence of chords at the end of a piece or section conveying a sense of completion. The perfect cadence is V-I, the plagal is IV-I and there are many others. In minor keys there are alternate forms – the perfect minor cadence is usually V-i, with a major fifth chord instead of a minor fifth as you would expect for a minor key. This is done because the major third and fifth of the V chord only have to move a semitone each to reach the root and third of the i chord (in first inversion), making the movement stronger. For example, when moving from D to Gm (with a D as the lowest note in both), the F♯ moves up to G and the A to B♭, both clear movement by only a semitone, improving the sense of completion.
What of rhythm? Notes mean nothing if not arranged in time. Rhythm can be broken down into three different sections: tempo, meter and rhythm. Yes, rhythm is a subset of rhythm.
Tempo is, simply put, speed. Most music uses a regular pulse pattern to keep time, and tempo is how quick that pulse pattern is. A tempo of 60 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is the same as the speed of a ticking clock, since there are 60 ticks per minute. 120 BPM is therefore twice as fast, with two beats for every second. You get the idea.
Most DAWs (see Part I) initialise with 120 BPM as the tempo because it’s the average speed of most common music. Certain genres stick to set tempo ranges, such as trance which is usually between 125 BPM and 150 BPM.
Classical music uses a technique called rubato. With rubato, the tempo is free to speed up and slow down all over the place. Whereas rock/pop/electronic/etc. musicians have the click-track to keep them in time, classical performers have either a conductor or their internal sense of time, both inherently flexible to fit the mood of the music. I’ll cover how to create rubato in a DAW in a future article.
Meter determines how the beats are grouped. Alongside key signatures, you have time signatures.
The top note tells you how many notes are in each group. For 4/4 time (shown at the beginning of the first bar above), there are four beats in each bar, and more often than not this is clearly detectable when listening. This is why notes are organised into bars. By my estimation, 4/4 accounts for around 75% of all Western music. The second most common is 3/4 (the second bar above), with three beats per bar. You can feel this pattern because the first beat is usually stressed or emphasised more than the others. Stressed beats are usually louder with more instruments. If in doubt, listen to the percussion.
The bottom note is more complicated and more stupid.
4/4 means you have four quarter notes (or crotchets) per bar. Our standard set of note lengths are divisions of a 4/4 bar into 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and so on equal sections (so 16 sixteenth notes fit in one 4/4 bar and so on). You can go crazy with hemidemisemiquavers (sixty-fourth notes), or even crazier with demisemihemidemisemiquavers. The bottom number of a time signature tells you which note you’re using the count the beats – 3/4 is three quarter notes per bar, 6/8 is six eighth notes (quavers) and so on. The stupid part is that the note length can be made completely irrelevant by using a different tempo. Quarter notes at 120 BPM are exactly the same as eighth notes at 60 BPM. So in a sense, the bottom note serves no purpose except confusion. Yay!
The temptation is to simplify these time signatures like fractions, for example making 6/8 into 3/4. This is a little dangerous, because 6/8 actually means something different. Using 6/8 time rather than 3/4 implies that the notes are actually two subgroups of three. If this sounds arbitrary and complicated, it’s because it is. Fundamentally, you can write music in 6/8 time in 3/4 instead, but you have to use a lot of compound notes (notes with lengths made of two different fundamental notes, so a quarter plus an eighth for instance) and the sense of stress is less obvious. 12/8 is even more complicated, because you’re effectively using 4/4 but each beat is divided into three. Listen to a waltz and you’ll understand.
Finally, we come to rhythm proper. As a specialist term, rhythm means the pattern of note lengths which comprise a melody/harmony line. There’s no rule against it, but creating rhythms where every note is the same length leads to boredom. Boredom leads to fear. Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. Suffering leads to two blown-up Death Stars. Unless you want the blood of millions and Jar Jar Binks on your hands, don’t do it.
Rhythms are built around stress patterns. In basic terms, stressed notes are those which occur at the beginning of a bar or evenly divide it (the first and third beats in 4/4 time are stressed, with the first emphasised more than the third).
A more complex alternative is to use syncopation. This is the deliberate stressing of conventionally unstressed beats. With the exception of orchestral music, which avoids syncopation for the most part and gets away with it, music without syncopation sounds bland and amateurish. Vocals in pop songs are the best examples of well-done syncopation. Listen carefully and often you’ll hear the vocal land on a stressed syllable just before the backing instruments do. Really well-done syncopation alternates between syncopated and non-syncopated phrases. This is the best way to create engaging melodies.
Modulation is a more complex concept, but I feel it’s essential for all producers/composers to have some grasp of it, if only for them to create more interesting pieces.
I’m being naughty and lumping proper modulation and the brief use of notes outside a key under the same label. For most purposes you can think of them in the same way, it’s just that modulation tends to be in effect for longer and involves a new key signature (new sections are sometimes modulated relative to previous ones, especially in orchestral music).
So what is modulation? A producer would think of varying signal levels, as in LFOs, used to change an audio effect over time. I’ll come to this in later parts. To a composer, modulation occurs when you mess about with key signatures.
In any key, each of the notes plays a different role. The root is the home, the sonic centre; the fifth is strong and can stand on its own or can imply the root; the seventh is weak and needs to be resolved to a stronger note; and so on. With this understanding you can create many colours and moods, but sometimes you need more.
Modulation is useful either when you want access to more colours in your musical palette or when you want to switch the existing roles around. For example, the note six semitones above another is known as the tritone. Major and minor keys don’t allow for the tritone of the root. You can have a tritone of the seventh (which is why the chord based on B in the C major scale is Bdim) but often this is impractical. Tritones are the harbingers of evil, or so the Church thought, because for many years the interval was banned due to links with the devil. Tritones don’t always sound evil though. They can add levels of mystery and tension not possible with the nice, simple intervals.
This is true for every note outside of a key played with the key’s root. Each gives a new flavour. Those outside the key can sound disturbing, but sometimes that’s what you want.
I said earlier that a key defines a set of notes which sound good with one note. This is true, but constant purity is boring. We want spice in our music.
Proper modulation is more complicated. Keys which share many similar notes are closely related. In a conventional modulation, the key signature changes to a different one nearby via some tricky chord movement. Suddenly every relationship you thought you understood between the notes in your palette is thrown away, and after a few moments the ear understands that there is now a new root.
The best way to achieve this is by using chords common to both keys. If you’re in C major but want to get to F major, use the chords C, Dm, F and Am for a while. Every note of these is in both keys. Then you can introduce a B♭ (from the F major scale) via a B♭, Gm or Edim chord and it doesn’t sound as jarring. Unless of course you want jarring. Then just throw in notes from anywhere.
Fun fact: this theme, based on recorded improvisation, somehow goes from E major to E♭ major and back again through this type of movement (although, the entire thing was slowed down afterwards, so who knows what keys these are now?). I’m not entirely sure how. My hands seem to understand more about modulation than my head does.
Be careful with modulation. Too little can sound boring, but too much can sound chaotic. It’s one of those things where learning the rules for music without modulation first is imperative. Then you get an intuitive sense of how far you can take it.
So, have modulation in mind for the future, but for now stick to one key at a time.
Putting It All Together
Remember when I embedded a load of music and told you to listen to it? If you don’t, read Part I. If you do, here I go with actually using it.
First up, Mahler’s Adagietto. I won’t be able to go into much detail, but I can give a brief synopsis of how music theory evokes emotion. All these comments are relevant to your own composing efforts.
The most obvious aspect is the use of rubato (flexible tempo). Everywhere. Tapping your foot to this is impossible. Note how certain beats of the bar are more likely to feature rubato than others. The entire piece is in 4/4, and the fourth beat is usually the slowest. This is done to drag out the tension, to hold an unresolved note for longer and make its resolution more satisfying.
The first four bars (up to 0:31 – they’re very slow bars) are entirely in the key of F major. The first note outside the key is introduced in the fifth bar (the lowest note of the harp at 0:35). This is semitone movement of one note of the chord, morphing F major (with an A in the bass) into F minor (with an Ab in the bass). Since the melody line moves upward from C to D too, the chord is technically Fm6, but I haven’t explained chord extensions so I’ll consider only the main chords. Mahler uses this movement by semitones a lot. It could even be considered a kind of motif, but as a standalone thing it creates immense emotion and tension. A lot of the time the rest of the notes of the chord don’t change (as above). This creates a kind of sustained drone underneath, emphasising the melody line as a free spirit moving throughout keys without a care in the world. It’s rather wonderful.
Countless other interesting developments grow and fade before it, but at 3:02 you hear the dreaded tritone (C♯ and G). By 3:03 it’s quickly resolved to a Bbm chord but the melody keeps diving deeper into despair. Downwards melodies tend to increase despair and vice versa. The notes from 3:05 to 3:07 are alien to the key, moving down by two semitones each time. Scales with only this type of movement (whole tone scales) create exoticism and mystery.
Then the resolution bursts onto the scene with a loud F chord, the strings and harp playing arpeggios on this chord until 3:14 when it changes to a C chord with a D♭ in the melody (technically a C7 chord with a minor ninth). Since these notes are separated by only a semitone (though one has been moved up an octave, so they aren’t really) there’s great tension which needs to be resolved.
The melody steps downwards until the chord changes to C, then a perfect cadence finishes the section as the chord shifts to F. With accompanying dynamics, the end result is a powerful exploration of emotion in only a few chords. I’d like to cover more of the piece, but this article is dragging on as it is.
Next, Shiver by Coldplay. Whether you like them or not (spoiler: I do), Shiver presents an intriguing and foregrounded use of rhythm.
The song is in 12/8 but shifts between different interpretations. From the beginning until 0:13 the beats are split into four groups of three (except for the lead guitar line), then suddenly it shifts to three groups of four (which can be heard more clearly as six groups of two). A little confusing, but quite clever.
When the vocals enter, they’re initially sung straight, with the stressed syllables landing on the stressed beats. ‘Do you’ at 0:44 however is syncopated, with ‘you’ falling between the beats. This is more noticeable in the chorus at 1:02, when ‘on’ precedes the initial downbeat of the chorus by a significant time. There’s even time for a vocal slide to another syncopated note. ‘Moment’ on the next beat is sung with conventional stress. The interplay of syncopation and non-syncopation helps gives the melody energy and humanity.
Duel of the Fates by John Williams features some interesting use of rhythm (and melody, which I might discuss at a later date). There’s some rubato, but nowhere near as much as Mahler. The repeating rhythmic melody (ostinato) from 0:15 onwards could use exclusively eighth notes, but the third note is split into two sixteenth notes instead (you know, to avoid a melody with all notes the same length and unleash the Death Star and all that).
The plucked bass strings emphasise the first beat of each bar, but often hang on syncopated notes to create some interest once the ear is bored of the ostinato. At 0:48 a second melody imitates the first with a rhythmic shift. This ensures there’s always a melody playing to fill whatever gaps the other leaves, which retains engagement but doesn’t overwhelm the listener as two simultaneous melodies would.
From 1:03, Williams employs a common motif of his, syncopated brass stabs (quiet at first). For some reason I find these absolutely brilliant, and some obvious skill has gone into placing them somewhere they can create just the right amount of rhythmic dissonance. They really aid the creation of a chaotic atmosphere without leading to actual chaos. John Williams is my favourite film composer, and I suspect it’s his use of rhythm which tips the balance for me.
Was that brief description of music theory brief and descriptive enough? If not, find other resources and practise these techniques. I still can’t use them all proficiently and I’ve been writing music for years.
Next time: we delve into the world of music production. Guides to using DAWs, digital effects and the general mixing process will be arriving whenever I can make them, which at this rate will be this time next century.