One of the most underestimated aspects of electronic music is the usefulness of music theory. If you can begin your journey without any basis regarding music, music theory will make this process so much easier. In fact, most electronic music producers have all been exposed to music classes and instruments early on in their careers. In a way, it is logical since we are talking about electronic music and the latter cannot be detached from its central element which is namely “music theory”. Basic music theory involves knowing how to construct moving melodies, harmonious chords, and unforgettable riffs. 

In this article, we will start by focusing on the basics of music theory. Of how many notes is a piano constituted? How do notes interact with each other? An analysis of central components of piano keyboards such as keys, intervals, octaves, scales and the process of constructing a melody will be included.  

This article contains excerpts of Rick Snoman’s “The Dance Music Manual (3rd Edition)”

I. Foundations of Music Theory

Locating Note C and simple considerations

The most important note to learn first is C. This is the white key that is always to the left of any group of two black keys. Once you’ve located this key, you will notice that there are more than one of these keys. The second most important aspect of music theory is the octave. It refers to the number 8. An octave is best expressed by counting 8 white keys up until you reach note C again.

In music, each note generates harmonics. After the fundamental frequency—the first harmonic—there is the second harmonic, with a frequency double that of the first. Therefore, if the frequency of the fundamental is given as 220 HZ (the note A below Middle C), the frequency of the second harmonic will be 440 HZ (the note A above Middle C)—a frequency which would be heard as being an octave higher.

If another note is played with a frequency double that of the lowermost note, the ear recognizes a special relationship between them. This is because the upper note is simply reinforcing the second harmonic of the lower note. This connection is called musical harmony. In fact, it is so strong that the two notes are heard as being virtually identical. This is why two notes an octave apart are named by the same note letter.

A piano keyboard locating the middle C

How are the black keys called?

The black keys are all sharps and flats of the white keys.

The same black key can have more than one name. The nearest black key up from note C is note C sharp. Yet, this black key has already been named as D flat. Each black key can, therefore, have two names, depending upon whether it is used as a sharp of the white key below or as a flat of the black key above. Notes related in this way are called enharmonic equivalents

Review of All the Black Key Names

What are keys and scales?

To approach an understanding of any scale, you must consider another important element of music, the key. “Scale” and “key” are closely related. Key concerns the note upon which a scale is built. The MIDI keyboard—modeled upon the piano and organ of traditional music—has five black and seven white keys in an octave, thus giving a total of twelve notes. Any of these keys— white or black—can be the starting point upon which a scale is built. A scale that has note C as the starting point is said to be in the key of C.

We strongly recommend using these stickers to learn notes and scales faster.   

In the composition of music, for a scale, one selects a total of seven notes from the octave to produce any musical piece, and these same seven notes are used to compose everything from the lead to the chords and the bass line. These notes are not random and are pre-determined by the choice of our musical key. In fact, a scale corresponds to a collective series of notes selected from the octave that will all sound pleasing to our ears when used in a composition.

The Musical Alphabet 

The musical alphabet is composed of seven keys (letters): A, B, C, D, E, F, G. When you arrive at G, you arrive at A once again.

To memorize the names of the notes it is easy to use the following method:

1. Locate C as the white key to the left of the two black keys.

2. Count forward in the musical alphabet for each white key.

When you’ve accomplished this, try a more difficult exercise:

1. Locate C as the white key to the left of the two black keys.

2. Count forward in the musical alphabet for each white key.

Understanding Intervals

What is an interval? It’s the gap between two notes. The octave considered earlier is an example of an interval.

The interval or gap between any two adjacent notes on the keyboard (or frets on the guitar) is called a semitone. There are thus 12 semitones in the octave.

As a complete musical scale system in its own right, the scale of C major offers all the notes needed for an entire composition. You can use these notes to create lead melodies, basses, and beautiful harmonies. The art of doing so lies in using leads, basses, and harmonies that all go together.

Musical Rule (for major scales)

Examples for C and E major scales:

  1. C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
  2. E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D# – E

Musicians and composers use different keys for their songs. Each key can provide a slightly different mood or feel for the composition. When we compose music, it naturally gravitates, around the root note of the chosen key.

The use of the major scale

A major key will produce music that exhibits a happy uplifting vibe, and this is why many pop music records and nursery rhymes are composed and performed in a major key. 

Nonetheless, it is more common to compose in a minor key.

Musical Rule (for minor scales)

Tone – Semitone – Tone –Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone

Examples for A minor and  C# minor scales:

A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A

C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A – B – C#

All major keys will have a relative minor and vice versa, and this means that a key in both minor and major will contain the exact same notes, just starting with a different root note. For example, the notes in C major consist of:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A

The only differences between major and minor keys in both these examples are the root notes (starting notes).

This major to minor relationship offers the composer the opportunity to move or modulate,  between the two different keys during a composition to add more interest to a musical piece.

A quick way to calculate the relative minor of any major key is by taking the sixth note of the major key and playing the minor key starting on that note. In the case of E major, the sixth note is a C#, and therefore, the relative minor root note would be C#. The table below shows all the relative major and minor keys.

The Use of the Minor Scale

The minor key exhibits a much larger shift in the emotional impact and feel of the record than writing in different major keys. Moreover, the minor key is said to be sad or somber, but this is an incorrect assumption since number of uplifting dance records have also been written in minor keys. It could be better described  sounding more serious or focused than a major key.

What Are The Different Types of Scales?

There are many types of scales used in the music of the world:
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The chromatic, major, and minor scales common to Western classical and popular music.
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The pentatonic scale popular in both folk and dance music
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The microtonal scales found in the music of the Near and Far East.
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The modal scales also used in folk music and popular, experimental rock, and dance music.
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The octatonic and hexatonic scales often used as variants of the major and minor scales by modern classical and film composers.
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The exotic scales commonly used by composers and music producers to create unusual atmospheres.

Knowing these scales puts the music writer in a very good position because there is a scale for every musical purpose and situation. Unlike the major scale, the minor scale consists of three different scales that were introduced over a period of years due to some inconsistencies that appear with the minor scale. While the natural minor can provide pleasing intervals between notes, many musicians consider them to sound disjointed or displaced when writing harmonies and melodies, and therefore, both the harmonic and melodic minor scales (modes) were introduced. 

The harmonic minor scale

The harmonic minor scale is very similar to the natural minor scale but with the seventh note increased, or augmented, up the scale by a semitone.

By raising the seventh note a semitone, it helps to create a more natural and powerful sounding chord progression.

The problem is that the intervals between the sixth and seventh notes are now three semitones apart, and this is an unusual movement that’s not only dissonant to our ears when not used in chords but also incredibly difficult for a vocalist to perform alongside

Consequently, the melodic minor scale was formed.

The Melodic Minor Scale

Both the sixth and the seventh notes of the natural minor are raised by a semitone each when ascending up the scale, but when descending the scale, it returns to using the natural minor scale. As confusing as this may initially appear, it’s generally accepted that if you choose to write in a minor key, it’s best to use the notes in melodic minor for all instruments with the exception of any chords or chord progressions whereby it is best to use the harmonic minor scale.

Further scales will not be covered in this article.

How Can I Construct Melodies?

Music theory provides you with the pieces to the puzzle. For you to deliver an organized result you need to understand how to effectively create melodies and motifs. The number one technique that is used in this case (in almost any electronic music genre) is the poly-rhythmical interaction between numerous motifs. A motif can be defined as a “short rhythmical idea that provides listeners with a reference point for the track”.

Motifs follow similar guidelines to the way that we ask and then answer a question. In a motif, the first musical phrase often applies the question that is then ‘answered’ by the second phrase.

There are 3 essential elements to creating any motif, and these are simplicity, rhythmical repetition, and small variations. Thus, when it comes to creating a motif, it is generally easiest to compose the rhythmical content first using a single pitch and then move onto introducing pitch changes between phrases at a later stage.

Method: connect a piano keyboard to a DAW sequencer and keep tapping out rhythms on a keyboard while recording the subsequent MIDI data into the DAW. After 20 minutes, listen back to the MIDI recording and pick out the best rhythms you came up with or mix and match them if required with the sequencers editing tools. Alternatively, you could use a synthesizer’s or DAW’s arpeggiator to record MIDI patterns and rhythms that you can later edit. The main target at this stage should be aimed at producing a good rhythmical pattern.

Moreover, efficient key changes can be introduced at the end of many pop songs. It’s not unusual for a pop song to change to move higher in the octave range during the chorus sections, or for the final chorus in the record to introduce more power and a stronger vibe to help drive the message of the song home. 

Why is rhythm an important factor in electronic music?

While key changes and pitch modifications play an important role, in electronic music rhythm is one of the most important aspects. Pitch automations can only be used to an extent where they contribute to the end-product of a track. Rhythm adjustments that can contribute to a the listener’s interest are intricate processing and well thought-out automated synthesis.

KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) applies heavily when creating the rhythmical patterns of motifs for club music, and the complexity today is born from the production aesthetics rather than the musicality”.

Conclusion

The extent of this article has proven how complex and exhaustive music theory can be. By defining basic concepts and principles, we strived to simplify a very thorough field. Electronic music makes the considerations regarding music theory even more specific since sound properties, harmonics and synthesis all add a level of complexity. Basic music theory entails the full grasping of a musical alphabet, composed of keys, scales, and intervals which sets the foundations for the learning of more specific musical fundamentals such as voicing, triads, arpeggiation, dominant chords, and modulation.

Without understanding the basics you cannot possibly move on to these more advanced concepts which will certainly contribute to your comprehension of music and to the overall elaboration of better structured and more complex musical compositionsIn our opinion, it was also important to consider sound properties such as pitch, amplitude or tone quality given the importance they have in electronic music. Our next focus will be to reveal the basics of mixing.