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Thread: Music Theory... where do I start?!

  1. #1
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    Music Theory... where do I start?!

    Alright, here is the story.

    I love music and creating it greatly interests me.

    I have no instrumental experience.

    In the past, I usually would open my music editing program (FL Studio) and start playing around with it, but I realized I was getting nothing out of it.

    I finally took the time to looking into music theory. I went to www.musictheory.net and found a good amount of information, but I couldn't see how it helped me, except for giving me a lot of terminology.

    Playing around with FL Studio and reading about basic music theory helped me in creating simple tunes, but they're way too plain and I'm not satisfied at all.

    I can create simple chords, with simple melodies, but they sound so plain and I just know there is more to it.

    Here are some questions that will give you a general idea of what I mean:

    How can I create a nice sounding chord progression?
    How can I create more complex melodies?
    What and how can I make a song have an intro/build up/chorus etc?
    How can I make a nice sounding bass line that doesn't sound so plain.
    How do you usually start a song? Do you start with the chords, bass line?

    These questions aren't necessarily made to be answered, but to give you a better understanding of what I'm trying to achieve. I know music theory has to have a great impact on this, this is why I'm attempting to explain what I mean and hopefully I can get a good amount of information from you guys!

  2. #2
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    How can I create a nice sounding chord progression?
    How can I create more complex melodies?
    What and how can I make a song have an intro/build up/chorus etc?
    How can I make a nice sounding bass line that doesn't sound so plain.
    How do you usually start a song? Do you start with the chords, bass line?
    Chord progression. Stay in key until you understand if you go out what sounds good and how to get back in. The old I IV V has been used in thousands of songs - reason - it contains every note in the scale so it works with any melody you make from the scale. Analize chord progressions from songs you like. See what worked and do the same. Fleshing out a I IV V - the color and flavor comes from the minor chords and the extensions, sus chords, inversions, etc. Leave the structure alone, more on that later.

    Complex melodies. That will take a little longer. JonR can lead you better than I. Melody and the chord used under it should share at least one note. There is a good paper on melody from SMU that talks about wave action, i.e. after your melody is written in standard notation when looking at the notes on the staf you should see a wave action. Twenty foot breakers, no, but three foot swells make good sailing and music, i.e. don't just stay in one spot. I found the following paper helpful .
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Hty...age&q=&f=false

    It speaks of using two notes that are close together, no more than a tone, then a skip of more than a 3rd. It's what you do after the skip that is important. O'h yes, pauses, let the melody breath.

    Intro build up chorus etc. You get a bare bone first draft and then flesh it out. If you follow a process - does not matter which one as when you end everything fits and works together. But, in the process this just all comes together.

    Bass line. The bass line comes from the chord progression. Depends on the song wheither you venture beyond chord tones or not. In most simple tunes you do not have room (space) for scales, or pentatonics in the bass line. IMHO that is the solo instrument's territority. Chord tones that follow the chord progression get the job done just fine. Forget about it sounding plain, what is the bass' function? The beat that holds everything together. You should not even realize the bass is there - until - he lays out. Then you know what is missing. A R-5 or R-R-5-R or my favorite R-3-5-3 and change with the chord progression will work. Do you need to get fancier? Depends on the song, but normally , no.

    How do I start a song. The story is first. With out the story there is no need for the song. With out the lyrics and verse structure the chord progression has no logical structure to follow and most of the time just wonder in and out of what we think sounds good. Sounding good is not it's primary function. The verse introduces a thought, discussed it, reaches a conclusion and ends. Then a new verse brings up another thought. This is done with the rest (I), tension (IV), climax (V7), resolution and return to rest (I) that every verse and chorus must follow. www.musictheory.net then lessons and common chord progressions goes into detail.
    Your rest, tension, climax, resolution and return to rest journey must be kept intact AND the chords you choose should also harmonize your melody. It's a balancing act. Harmonizing the melody becomes a factor and it's here that adding an extension - extra notes - into the chord takes place.

    What else? No need in reinventing the wheel. Study what and how the ones that came before us did it and go do the same.

    Spell check is on vacation, sorry.

    Good luck.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 10-01-2009 at 09:48 PM.

  3. #3
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
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    What most people think of as "Music Theory" is a system of nomenclature, lingo if you will, designed to allow us to classify various aspects of music for the purpose of discussion, study, writing and archiving / transmission. It is not a system you use to make music. The study of music theory will not instill knowledge about what sounds good and what does not. It will only give you a language / a classification system that will allow you to "see" these things in a different way that represents the sound but does not reproduce it directly.

    To learn about music, to attain the goals that you have laid out, you have to study the actual music that sounds good to your ear. Learn songs that you like, learn how to play them, learn how to sing each individual part, learn what the notes are, use theory to organize what you find. Repeat the above tens of times and you'll have a starting point from which to answer your questions. Repeat hundreds of times and you'll have enough examples and knowledge to assemble your own interesting music.

    cheers,

  4. #4
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    How can I create a nice sounding chord progression?
    How can I create more complex melodies?
    What and how can I make a song have an intro/build up/chorus etc?
    How can I make a nice sounding bass line that doesn't sound so plain.
    How do you usually start a song? Do you start with the chords, bass line?

    --

    Regardless of the kind of music you want to make. The first and most important part of making music is to know what you want to say.

    Its safe to say most song writers begin with some kind of melody or rhythmic idea that they hear in their mind, then find ways to apply those ideas to different instruments.

    Understanding various theoretical concepts in music makes this expression far more interesting. For some people though, it will seem entirely unnecessary.

    Some people have a natural ability to write deep and complex music from the outset. The rest of us however, will need to begin simply and slowly work our way toward a style that better suits what we wish to say.

    So having said all that. My advice is this.

    Begin with songs you like. Pick simple ones. For me it's always Jazz standards. Now take that tune and try write a new melody. This can be a great exercise. Simply writing an original melody over a set of chord changes will give you plenty of insight into what you understand about writing a good song.

    The obvious things you will want to start studying while you try this exercise will be which scale tones sound best over different chord qualities. For example. If the first few chords are Am7 D7 Gmaj7... You might agree that using certain extensions sound better than others. For many great composers using the 11 and 13th degrees of the chord scale sound far better than simply playing the Root and 5th. On the final chord, Gmaj7.. don't be afraid to include your #11 either( so long as its appropriate.. don't add lydian chords everywhere just for the sake of being technical). I won't go into any more detail than that because song writing is not something that can be summarised in any single response. Understanding how to get from one chord to the next with a coherent melodic flow is in my opinion one of the most important factors though. So begin there.

    Always sing what you hear first though.
    No good tune was ever written based completely on theory. There needs to be something personal in it. So strum some chords.... hum what ever notes come to mind and then write it down. Play it back... experiment with different ways to approach the rhythm of both the chords and the melody. Take what you wrote down and think about changing certain notes... up down left right.. inside outside. The best way to learn how these things work is to listen. Copy from your favourite artists too. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas from great composers, everyone does it. That's how we take our influences and make them into something new.

    This applies to any part of your question I didn't respond too. Simply listen to the great's. Copy what they did, change it. Copy more.. Change it. Eventually you will start understanding the do's and dont's of good songs and also find which styles and methods work for you.

    I may even make an article on this at some point. There are many interesting points to writing a good tune. Then again... 'Good' is highly subjective. For me a good tune is simple, something you can tap your foot too and sing along with easily. This can range from Bach, the Beatles to Charlie Parker or Morbid Angel

    Have fun.

  5. #5
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    your method of using fl studio is actually quite a good one.

    it doesn't help for making chord progressions necessarily, but it helps for all those other things you mentioned.

    to play chord progressions, what helps is learning many songs. then you'll get a good feel for what chord degrees tend to play which roles and stuff like that.

    but also, you can experiment with stuff. rhythm is imo the most important part for not sounding plain. so mess around with your rhythm. but plain is not so bad for some instruments that are playing backing kind of roles.

    then for your melody and stuff, loop the chord progression you made and mess around with it with some other instrument. know before hand what role you want that instrument to play. if it is the melody then try lots of different melody typed things until you find and interesting one you like.

    if the melody is sung, then you can do the same but for singing, except for singing the lyrics matter. they will dictate a little your freedom for what melodies you can use. so having a framework for your lyrics is helpful for this. i say framework, because you can always modify your lyrics a little to get the melody you want, change the wording, add an adjective here or there, take one away, but having the skeleton of your lyrics i think is a very good thing for making melody, but also i've written songs where i had first the melody and then that melody gave me ideas for lyrics to use, so you can do it anyway you want really.

    but don't always expect that the first thing you try will be the gold you're looking for. try and try again until you find something you like. sometimes when doing this you might make a mistake that gives you an eureka moment. mistakes almost always sound fresh and unanticipated, mostly because they are, but the tricky part is that your mistakes need to sound good also.

    don't be afraid to try over the top stuff, i'm not saying go crazy and use all sorts of notes that are out of the key, too many of those and your tune will sound too exotic and weird. but mess around with rhythm like crazy, and also tonally with a majority of notes within either the key you are using or the chords you are using.

    try chords that use one note that's out of the key also for building your progressions. don't go too crazy with these, but try some sometimes and see how they pan out. experiment alot.

    YOU need to know how the things sound, in order to do this you need to experiment alot.

    i know these directions are kind of cryptic and maybe not as precise as you were hoping, but if i give you precise directions then i have written the tune right?

    so mess around, observe, make mistakes, go out of your comfort zone, and learn other songs.

    it's good that you find your songs are plain. what you want to do is keep trying until you don't. don't forget how crucial rhythm is. you don't always need to be playing something, the quiet parts are key also.

    try finding a beat and listen to the beat real hard, listen to how it makes you feel and move, and complement it. don't follow it necessarily. I find a mistake alot people make is follow a chord progression too much. you want to accentuate the main key parts of the song that give it it's vibe, but you also want to do something completely different than it that goes with it well to add some of that interest.

    for instance if a chord progression sounds like it is going down, most would follow this down feel with it, and that will result in sounding plain. but if you go up instead in such a way that works well with it, then you've created a nice dynamic that sounds interesting.

    so keep the vibe of the tune, keep the rhythm and main points that give it that vibe, and then in the rest of it, do different stuff that complements it well.

    listen to songs and how the background goes and compare it to the melody. usually you will find that the chord progression is actually quite plain and normal. with pop music at least. bands like beatles are a little more creative with their chord progressions. but most pop, in my estimation, is only really any good because of the melody. also i suppose the rhythm of the chord progression. but alot of chord progressions are real common, yet songs appear to be different despite that. and that's because of the melody and the rhythm they are played with.
    Last edited by fingerpikingood; 09-27-2009 at 04:59 PM.

  6. #6
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Deflect
    How can I create a nice sounding chord progression?
    How can I create more complex melodies?
    What and how can I make a song have an intro/build up/chorus etc?
    How can I make a nice sounding bass line that doesn't sound so plain.
    How do you usually start a song? Do you start with the chords, bass line?
    You really need to forget about music theory, and study some songs.
    As Jed says, theory is basically just a set of labels you can attach to sounds once you've made them.
    It also offers some guides (only some) to achieving conventional sounds, such as the concept of "key" - probably the only theoretical concept it would pay you to get familiar with.
    Even so, you can still get that from studying songs - and far better than any theory book will tell you. (A song is a perfect illustration of theory in practice, in the real world.)

    "Complex" melodies are not "better" melodies. Some of the greatest jazz standards have amazingly simple melodies. A good tune has to be singable. So start by singing something. Do it from scratch if you can. Just sing, then find out what notes you're singing (so you can play them).

    You can start from anything. Lyrics, tune, chords, rhythm, riff, bass line, etc. Anything can spark inspiration and be developed. (I usually start from melody myself, but sometimes with a word phrase too. Word phrases give you something to sing.)
    Theory may help you add chords and bass (maybe suggest some short cuts), but your ear is going to be the final judge anyway.

    Just remember:
    simple is good;
    repetition is good (not exact repetition, but with a little variation).

    But the main thing is to dissect the music you like, the kind that's most like what you want to create. (You don't have to use your ear and transcribe, unless you can't find notation or chords for it, online or in books.)

  7. #7
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    Thanks for all of the replys, they're really helpful.

    What do you guys mean by studying songs?

    Just looking at them and seeing what they do?

    Also, I have no purpose in creating a song other than to make it sound good and just catchy and fun/nice to listen to. I have no genre really, although it would be aimed towards EDM music.

    Also, I did something on FL Studio, not sure what I'm doing, but I used the I-IV-V progression.

    http://www.zshare.net/audio/66221553f97e3d41/
    Last edited by Deflect; 09-28-2009 at 12:31 AM.

  8. #8
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Deflect
    What do you guys mean by studying songs? Just looking at them and seeing what they do?
    Yes pretty much, but, alas you have to have a basic understand of what you are listening to, before you can study it, i.e. why did that I IV V progression not sound complete? It ended, however, there was no closure.

    If you add another I at the end and let it resolve back to its tonic chord you achieve resolution, or closure.

    Music theory where do you start? The Major scale and how it gets it's notes is a good place to start as everything we do musically, in the Western World, starts with the Major scale.

    Good luck.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 09-28-2009 at 01:11 AM.

  9. #9
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    Well, because I just wanted to loop it? I think...

  10. #10
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Loops work. You satisfy the need to go to the tonic by looping back to the tonic at the start.

  11. #11
    Registered User bluesking's Avatar
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    My angle is that, even if you want to compose purely dance music, you need to be able to play some kind of instrument to at least a basic level. Keyboard is your best bet of course as then you can use MIDI to do all kinds of useful stuff (drums & synths mostly).

    The problem with trying to write music directly into a sequencer, withouth knowing how to play an instrument, is that you can't internalise any patterns. Love them or hate them, patterns are a big part of music. To be able to develop your musical abilities, you have to be able to play ideas in realtime. If you try to program everything offline you will be working so slowly that you will never get anywhere.

    It may seem a lot of work to get a small amount of proficiency on an instrument, but believe me, it is a lot less work than the alternative.

    As for theory, as Malcom says, the major scale is where its at in western music. I'm not sure I have ever heard any dance music which doesn't rely exclusively on the major scale. But to be honest, I'm not sure you need to worry an awful lot about theory. Getting some basic instrumental abilities should be a priority and there are plenty of good musicians who don't know theory too well.

    In my experience the guys I have know who have developed this kind of music the best are those which have a wide range of instruments under their belts. They can usually play a bit of piano, a bit of guitar, a bit of bass & a bit of drums. Sure, they may not be virtuosos at any one of these, but that "jack of all trades, master of none" seems to be just the right skillset for dance music. They have good ears but little theory knowledge (I don't believe they need very much)
    Last edited by bluesking; 09-28-2009 at 01:30 AM.
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  12. #12
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bluesking
    But to be honest, I'm not sure you need to worry an awful lot about theory. Getting some basic instrumental abilities should be a priority and there are plenty of good musicians who don't know theory too well.
    If you play from sheet music the song writer took care of the theory for you. All you need do is read and play what he/she wrote. Same goes for playing covers, all you have to do is play the song. Like bluesking said there are a lot of musicians that play a lot of good music with out knowing a lot of theory.

  13. #13
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    So what exactly are you saying, music theory isn't everything I need to create music?

    It's more the ideas I use? Well, I really can't just enter random keys I mean. It just really seems to sound bad if I don't know what I'm doing.

  14. #14
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    Music theory is a very broad term.

    1)How can I create a nice sounding chord progression?

    First you need to learn many chord progressions, learn to read chord charts. Also develop an understanding of how II-V's ii-Vb9's and their various substitutions are used throughout different tunes. Turnarounds, minor blues... get any reel/fake book and spend a few years just learning tunes.

    2)How can I create more complex melodies?

    This comes as you develop your ear. As you learn many songs, you will inevitably learn how composers use different devices to make melodies complex... or use simple melodies over complex harmonies. This will also take many years of study.

    3)What and how can I make a song have an intro/build up/chorus etc?

    Learn many tunes. Listen to how different people play those tunes. You will find almost all standards (jazz and pop) have similar ways of building up throughout the melody to create different climaxes. Your understanding of this will increase over time as you get a better understanding of chord progressions and how to exploit them for various harmonic effects.

    One simple thing I will point out is this. Most songs, during the head/theme/melody, will have 2 or 3 8bar sections. Typically about 3/4 through the tune the melody will reach its highest point (high in register) and climax. This technique along with some good chord changes is a sure way to make your song build up and release at the right moment. Keep it in mind as your learning songs.

    4)How can I make a nice sounding bass line that doesn't sound so plain.

    This is what bass players are for
    The only way to make good bass lines is to study bass lines. You can do this while learning your songs though. Depending on what kind of bass lines your interested in playing. Check out players like Joe Pass, Jimmy Bruno, or even piano players like Bill Evans. These guys are masters of playing solo and developing great bass lines.

    5)How do you usually start a song? Do you start with the chords, bass line?

    Start with what ever you hear in your head. Do you hear rhythms? or melodies? or bass lines?
    If you hear nothing, maybe you shouldn't be worrying about song writing yet. If you insist though. I recommend you start with chords and a simple melody. Then slowly build on it. Bass lines are for bass players, unless you have something specific in mind.

    Ultimately. The things that you want to learn are the kinds of things you cant just sit down and read any book to fully understand. Your talking about composition. Many people write songs.... but many people write terrible songs. Don't force it. It's better to just get really good at an instrument and play stuff you enjoy for a while. Sooner or later the pieces will fit, if your paying attention that is.

    Even though I have studied composition for a while and have a decent understanding of song writing techniques. It's not something that interests me. There are plenty of amazing songs out there to learn and play in new ways so that's enough. For you to have asked the questions that you did. It seems clear to me that you need to spend some more time listening and playing tunes.... then you can consider writing them.

    IMHO.
    Mike.

  15. #15
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    Just to clarify.

    The only 'music theory' you need at this stage is 1) how chords are built.. and which scales they come from.. 2) how scales are built and which chords can be made with them. 3) typical chord progressions and how to apply your knowledge of scales to them.

    This is all mechanical information. It will not make you a better musician or a songwriter. Having a very good understanding of all your chord/scale relationships can make songwriting/analysis a bit more interesting though.

    At the end of the day you will still need to have a melodic idea to start with. You cant just take a lydian dominant scale and practice it for 6 weeks expecting to miraculously be good at writing melodies. That part of it comes from listening to music.

    Sorry,. I'm repeating myself now..
    Ill shutup.

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