Basic Music Theory in Electronic Music

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Music Theory in Electronic Music


If you’ve ever wondered why certain chords work well together or why particular notes seem to just sound ‘correct’ in a bassline, you’re thinking about Music Theory. Right now, if you started to write a bassline, which note would you start on and how would you decide. Would you choose a Major or Minor key and would you start on the fundamental note of the scale (Tonic note) or lead up to it.


Around 330 BC, Aristoxenus wrote Elementa Harmonica and ever since, people have been experimenting and documenting how certain combinations of melodies, chords, rhythms and many other elements can make a piece of music sound a certain way.


Using these discoveries should help your track sound more uplifting or bouncy or dark and heavy like you’re intending and make you feel more in control of the process. For example, once you’ve chosen the key of your track, you could then start to write your bassline by playing around with the notes in that scale. You can then start writing your chord progression by trying out combinations of chords from the scale. If you’ve ever wondered why certain tracks in a genre all seem to use some ‘magical’ chord progression, you might find that they’ve discovered a certain emotion in moving from a minor 5th triad to a major 6th .


Knowing your scales and intervals might just help you avoid that moment of confusion when your bassline has that killer sound and driving rhythm and you wonder ‘but what note do I go to next’.


Here’s my description of some useful terms.


Scale: Defined set of notes which fit together to provide a certain musical character. For example, the notes in the C Major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B (all the white notes).


Key: Playing in Key means playing the notes in the Scale


Tonic Note: The first (and primary) note in a scale. For example the Tonic of the C major scale is C.


Interval: Distance between two notes, in particular, the distance between the Tonic and notes in the Scale. For example, the Minor 3rd interval means to play the 3rd note in a Minor scale


Triad: A 3 note chord


Chord Progression: The movement from one chord to another chord.


Quick Tip:Try the A minor scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) for basslines as its all white notes and A1 at 55Hz is a nice tonic note for your sub bass


Stay tuned for part two soon. In the meantime, feel free to comment or ask any questions.

Shaun Keyt


mike.callander says:

Thanks Shaun! Man I wish somebody had explained all this so simply about 10 years ago. 

Co-founder and Ableton Certified Trainer at School of Synthesis. DJ and live on the weekends. 

shaun.keyt says:

Thanks Mike!

A-Man says:

Hi. I have a question: I get that if I am using a-minor I am only supposed to play the white keys, but what if one of the black keys sounds really good with my synth? Can I use it without ruining the rest of my track?

shaun.keyt says:

Hey A-Man,
You can most definitely use black notes in the A (natural) Minor scale. In fact, B flat is commonly used in A minor for basslines (it's the Minor 2nd interval). It's really about using them intentionally and then writing your other melodies to work together.
What black note(s) are you using?

Frank K says:

wow I do this all the time. Does that mean if I flatten the second it becomes a natural minor scale?

shaun.keyt says:

Hey Frank,
Actually, a Minor 2nd interval really just means playing two notes which are 1 semitone apart, eg A A#.
As the notes in the A Natural Minor scale are A B C D E F G A, flattening the second and playing Bflat means you're playing a Minor 2nd (1 semitone from the Tonic: A). But, weird as it sounds, playing a Minor 2nd interval from the Tonic means you're not playing in the Natural Minor Scale.

Davide Carbone says:

Ah yes, I seem to use the Locrian scale quite often which uses a flattened second. It's got quite an exotic 'minor' feel which is not uncommon in Urban music:

shaun.keyt says:

Yep, Modes can take your use of scales to another planet...

Nacho says:

Great article thx.