Music Theory For Dummies: 10 Things You should Know
Mar 22, 2021
(Updated on Dec 3, 2023)
Music theory has always been a controversial and polarizing topic especially among music producers. Known as one of the most boring facets of music production, you won't find many people excited and motivated to invest their free time and money into learning music theory. Some say you don't need to know any music theory at all (even Timbaland recently shared the same opinion), while others will swear to it. Nowadays, more and more upcoming music producers are skipping past the theory part, and head straight to making beats. Understandable, because depending how you go about learning music theory, it can and will become extremely boring. While there are tons of books on music theory (by the way , i highly recommend you to read Alfred's essentials of music theory) , various music theory cheat sheets and music theory hacks you can use to get a better understanding, the most valuable is to first learn the fundamentals. The good news however, is that you don't have to learn every single bit of music theory, in order to start producing quality music. In this article, we will teach you 10 music theory principles every musician, artist or music producer should know. These 10 principles will not turn you into the next Scott Storch, however they will serve as a good foundation and will teach you the basic music theory guidelines on which you can your create music with.
With technology in the top DAWs becoming more and more advanced, it's easy to forget about music theory. It has therefore garnered somewhat of a bad reputation. Perhaps unjust, because ramping up your musical knowledge can be of significant value, whether you're a music producer, DJ, songwriter, artist or if you just want to learn how to play the piano. Now i'm not saying you need to know everything there is to know. You just need to know what YOU need to know to help you become a better musician. Does that make sense? Let me put it in a different perspective. If you're a bus driver, you don't have to know what materials or parts the bus is made out of. All you need to know is how to drive that thing! So no need to dive into countless music theory books, reading through tons of music theory reddit pages or sign up for some music theory class. Just knowing the basics can get you where you want to be. So let's get into the 10 things you should know about music theory.
Music theory for beginners. 10: What is BPM and how to find the bpm of a song
The tempo of a song is expressed by the BPM (Beats Per Minute) it determines how fast or how slow the music is. Now there are some rough tempo guides or BPM values that different genres of music use. For example pop music tends to fall between a 100 and a 130 BPM and Hip-Hop between 85 and 115 BPM. You can find these general values by simply googling. But i personally find that the best way to work out a songs tempo is to tap it out.
To find the tempo of any song, you can tap along to the beat and counting on every beat over the course of a minute. This will give you the exact BPM of a song. A faster way is to do it over the course of 30 seconds, and then multiplying the amount of beats by two.
Music theory for beginners. 9: What is time signature?
The time signature changes the feel of the music. The time signature of our project is really important to get right. This is because it changes the feel of the music but also the way that the music moves. Two of the most commonly used and seen time signatures are 3/4 and 4/4. These sound different because of where the emphasis in the music lies. We naturally emphasize the first beat of the bar. In 3/4 this happens every three beats. In 4/4 it happens every four beats. If we were to clap out a beat in 3/4, it would look something like 1,2,3 - 1,2,3 - 1,2,3- 1,2,3.
And in 4/4 it would look like 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4. If you were to clap along to a song, you could hear those will definitely sound different. This is part of the reason that the waltz sounds totally different to a rock tune. A really great example of time signatures changing the feel of the music is in Björk's cover of It's Oh So Quiet. Now if you're familiar with the song, you'll know that there are two distinct sections. You will begin with the slow moving timid beginning section, which then moves to a really hard hitting fast energetic section in the middle. Now what's really interesting is this beginning section is in 3/4, and the fast middle section is in 4/4. So Björk in this cover has used time signatures to create that contrast. They're really important.
Music theory for beginners. 8: What are key changes?
Do you ever listen to a song with an epic key change at the end and just wish that you could add something like that to your own track? Well, the chances are that there's actually a really fairly key change that we can recreate using some basic music theory knowledge. A key is a group of notes that we use in our music, that we collect together in a scale. So if we're in the key of C Major, we use all of the notes in the C Major scale. Each key has a group of closely related keys. And these are keys that share a lot of similar notes with our original key. If we stick with C Major, the closely related keys are A Minor, F Major, D Minor, G Major and E Minor. There are certain rules that allow you to work out what every keys closely relayed keys are. Use this tool to calculate closely related keys.
A key change from C Major to any one of these closely related keys is most likely to sound very good. But are these actually the key changes that we tend to hear in pop music? Well actually there is a much more common key change that tends to be used in pop music. And this is going from the Tonic, to the Super Tonic. It basically moves along to the next key. For example, in Whitney Houston's - I Wanna Dance With Somebody, we go from F Major, to G Major. Other great examples of key changes used in pop music would be Love On Top by Beyonce, and Living On A Prayer by Bon Jovi (Although this is technically not a pop song). So if you want to create some contrast and some interest in your music, think about introducing a key change.
Music theory for beginners. 7: Make use of modes
Have you ever been trying to write a melody for a song and thought to yourself, that this melody just doesn't quite fit with this genre. Like you're trying to write a blues melody but it just doesn't sound authentic. Well perhaps you're not using the right mode. Modes are different types of scales, and a scale is a collection of seven notes.
There are 7 different modes, and each one of them has a different pattern of tones and semitones in between each note of the scale. But do we really need to worry that much about them? Well, in reality i'd say that the majority of the songs that you hear in a Major key are written in the Ionian mode. And that's the normal Major scale that we're used to hearing. Minor keys are a bit more complex and perhaps a discussion for a different day. But anyways, some genres tend to use different modes. For example, if you take the seventh note of the Ionian mode and flatten it by a semitone, you've got the Mixolydian mode which you can use for blues music. The same kind of rules apply to the other modes and scales as well.
If you play these on a piano, you will hear that each scale has a different feel to it. And this is why some types of music or some genres of music have a different and distinguishable sound. They're simply using a different set of notes because they're written in a different mode.
Music theory for beginners. 6: What are inversions? And how to use them
Why can we sometimes hear a chord being played twice, and think that we hear two different chords? Well it's not magic, but it's pretty close. Chord is made out of three notes. And when we invert chords, we change the note that is on the bottom of it also known as the root or bass note. And this makes it sound like a completely new chords entirely. Here's how it works. In a D chords, you have the D at the very bottom, then the F Sharp on top of that and the A at the very top. We describe a chord ordered like this as in root position. We can change the order of these notes, so that the chord note is no longer on the bottom. If we decide to move the D up an octave, the F Sharp will now be on the bottom. On any type of chord, the third note of the chord, or the middle note will be on the bottom. We call this order a 1st inversion chords.
We can even take it a step further and invert the chord again. If we can keep the D in its new higher position, we can also move the F Sharp up an octave as well. Now the A is on the bottom, or the fifth note of the chord. This is what we call the second inversion of a chord because we've inverted the chord twice. But do these inversions actually sound different? Time to get behind your piano or keyboard and hear for yourself!
[caption id="attachment_40032" align="alignnone" width="1024"] This is what the D Major chord looks like in its root position[/caption][caption id="attachment_40030" align="alignnone" width="1024"] This is what the D Major chord looks like in first inversion[/caption][caption id="attachment_40031" align="alignnone" width="1024"] This is what the D Major chord looks like in second inversion[/caption]
Inversions are used in lots of different songs. For example in Ed Sheeran's hit song Thinking Out Loud. He starts off by playing a D Chord in root position, and then goes to a D/F Sharp chord. The D Chord in its first inversion. But this isn't the only use for this brilliant trick. We can also use chord inversions to create space in our mix. We can change where the note sits in terms of pitch and frequency, but still keep the same harmony, the same chord. So if you've got too many instruments or sounds in a certain frequency range, and your mix is sounding cluttered and muddy, think about using a chord inversion to try and resolve this.
Music theory for beginners. 5: How to use clefs
Have you ever listened to your track and just thought, god this sounds really muffled or really muddy and cluttered. Or maybe your bass is overpowering the treble. In these scenarios i like to think of the bass and treble clefs, and which instruments would sit in which clefs. Let me explain this a little more, as i realize it might sound a bit odd. So we have the Treble clef, which is used to mainly write the notes that are higher in pitch than the middle C on the piano. Then we have the bass clef, where we write the notes that are lower in pitch than the middle C on the piano. If i have a bass in my mix, i know that this bass will lie in my bass clef. A synth is most likely to be in the treble clef. A Cello will lie in the bass clef, and something like a triangle will lie in the treble clef. By thinking about my sounds in this way i can evaluate the overall mix of my track. Are there too many parts in one clef? Does one clef overpower the other? And this helps me make decisions about my mixing and about how i write parts. It also helps reassure that the overall sonic spread of my mix is fairly even and well balanced.
Music theory for beginners. 4: The power of harmonies
Why can some people harmonize really really easily and for others it proves to be a bit more tricky. Well, there are the lucky few to whom harmonizing just comes naturally. And this is probably because it's a skill that they've developed over a long time by simply practicing and listening to lots of harmonies. But in most cases, people that harmonize will probably know a little bit of music theory. I would recommend learning how to harmonize in thirds, fourths and fifths as these are the most common harmonies that we hear. But do i really need harmonies in my song? Will they really make that much of a difference? The answer is YES, completely. I believe that harmonies can completely transform a song. They're great for emphasizing parts of a song, for creating contrast, for thickening the texture, for creating interest, they're just brilliant! And you will hear them in pretty much every pop song that you listen to. So if you want to take your mix or track to the next level, learn a little bit of theory and begin to harmonize!
Music theory for beginners. 3: What are rests? And how to use them
How can sometimes the absence of music be more effective than the actual music itself? In all honesty the answer is, i don't know! Sometimes it just is. Using rests or silence can create so much suspense and tension in our mixes. It's sometimes the most powerful tool that we have. There are 5 different types of rests in music that you should be aware of. Rests can last for different amounts of time. The ones underneath are the ones that you should be aware of.
But is this really all true? Can we create such a powerful emotion by simply adding silence? Im going to play you a repeated tune called progression. The first time im not going to add rests or any silence in between the repeats. The second time i will and we'll hear the difference.
You can hear that the second version of this chord progression was completely different. It created so much more suspense, and evoked a completely different motion. All simply by adding in a little bit of silence.
Music theory for beginners. 2: What are dynamics in music?
In our mix, are your instruments lacking something? Perhaps they don't quite have the life or emotion that you want them to have. You may need to add some dynamics. Dynamics help us tell the story of the music and create emotion. If you go back in time and look at some sheet music, you'll see lots of dynamic markings. These tell the performer how loudly, or how quietly to play, and therefore how much attack to play with. And its these little nuances that help and convey these emotions in the music. There are some main dynamic words that you should be aware of. These are Piano which means quietly. MF or Mezzo Forte which means normal volume. And Forte which means loudly. You also have Crescendo, which means you should start off playing quietly and gradually get louder. The opposite of this is Diminuendo in which you start off loudly and gradually get quieter. So imagine that you're importing all your instrument parts using MIDI, and you want to add some dynamics. That seems easy enough right? You go into volume automation and simply automate the volume up and down. Job done right? So if you want it to be really really precise, and make these dynamics sound very realistic, then not quite. You should also think about changing the attack or the velocity on each of these notes. If you think about it, if you pan an instrument quietly, you're more likely to have a lot less attack at the beginning of the note than if you were to play it loudly. So if you want more realistic dynamics, this is one of the things you should consider. As producers, it's making these little changes that will make our mix that tiny bit better. That tiny bit will get you closer to perfection.
Music theory for beginners. 1: Learn the language!
Have you ever been in a studio, or even in a normal room and felt like everyone was speaking an entirely different language? When i was starting to learn music theory and production, i certainly felt this way. It was like i knew everyone was speaking English, but to me they may as well have been speaking some extraterrestrial language. Now over time and with practice you do pick up some words naturally. As musicians, we have a universal shorthand, for conveying some complex ideas and techniques. For example, if a conductor tells a performer to play a part of a song Forte, they know exactly what it means, exactly what they have to do. And likewise, if an engineer is asked to apply some compression to a track, they know exactly what it means and exactly what to do. So i would recommend that you invest some time learning the main words. Both relating to music performance, and to engineering. At the end of the day, as a producer, we need to communicate with both musicians and engineers. So we need to be able to speak both the languages. We'll also need to be able to communicate and verbalize the ideas in our head, for the track in front of us. Which will be a lot easier to do if we can express our ideas in musical terms. At the end of the day, its what will allow us to do our job effectively.
So there are top 10 music theory principles you should know about. In terms of production, the biggest tip i can give is to make music you enjoy, and not be scared to go outside the box and break the music rules! Check out our piano chord and scale charts, to quickly learn the most important chords and scales!