Do You Need Music Theory to Produce Music?


Either Way – You Can Produce Music!

You want to start your music production career, but you’re hesitant due to your lack of music theory knowledge. Don’t worry, that’s ok! Music production software has come so far in the last two decades that the amount of knowledge about theory needed to start is dwindling fast. 

With the pace of technology growing, there are plenty of features inside digital audio workstations (DAW) and even plugins that will allow you to produce with the smallest amount of music theory knowledge. So when asking if you need music theory, the short answer is yes. However, having a basic understanding of music theory will help you drastically when you sit down to produce music. 

Music theory is something that many music producers find challenging, even myself. After ten years, I get confused all the time. The reality is that a music producer, no matter the genre, who has some music theory training, will essentially be more effective at producing music. When working with clients for example, you will be able to adapt to a specific scale that fits the vocalist range, smoothing the creating process and leaving yourself more time to be creative. 

What Is Music Theory? 

When thinking about this question, it’s important to remember that music theory came first! Music has been around for thousands of years before theory came along to simply explain what musicians were doing when playing their songs. So don’t ever think that you can’t be a proficient musician or producer because you’ve never been exposed to music theory. 

Think of music theory as the grammatical rules that oversee our written language. Music theory allows all musicians, writers, producers, and everyone in-between to communicate quickly and efficiently. 

Does Music Theory Help You Produce Music? 

This question is somewhat subjective. However, the answer is sort of. Music theory is a systematic way of understanding conventions. If you want to create conventional music, you can simply use theory rules, and composition can come easily. 

When working with musicians, theory knowledge is a time saver for solving problems, writing bass lines, building harmonies, defining song structure, etc. Music theory allows you to understand what notes will sound good or bad over chords and which chords will sound good or bad in which situation. However, understanding this alone doesn’t make you an artist. 

Music theory ultimately tells you nothing about what to do or what not to do. It simply aids you in making structured decisions in the conventional way, which is useful when learning production, but it’s ultimately up to you what you do and where you take your productions. 

How Does Someone Learn Music Theory? 

This depends on how you learn best. Some individuals like to learn more formally, in a classroom, or with pre-planned lessons that walk you from point A to point B. For others. If you are not planning on enrolling in a university music program, there are plenty of online resources that can help you. 

With the internet, every expanding, paid online learning labs like Masterclass and Skillshare are great ways to learn from an instructor and build your skills. As you learn music theory, there are stepping stones that you, in most if not all scenarios, you need to understand one concept before moving to the next. 

For someone like myself, I decided to learn theory from free resources like youtube. Youtube is one of the fastest places to find and learn what you are looking for however, the information is not always accurate and explained in most conventions. 

Instead of Googleing what you are currently stuck on in a project. Take a few days and use that time to start from the very basics of music theory. Determine how scales work, what scale the songs you are currently listening to use, and what scales are most popular in which genre and why. For example, most bass-heavy genres are written in the keys of A and G due to low-end response. 

Like I said above, music theory is neither necessary to be successful as an artist or sufficient for artistry. There are plenty of technically advanced and skilled musicians who lack confidence in most things music theory related. 

With all the music theory knowledge out there, it’s hard to get a decent explanation for certain genres and why they work so well, such as the blues. Remember, theory can’t tell you how to make a great sounding record. It can only aid you in your production process and creating one. 

Basic Music Theory That Helps You As A Music Producer. 

The most popular way a producer will encounter music theory roadblocks occurs when writing in a piano roll of a digital audio workstation. Let’s start with the basics and talk about music theory revolving around a piano. The piano is the most important instrument to grasp because every digital audio workstation uses a piano roll for midi input and note editing. 

White Keys

The white keys on your midi keyboard play the “natural” notes in a scale. Playing just the white keys on a piano will place you in the scale of C major or A minor, depending upon which key you start on. White keys on the piano are C,D,E,F,G,A,B, assuming you start from C. 

Black Keys

The Black keys on your keyboard play all the sharp and flat notes. By bringing both the black keys and white keys together, you open up the possibility to write in more keys than just C major and A minor. 

Intervals

An Interval is the space between two notes. For this example, we will stick with whole steps. Whole steps is the equivalent of two semitones, and a half step is one semitone. The distance from C to D is one whole step. 

The most common musical scale is based on whole steps and half steps. 

Major and Minor Scales

When deciding the type of song you are writing, it’s essential to keep in mind that similar feeling melodic elements should accompany the words and message. Major scales tend to sound lighter and portray a more happy emotional feeling. On the other hand,  minor scales carry a darker and more melancholic tone. The majority of most currently popular EDM, Rock, Pop, and Rap music is written in minor keys. 

Chords

Chords are usually the element that a track is written around. Just like scales, chords can be major and minor and share the same characteristics and the ones mentioned above. A chord is simply one or more notes from a given scale stacked on top of each other to produce a pleasant tone. 

Key Changes

A key change means the usage of a new key for a particular part of a song. This is pretty rare in pop music; however, it does trend in country music. A Key change can add a different sound or feeling to a portion of a song you want to stand out. For example, many country songs change to a major key during a break, which continues through the song’s end. 

Tie It All Together

Theory is something that can take time if you are not formally trained in a specific instrument. Think of music theory as an aid but not the hard written rules of music. Remember that music is an art, and there’s really no right and wrong way to do it. 

If you are just starting out in your music production career, now is also the time to start your music theory training. As you grow as a producer, your theory will strengthen and allow you to be more efficient as you working with artists. 

If you are interested in learning more about music production, Dark Horse Institute’s Audio Engineering Program is a great way to take things to the next level when you are ready.


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