Getting your tunes ‘in key’
I am sent quite a few tunes each week from people I know with the message ‘What do you think of this?’ or ‘How can I make this better?’. A lot of the time I can tell within 10 seconds of listening to it that it simply isn’t ‘in key’. When I tell them this I am too often surprised to get the response ‘What do you mean?’. If you don’t have a basic understanding of music theory this should help you write electronic music and get it in key.
Basic Music Theory 101 - The Key
A ‘key’ is a musical scale. A collection of notes that our brain is hard-wired to find enjoyable and pleasant sounding when heard together. You’ve no doubt heard the terms ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ before in relation to music, because those are the most widely used keys.
When starting off in composition, it is simple enough to just pick one key per track and stick to it, only using those notes for your melodies and basslines. Take for example the most common key used in western music, C Major.
C Major is all the white notes on a keyboard: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
Try playing a melody using only the white notes, and notice how you pretty much can’t go wrong, there is no note that sounds ‘off’. Now after some time playing just those notes, throw a black note into the mix. It just doesn’t sound right does it? Like it doesn’t belong. That’s because it actually doesn’t.
Now try a key with some black notes in it, like another commonly used key: E Major.
E Major is E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#.
Try playing only those notes on a keyboard, and you should notice that again, they just work.
Picking a key
So what key should you use? Well that depends on what mood you wish to convey in your track. Major keys will always bring a more uplifting, relaxing or ‘happy’ vibe to your track, while Minor will be more dark, melancholic or reflective. There are other types of keys such as Blues, Pentatonic or weird eastern keys but generally the majority of electronic and popular music will be Major or Minor.
Once you know what mood you want, pick a root note. This can be any of the 12 notes at all (black or white), and each of them will have a slightly different mood to them yet again. In electronic music, especially bass-driven music such as Dubstep or Drum n Bass, it’s a good idea to pick a root note that has a strong bass presence in the lower octaves. This can depend on the bass sound you are using so start by writing your bass line and picking the note which you think has a good presence in the low end or sounds ‘warmest’. Once you know the root note, and the mood you want, google your selected key.. For example: “Eb Major”
The first result will be wikipedia, and the notes in that key will be shown. For Eb Major (E Flat Major) they are:
Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C and D.
Remember.. to find a flat note you go to the note (ie E), then go one semitone down (the black note between D and E). Therefore Ab (A flat) is the black note between G and A, etc.
To find a sharp note, you go one semitone up. So D# is the black note between D and E.
Now expand your bassline to be a melody using only those notes, and you have the basis of your track.
Chords and you
Continuing with Eb Major, let’s say we want some nice chords to go with our bassline. Each key has a lot of different chords that are ‘within’ that key, but there is a small set of standard ones known as the ‘diatonic triads’. For Eb Major they are:
I - Eb Major - Eb G Bb
ii - F Minor - F Ab C
iii - G Minor - G Bb D
IV - Ab Major - Ab C D
V - Bb Major - Bb D F
vi - C Minor - C Eb G
vii - D Diminished - D F Ab
Now you’ll notice that next to each of those chords I put a roman numeral in uppercase or lowercase. This is the standard terminology used when writing about chords. Uppercase means the chord is major, lowercase minor or diminished (diminished is supposed to have a little circle next to it but I can’t work out how to do that on tumblr). You’ll see why this is handy later when we start talking about common chord progressions.
You’ll also notice that chords, as well as keys, use the same terminology “major” and “minor”. This can be confusing at first but you’ll find that the chord is always the first (or I) chord in the key of the same name. For example the I chord of the Ab Major key is.. Ab Major.
Go ahead and write some chords using a pad sound or some strings, using the chords I’ve laid out above. You should notice they not only go well together but they also go well with your bassline! This is important.
Now how did I find those ‘diatonic triads’? Well it’s actually very easy. You start at a note (for example the 4th note in the key, Ab) and write it down. Skip one note, and write down the next one (C). Skip another note, then write down the next one (D). If you get to the end of the scale, just loop back to the start. Now you have found the IV chord.
Now if you only used the diatonic triads exactly as they are, you will often end up with something boring or uninspired. There are alot of other different chords you could use, but the easiest to explain to you is the seventh.
Take one of the diatonic triads and add a 4th note to it (again by skipping the next note in the scale and getting the next one). For example the IV7 (4th seventh chord) in our Eb Major scale is Ab C D F.
Seventh chords usually sound very “Jazzy”, this is because Jazz musicians used them a lot. They also sound quite relaxed and summery, which can be very useful in some electronic styles such as Progressive House or Liquid Drum n Bass.
A chord progression is a sequence of chords. In most of my tunes a chord progression will be the basis of my melody, and all harmonization is done around that progression. Before I mentioned the roman numerals, and we will be using them to explain chord progressions.
One of the most common progressions in western pop music is:
I - IV - V - I
So in the key we selected earlier (Ab Major) that would be:
I - Eb Major - Eb G Bb
IV - Ab Major - Ab C D
V - Bb Major - Bb D F
and then looping back to the start
This is popular because it uses the V Chord before the I. This is called a “Cadence” and is always the strongest way to “approach” the I chord (ie. it sounds nicest).
Try that chord progression in your sequencer and see how it sounds. You’ll probably instantly start to notice the similarity between it and some pop tunes you’ve heard (there are literally hundreds in the past century that have used it). When writing electronic music we probably want to steer clear of chord progressions like this (unless of course you are going for mass appeal). But using these roman numerals we can start to analyze some tunes that we like the sound of and use them as a learning tool.
Let’s analyze one now. A trance tune that I have remixed before and many of you would know and love. “Airwave” by Rank 1.
The actual notes used in the first half of the progression are:
D + F
Bb + F
A + C
C + F
First of all we notice that there is only 2 notes instead of 3. That’s right. You don’t need to use all 3, and usually you are actually better off omitting one of the notes anyway. D + F is still a D Minor chord, and our brains magically add the A in our head because it feels that it’s missing. So by using 2 notes instead of 3 we can open the mix up and not ‘muddy’ it up with too many notes, while still keeping the mood that the chord is supposed to convey.
Now from these we can probably assume that the key is D Minor. Why? Because the first chord used is more often than not the root (or I) chord, and the root chord of D Minor is D + F + A. Now that we have the key, we can put a roman numeral next to each of the chords.
i - D Minor - D + F
vi5 - B Flat Fifth (or Power Chord) - Bb + F
v - A Minor - A + C
III - F Major - C + F
So the chord progression of Airwave can be expressed as: i - vi5 - v - III
You’ll notice that “fifth” chord in there. Otherwise known as a power chord, the fifth is a great chord that guitarists (especially in metal) use a hell of a lot as it tends to convey a huge sense of overwhelming power. A fifth can be built by simply jumping 4 notes in the scale from the root note of the chord (thats five including the note itself). So from Bb we jump 4 notes up in the scale, and arrive at F for a Bb Power Chord in D Minor.
You could now take this progression (i - vi5 - v - III) and write it using a different key and different ‘phrasing’ (ie your selection of notes within those chords) and end up with something that’s similar to Airwave, but not the same.
Speaking of phrasing
Just taking chords and laying them out exactly as they are can also be boring and uninspired. Phrasing is important to making your chord progression flow better and sound more complete. Take for example the root I chord in Airwave, D Minor.
D Minor chord is D + F + A.
We can play this chord a multitude of ways, using 2 notes or 3. If using 3 notes they would be:
No inversion: D + F + A
First Inversion: F + A + D
Second Inversion: D + A + F
An inversion means taking the first note in the chord and putting it at the end. You don’t really need to pay attention to how you are ‘inverting’ your chords however. Just play your chords how they sound best, use your ears. But one trick I generally do when writing progressions to make them flow easiest is to try to make my chords ‘move’ the least amount. For example let’s say we are doing a classic I - IV - V progression in the same key as Airwave, D Minor.
We start on the I, D + F + A. For that I just find what sounds best. Let’s say I go with the first inversion:
F4 + A4 + D5 (the numbers are octaves)
Now the IV chord is G + Bb + D. I could keep the D5 from the previous chord because it’s already playing, so I will go with no inversion and use:
G4 + Bb4 + D5
This way the F only moved two semitones up to G, and the A only moved one semitone up to Bb. Then for the V chord (which is A + C + E) I can, again go with no inversion to create the least amount of movement, and use:
A4 + C5 + E5
That way the G only goes up two to A, the Bb only goes two up to C, and the D only goes two up to E. And so on…
Now this doesnt always work, but it’s a good starting point, then I’ll use my ears to determine if that’s what I wanted. Sometimes you want a big jump in your chords to make it more noticeable or whatever.
Now this post is nowhere near a “Complete Guide To Music Theory” and I’m sure there are many professional composers reading this now and laughing their heads off at the sheer horror that I’ve posted. But I am really just trying to provide a basic starting point for getting into music theory in the context of electronic music (which, let’s face it, is pretty simple when it comes to music theory).
So I hope this wasn’t too confusing. If it is, just start at the top and slowly work through it over and over until you understand it.. or feel free to ask me a question and get clarification. You can grab me on: