Tag Archives: music theory

Most of the Music Theory You’ll Ever Need to Know!

18 Jan

The title of this post might be a little grandiose, but it’s (somewhat) true. Last post, I made reference to a cheat sheet that I had dreamed up for yall and I neglected to explain how to use it!

What a jerk I am.

So, I thought I’d clue you in about how to use this nifty resource. The cheat sheet consists of three different sections: Keys, Chords and Chord Construction.



Click to Biggify

The columns of this section correspond to different notes of the scale, the rows correspond to different keys. All the black boxes represents notes that sound good in that key. So, if you’ve got a song in the key of D, you find D in the leftmost column and you check that row to see what notes will go well together. This series of notes that sound good together is called a scale.

F#? Yes. A#? Hell no. Pretty nifty, right?

Of course, you can do the opposite, as I’ve done in the last post, and figure out what key a melodic phrase is in by finding what key contains those notes. I like to do this when I just have a few notes in an idea.

Example: I hum a simple melody into my iPhone while in the car, let’s say A, G and F#. When I get home, I see which key contains those notes. Turns out it’s a few. From there I can get ideas about which key to use and which chords to use and, finally, where to put my Grammy when I write my next song for Travis Tritt (just kidding [the cheat sheet can’t give interior decorating advice]).

BONUS POINTS: Pick a row and play the notes corresponding to the black boxes, left to right. Make sure to start on the box/note that corresponds to the key. So, if you’re playing the notes of the D row, start with D (duh?). Now, play the same notes, but start 2 black boxes to the left. In the key of D, start with B. You should get a B minor scale. Thank me later.


Click to Biggify

As go the notes, so go the chords. Every key has a set of chords that goes with it whose roots correspond with the notes of the chords. A root is the note that a chord is named after and, usually, is the lowest note in the chord (D major’s root is, you guessed it, D [you’re so smart, I should tell you that more]).

The root is the easy part. The hard part is knowing whether each chord is a major or a minor chord or a diminished chord. The chart includes not only the root notes, but also whether each chord is a Major (M, Green), Minor (m, Red) or Diminished (dim, Blue). It should be said that, in a pinch, a minor chord can take the place of a diminished chord. We’re learning so much!

Chord Construction

Click to Biggify

Now, you know what notes and chords to use with each key, but how on God’s green earth do you make a C# minor chord in Ableton?

No problemo, compadre.

The EZ Chord Construction area of the cheat sheet shows you how to make the three major chord types: Major, Minor and Diminished. Each row corresponds to the rows of Ableton’s piano roll. Now, all you have to do, is find the right root and then do a little counting. How to count will be covered in a different cheat sheet.

And if you are interested in learning more about music theory, why not sign up for the Ableton Cookbook Live Course? There’s a module just about music theory and its application in Ableton Live!

I hope that this comes in handy! Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions.

There Isn’t a Plug-In for That: 3 Steps to Better Ears

6 Jan

When I was studying jazz bass, I had a teacher named Cristoph who gave me a homework assignment that I never forgot. And I’m convinced that it was responsible for the most important musical skill I’ve ever learned.

All he asked me to do each week was to transcribe 32 bars of the bassline to a jazz song of my choosing. I had my doubts about this process. “I want to learn to play the bass, not to listen to the bass,” I thought as I loaded up my bass into my car after my first lesson, after not having played a single note.

When I showed up the next week, I played through the section of On Green Dolphin Street that I had transcribed. Christoph pointed out mistakes and suggested taking things up and down an octave. Once I was done, he asked me tell him the chord changes based on the bassline. After a few missteps, I was able to identify the chord changes and after that, I was able to improvise my own bassline for the same song!

Ahmad Jamal-On Green Dolphin Street

Most people think of ear training, the ability to reverse engineer a song from listening to it, as something that you are either born with or not. I am here to tell you that this is definitely not true. I went into Cristoph’s lessons with no better ears than anyone else and I still, to this day, I can fairly quickly pick out a melody that I hear on the radio or in someone else’s track. Of any real musical skill, I have to say that this is the most crucial (for me) and also the most irreplaceable with technology.

Good ear training allows me to listen to a sound or track that inspire me and pinpoint the melody and chord changes EXACTLY. It also lets me go from a line that I hummed into my iPhone while driving to a finished melody in Ableton with a minimum amount of fuss. It’s basically the most important thing in the world, ever (hyperbole alert).

Basic Ear Training

Here are a few ideas to get you started with your ear training. You can start right now even if you have no idea about scales, chords, etc.

1) Put Your Instrument Away. The most important thing that I learned is that you have to sing or at least hum. I am no brain genius, but there is something about the process of listening to something, humming it and, only then, trying to play it on a keyboard, guitar, etc. Part of this, I’m sure, is that singing or humming makes you isolate the different melodic phrases in a piece of music. While we experience music all at once (polyphonically), we can only sing one note at a time (monophonically). I also think that melodic phrases are easier to retain if you sing them. My opinion is that this is because of magic.

2) Switch Parts. It is probably more important for you to transcribe (or at least play) multiple different “parts” within the same 30 seconds than it is to try to play back an entire song. So, once you’ve got the melody down, try the bassline. This will do two things for you. It will make you appreciate the complexity of any piece of music, no matter how Lady Gaga-esque. It will also give you more information for number 3.

3) Learn Music Theory. Or at least the basics of chords and scales. In reality, this whole process of reverse engineering a song, is more of a process of deduction than anything. And the more you learn about Music Theory, the more you’ll realize that in, most musical situations, there are really only 4 options. Once you know some Music Theory, how a song is put together starts to resemble chess. From the outside, the options look infinite, but they are actually very finite. If you don’t want to lose, that is.

Do any of you have any experience transcibing music or doing ear training? Let me know if ye olde comments!

Electronic Music Theory: 3/4, 6/8 and Triplets

4 Jan

I’ve had a few questions come hurtling at me through the intertubes about something called “3 Time.” What is this mythical beast and what in the sam hell does all this music theory have to do with producing in Ableton?

To be honest, there is no such as thing as “3 Time.” What this name refers to is a group of time signatures that have, as their base, groups of 3. Most time signatures have 2, or a multiple of 2, as their base.

Usually, when people are interested in incorporating 3 Time in their music, they are referring to one of 3 things: 3/4, 6/8 or the use of triplets. They are each a little different, but share the fact that they incorporate mulitples of 3, as opposed to the more common multiple of 2. Confused yet? GREAT!

3/4 Time

3/4 time or three-quarter time is characterized by the fact that each bar has three quarter notes. If you change the time signature of a clip in Ableton, you’ll notice the difference on the time grid of the piano roll.

This is all fine and dandy, but what does this mean for you? Well, almost as important as the number of quarter notes in a bar is where the stress falls in a bar. While almost no one mentions this when discussing time signatures, the reality is that the conventional stress placement is what makes certain time signatures sound like “themselves.” The most characteristic stresses in contemporary music is the stress on the 2 and 4 (also referred to as a backbeat).

In a bar of ¾, the stress falls, weirdly enough, on beats 3 and 4. I illustrate this in the above video, where the stresses are shown with either snares or sidesticks. Listening to this, one can hear the “waltz” quality that the beat takes on. This time signature lends itself to either 1) plodding, downbeat-heavy music or 2) lilting, delicate music. Since there is not that much room between the stressed beats, there is not much room for upbeats or syncopation (think of the upbeat hi-hats that characterize many dance beats).

6/8 Time

6/8 is the total package. This is because, while it has a base of 3 (usually manifesting itself in the eighth notes in the hi-hat, as in the above video), it can also have a backbeat. This is because it is possible to have a kick on the 1 and a snare hit on the 4th 8th note in the bar. This gives the time signture a familiar “kick-snare” feel. For this reason, 6/8 tends to be the most palatable of “3 Time.”

Listen to the example in the above video and you can hear how the three pattern is held in the hi-hat, but that the kick-snare pattern is basically the same as a 4/4 beat (the time signature that we spend most of our time in).


So, where do triplets fit into this scheme? The main difference is that, while the above time signatures form the basis of a beat, triplets are usually used as a form of variation. A true triplet is experienced as a somewhat unexpected deviation in an otherwise conventional 4/4 beat. This creates a tension that can give rise to some really rad “swing” effects, as well as some cool, surprising fills. In fact, what we refer to as “swing” is often somewhere between a true triplet and a new time signature like 6/8. EVERYTHING in a 6/8 beat is using a base of 3, so it is not surprising.

Think about it this way: When Björk dressed like a weirdo, it was surprising and refreshing. Now, it’s 2012 and every mediocre pop star dresses in meat dresses and crazy clothes, so what was once surprising is now formulaic and stale. Björk’s swan dress was a triplet, Nicki Minaj’s pink wig is 6/8.

Holy metaphor, Batman.

Now, substantially, you can accomplish the exact same things using either 6/8 (or it’s bigger brother 12/8) and triplets. It is mostly a matter of how often you want to change the beat grid, haha.

P.S. If you are interested in getting more useful electronic music theory learnin’, why not check out the Ableton Cookbook Live Course? It has a whole module dedicated to Music Theory! Plus, you get a 25% discount for being an email list subscriber! Holy discount!