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  • Writer's pictureRyahu

How To Make Music Without Music Theory: The Basics

When a lot of people think of Music Theory, their brain starts looking a bit like the image below.

Even if you know a bit of music theory, you may not think of it that way, and you might still find the concept in general a bit intimidating. But no need to panic! When making music, you can make great music completely without the need to know too many complex things, unless you feel particularly inclined to dive into them. However, there are a few basic concepts that will help you make the most of your time in the DAW.


Scales

You may have heard people ask before "what key is this song in?" Well, that is in reference to the scale. The scale of your song will tell you which notes will appear (and more importantly, which not to use, these notes will make your song sound out of tune). The scale of the song is named by which note is the root note, a note acting as a sort of home base for your song, followed by the type of scale, such as major or minor. An example of this could be A Minor, which informs you that your song can include all of the white keys on the keyboard (and none of the black keys), and that the most important note is A. The image below you can reference back to in order to see all of the notes on a keyboard if you don't know them yet or need a refresher.




You may have noticed that I mentioned above two primary scales you may be dealing with when writing music. I am referring to the major scale and the minor scale. These each impart a unique emotional flavor to the music, and can be identified by the spacing in between the notes in the scale. To this day, this is how I always remember which notes are in each scale, and is an easy hack to figure out any scale. First, I need to define a couple of things.


A Half Step means that on your keyboard (or piano roll) you go from any note to a note that is directly next to it. A Whole Step means that you're skipping the note immediately adjacent to the current note, landing on the one after that.


Using the concepts of whole steps and half steps, we can define a pattern for both major and minor scales. A minor scale, starting on whichever root note is listed (for example, it would be E in the case of e minor) you move to the right on the keyboard in this pattern: Whole Half Whole Whole Half Whole Whole. Each note that you land on will be in that scale. For a visual representation of all of the notes in e minor, see the image below.


Notice the pattern starting on the first note (which is "E"), moves by skipping the first note to the right (Whole), then moving to the adjacent one (Half), then skipping one (Whole), and so on in the pattern that was listed above. Now, here is the pattern for a major scale, beginning on whichever note is the root note: Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half.


If you can remember these two patterns, you'll always know every key in the scale that you're playing in, which is a major advantage when writing music! If you pick just a few scales and memorize them, you'll be able to write music in those scales faster and more efficiently every time. If you eventually get bored writing in one scale and you feel that you have it completely down, move on to another! This is probably the best way as a musician to remember all of the scales; instead of just sitting down and studying them, actually use them and make something!


Chords

The next thing that you'll need to know once you understand scales will be chords. A chord is just multiple notes being played at once to create harmonic layers. There are two main types of chords we will be dealing with, similar to the scales concept. These chords are Major and Minor chords. The basic form of these chords involves 3 notes being played.


For a major chord, you pick any note to be the root note, and then move to the right 2 whole steps and play that note with it, and then the third note you'll play with them is 3 more half steps to the right. For example the chord in the image below is C Major.


You'll see that the lowest note, the note furthest to the left, is the C note, which is the root note. The root note is the note that the chord will be titled, which is why this chord is called C Major. For a minor chord, you just flip the pattern and starting from your root note you move to the right 3 half steps followed by 2 whole steps. For this C major chord in the picture, to make it a minor chord all you would have to do is move the middle note (E) 1 half step to the left onto the black key (D Sharp, also written as D#)


In this next image, you'll see a list of all of the chords that exist in each scale, you can save this to reference as you go to quickly know which chords are available to use in the scale that you are writing in. The notation works like so: the letter by itself is a major chord (A means A major). A little "m" indicates that it is a minor chord (Bm means B minor). The # means sharp (the sharps are the black keys). The final one is "dim", when means diminished. Diminished is an uncommonly used chord that exists once in each scale, and the pattern for the diminished chord is 3 half steps from the root note then 3 more half steps.



Inversions

Now that we understand what chords are, we can talk about Inversions. This is taking the notes that are in any chord and moving them up or down 1 octave. This just means moving any note up or down to the next of that same note on the keyboard. Since it is the same note, it will still be the same chord with a similar feel, but it will have a different tonality. This can be used to blend your chord progressions together more smoothly, for example these two chord progressions are exactly the same, but the one on the second half is a smoother way to play these chords, because the notes are closer together. This is an example of using inversions to move some of the notes in the chord up or down an octave.



You can also add more notes to a chord to make it more interesting than just three notes, we don't need to go too in depth on that here, but for practical purposes when you're writing your chords, feel free to add more notes to a chord here and there (make sure they're in the scale you're writing in) and see what you like! If you have the ear for it, this could be all you need to write some really moving melodic progressions.


Wrapping Up

In conclusion, you don't need a ton of technical information to write great music, and if all you know is these basic concepts, they really can take you a long way. These concepts include scales, chords, and inversions. I hope you can use these in some way to improve your productions, and if you already knew all of this, send this post to any of your friends who may always say things like "I wish I could make great compositions but I don't know music theory, it sounds way too complicated" because truthfully, you don't need all that to make good music!


If you'd like to hear how I use these techniques in my own music I would greatly encourage you to go check out my dance music at Ryahu or my Lo-Fi music at philip j loaf-eye.


Until next time!



Ryahu





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