If you’re completely new to electronic music then one of the first things you should learn is basic music theory for EDM production. The good news is that in just a few hours you can learn enough to write your first song. In this guide we will go over 3 essential music theory lessons specifically for electronic music.
In western music we work exclusively with 12 notes or tones. These notes are; C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, and B.
If you look at your Piano Roll (which is just a piano flipped vertically) in your daw you will see these 12 notes repeated all the way up and down.
I recommend memorizing these 12 notes and the keys they are assigned to as it will speed up your song writing. If you don’t want to, don’t worry, I didn’t either. If you spend enough time on your piano roll you will eventually learn them naturally.
In music, a scale can be defined as a grouping of notes or tones from which we can build melodies and harmonies (think chords or notes that are played at the same time).
The word scale comes from the Latin word scalae meaning steps, staircase or ladder. This makes sense as we often refer to “half steps” or “whole steps”. I’ll explain more on this later. The thing to take away from this is that you can think of scales as a grouping of notes that sound good together.
In EDM production we most commonly use two types of scales; Minor and Major.
Both of these scales are made up of 7 notes. The difference between major and minor is the feeling they give us.
Major tends to give happy, uplifting or triumphant feelings. Whereas Minor is can feel more melancholic, serious, sad or any other variation of those words.
How do we build a Major or Minor scale?
Let me begin by explaining what whole steps and half steps are.
If you look at your piano roll at the note “C”, a whole step up from C would be D, you essentially just skip one key and land on the next. A half step (also known as a semitone) would simply be the very next note, in this case, C#.
We use the following formula for a Major scale:
whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.
We use the following formula for a Minor scale:
whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.
So for example, if we start on C and we want to build a C Major scale, it would be C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
If we wanted to build a C Minor scale, it would be C, D, D#, F, G, G#,A#. HOWEVER, the correct way to write this scale would be C, D, Eb,F, G, Ab, Bb.
Note: “#” = Sharp and “b” = Flat. More on this in the next paragraph.
What is the difference between “#” and “b”?
“#” or “Sharp” simply means to play a note one semitone higher than normal. And “b” or “flat” is to play the note one semitone lower than normal.
So in the above example with Cmaj and Cmin, we write the third note as Eb instead of D# because the note we usually play in the Major scale is E and we are playing it one semitone lower because we are in minor, therefore it is flat.
Note: Scales are also referred to as “keys” so if you hear someone say “the key of this song is Aminor” then you know they mean the scale of the song is Aminor.
Intervals can be thought of as the difference in pitch between two notes. When you move from one note to another, the number of semitones, or “half steps” as we referred to them earlier, would be called the interval. Each interval has a name.
The main intervals are:
- Unison (0 semitones)
- Minor second (1 semitones)
- Major second (2 semitones)
- Minor third (3 semitones)
- Major third (4 semitones)
- Perfect fourth (5 semitones)
- Perfect Fifth (7 semitones)
- Minor sixth (8 semitones)
- Major sixth (9 semitones)
- Minor seventh (10 semitones)
- Major seventh (11 semitones)
- Octave (12 semitones)
Notice how the number of semitones jumps from 5 (perfect fourth) to 7 (perfect fifth).
But what about the interval with 6 semitones?
This is known as a diminished fifth or augmented fourth and is most commonly referred to as a Tritone. It is called a tritone because it is comprised of 3 whole steps or “whole tones”. C major only has one tritone and it is comprised of the notes F, and B. Tritones sound dissonant, so tritones can be used to create tension where desired.
So now that we have a fundamental understanding of notes and scales we can use this knowledge to build chord progressions.
Chords can be thought of as a group of notes that, when played together, create a fuller, richer tone that has a rather distinct character. Major chords can sound happy or uplifting, Minor chords can sound nostalgic, sad, melancholic, serious etc. Suspended chords create tension or suspense, the list goes on. All these chords exist within both Major and Minor scales and are tools for you to create the emotions you want to portray.
How do we build chords?
Let’s start with the most common type of chord structure, the triad.
A triad is made up of three notes, the root, the third, and the fifth.
The easiest way to build a chord is to pick a note in the key or scale of choice, this is your root. Then You skip the next note and play the one after it, the third. So in the scale of Cminor, if we started on G, G would be our root, we then skip the Ab and play the Bb, that is our third, we then skip the C note and play the D.
Our chord is G, Bb, D. This is called a Gminor Triad.
Bonus question: How would we make a Gmajor Triad?
Answer: All we do is move the third up a semitone, we play G, B, D.
Note that minor chords always have 2 semitones between the root and the third and major chords have 3 semitones between the root and the third.
Learn more about how to make interesting chords in this article.
If we look at the key of A min. We have the notes:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
Each one of these notes can be assigned a number, this number tells us the name of the chord. These numbers are written in roman numerals and are either lower or uppercase. Lowercase means minor and uppercase, major.
So for minor scales we have:
i, ii°, III, iv, V, VI, VII
If we look at this we can see the III, V, VI, and VII are capitalised which means they are major chords. So if somene asksk you to play the V, you know they mean E major; E because its the 5 and major because its capitalised.
Let’s take this a step further and introduce scale degrees.
Each one of these roman numerals has a corresponding scale degree (regardless of major or minor);
- i = Tonic
- ii = Supertonic
- III = Mediant
- iv = Subdominant
- V = Dominant
- VI = Submediant
- VII = Leading tone (in Major keys) / Subtonic (in Minor keys)
Think of the Tonic as “home”. We can use these degrees as a map to navigate to our home, home is the tonic center and is typically the degree that we want to finish on to give the listener a sense of resolution.
The Leading Tone and the Dominant both create a longing for home. So ending a chord progression on V – i, or VII – i will give the listener a sense of resolution.
The subdominant has a relationship with the dominant and typically leads away from the tonic. So if you find yourself playing the iv, you know that playing the V afterwards will feel right.
As a beginner you don’t need to get too caught up on scale degrees, just know that you should in most cases try to start or finish on the tonic.
Here are some common Minor key chord progressions:
- i – VI – VII
- i – iv – VII
- i – iv – V
- i – VI – III – VII
- ii – V – i
Notice how all of them either have a dominant (V) or leading tone (VII) before the tonic (i). And the iv/VI tends to take us away from home and lead into the V or VII.
This so-called roadmap should be used as a guide, you will typically be able to hear if a chord progression sounds weak or doesn’t resolve properly, and if it doesn’t, you can come back to this and use this as a guide to fix it.
I think that covers most of what you would need to know as a beginner producer. If you have anything you want to share or have any questions feel free to comment below.