Practical Music Theory For Producers - Writing In Key | John & Lily | Skillshare

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Practical Music Theory For Producers - Writing In Key

teacher avatar John & Lily, Music Theory Wizards

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

7 Lessons (20m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Your Class Project

    • 3. The Musical Alphabet

    • 4. What is a key?

    • 5. Major vs minor

    • 6. Class Project Walkthrough

    • 7. So long (for now!)

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About This Class

Eurgh, music theory...

‘Music theory’ are two dreaded words, carrying with them a sense of intimidation and boredom. As a music producer, you might hear these two words and think: ‘this isn’t relevant,’ ‘I don’t need this,’ ‘It’s all just jargon!’.

Well, we agree! Music theory can be pretty boring, and often it does seem irrelevant for producers who are practical music makers. That’s why we’ve created this short and accessible course, introducing you to all the must know elements of music theory for practical music making.

It can be fun!

Each video takes you through a basic element of music theory, cutting through the jargon and showing you how you can apply it straight away. We break down the theory to bite size chunks so that you can go at your own pace and re-visit specific ideas as and when you need. You will also have the chance to put what you have learnt into practice with our class project, where expert audio engineer John will show you exactly how to convert music theory into music making.

Sounds We are here to show you just how easy and practical music theory can be, lending our expert knowledge and advice to take all the pain out of learning.

We're here to help

We are invested in helping you elevate your music production to the next level, so we would love you to show us what you have learnt by uploading your class project into the gallery. If you find yourself stuck on anything, or want to know more, drop us a comment in the discussion box and we will be more than happy to help.

Class highlights:

- Short and accessible break-down of music theory for producers;
- Takes out all the jargon;
- Gets you making music straight away;
- Use what you have learnt in the class project and share with us!
- Shows you how to write in key straight away
- Applies to starting from scratch, or building around samples

P.S. We were pretty happy to get the last take recorded for this course...



Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

John & Lily

Music Theory Wizards


Hey! I'm John, music production teacher and Content Manager at Focusrite. I'm a learning addict with a passion for online education & personal development, and I've been creating tutorials for around 5 years now. 

Hi, I’m Lily - a music buff! I’ve got lots of experience performing, writing, and studying music. My expertise lie in popular music, and I’m currently doing a PhD in music research exploring the branding of pop stars. I would love nothing more than to pass my knowledge on to you and help you reach your goals whilst having a good time doing it! 

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1. Introduction: Thanks for enrolling in practical music theory for producers. In this short course, we want to transform music theory from a dry, irrelevant topic, into a set of tools you can implement into your tracks straight way. By the end of this course, you'll be able to confidently create great melodies and baselines that will elevate the musicality of your tracks to a professional level. We've created this course with producers in mind and we've cut through the overwhelming amount of information and jargon out there, making music theory truly practical for you as music makers. You don't need any prior music theory knowledge to work along with this course. All you need is your music-making software of choice. We'll be using Ableton Live but the concepts were explaining can be applied in any door. At any point in the course, you can use the discussion area below and we'll be happy to answer any questions you might have. My name's John, and I run the YouTube channel, The Audio Journey, where I teach music production and theory to beginners. I've drafted in a music theory expert to co-create this course with me. Hi, I'm Lily. I've taken eight piano exams, grade 5 in theory, and a degree so that you don't have to suffer. Aside from that, I'm just here to give you a break from John's dull set tones. Yeah, that's definitely necessary. 2. Your Class Project: Let's talk about the project that you'll be completing as part of this class. We want you to put this theory into practice straight away. You'll be creating a section of a track using what you've learned with us. Now, all you need to get started is your music-making software of choice and some sounds to work with. Now, I'll be using Able to Live to create a section of house track., but you can use any software and make any genre that you want. By the end of the class, you'll be able to confidently create great melodies and baselines, knowing that it's all in key and you'll have some music to show for it. Now later on, we've also included a walk-through where I complete the class project from start to finish. You can follow along with that if you want to after taking the lessons. 3. The Musical Alphabet: In this video, we are going to help you get familiar with the piano layout, which you'll find on your keyboard and in the piano roll of your door. We'll learn what notes we have available to us and what their code so we can start writing music. Looking at a keyboard, you can see that there are white notes and black notes. We use the letters A through to G to identify the white notes in music, and we add sharps or flats to these letters to identify the black notes. When using a piano keyboard layout, we start from middle C, or C3 on a piano roll. If you use samplers inside a door, you may be aware that you can use the note C3 to play a sample back at its original pitch and speed. We can consider that the home point. Moving up the white notes, we have C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and we're back to see. You'll notice that we have five black notes in between these white notes. These in-between notes allow you to sharpen or flatten the white notes, giving you five more notes to play with. Let's look at how to name these notes. To sharpen a note, take a right step. To flatten a note, take a left step. Let's start with this black note to the right of C. This could either be called C-sharp because we're taking one step to the right from C to sharpen it, or it could be a D-flat because we're taking one step to the left from D to flatten it. Now let's see if you can work out the next one. What are the two names for this black note between the F and the G? Feel free to pause the video and have a think. We can come up in pitch from the F to get an F-sharp, or we can come down in pitch from the G to get a G-flat. To help you confidently navigate the keyboard, let's explore some terms that are used to describe the distance between notes: semitone and octave. A semitone is a step from one note to the next. An octave is made up of 12 semitones. You may have heard people say, let's pitch that up or down an octave. By counting up or down 12 semitones, you arrive back on the same note, but you're now an octave higher or lower in pitch. Let's summarize. We use the letters A-G to identify the white notes on a keyboard or piano roll. Back notes allow us to sharpen or flatten these white notes. To sharpen a white note, use the black note to the right. To flatten a white note, use the black note to the left. A semitone is a step from one note to the next and an octave is made up of 12 semitones. 4. What is a key?: Have you ever had these questions when making music? What notes should I be using? How do I make sure the elements of my track will fit together like the chords, melody, and the vocal sample. The answer is the right in key, which is way easier than it sounds. What is a key? A key is a set of seven notes that sound good together and give a certain flavor such as joyful [MUSIC] or mysterious [MUSIC]. You can think of these seven notes as a language or a vocabulary. All of the elements in your track will sound great together because they're using the same seven notes or having a conversation in the same language. This is a melody using notes that are in the same key. [MUSIC] This is the same melody using notes that stray outside of the key. [MUSIC] There are exceptions to this rule. Some notes that are out of key can sound great depending on the context. For example, Blues is famous for using out of key or spicy notes in the melodies. To keep things simple for now, stick to the notes within your chosen key to start with and then experiment as you get more confident. How do you use this theory in a practical music-making scenario? Here are the two most common situations you'll find yourself in. Number 1, starting from a blank slate. You'll need to pick a key to work in. This will give you seven notes to use and five notes to avoid in order to stay in key. The second scenario is that the key is decided for you by a sample that you're using. For example, a vocal from splice or you're working with a collaborator that's already written music in a certain key. You need to know what notes to use to make sure that your chords, melodies, and baselines sound great with what's already there. How do you know what notes are in the key that you've either chosen or being prescribed? We've created a chart for you to refer to. This will tell you which notes are in each key. If you want to learn how to work out what notes are in a key without needing to use this chart, you can use the guide in the PDF download that accompanies this lesson. Let's summarize. To make sure your chords, melodies, baselines, and samples all sound great together, make sure you're writing in key. A key is a set of seven notes that sound good together and give a certain flavor such as joyful or mysterious. If you're starting from scratch, pick a key to work in. If you're working with a sample or a collaborator, the key will already be decided. Find out what key that is and use the included notes to stay in key. 5. Major vs minor: The two most common types of keys you'll come across are major and minor. Generally speaking, a major key creates a happy, joyful piece of music, whereas a minor creates a moody, sad piece of music. Let's listen to some examples. Here is the song Mamma Mia, which is in the key of D major. You can hear how the song sounds happy and bright, the major key has flavored it in this way. Now let's contrast this with the song Baby One More Time, which is in the key of E minor. Here, the use of a minor key has flavored it to be a moodier and darker-sounding song. With the difference between major and minor keys so stuck, when selecting a key, you need to think about what you want your music to feel like. Most dance music is written in a minor key, which gives a dark, mysterious character to the tracks. If you want a more joyful or happy track, consider a major key. 6. Class Project Walkthrough: In this video, we're going to walk through the class project from start to finish so that you can see all of this theory being put into action. I'm going to be using Ableton Live to make some house music, but you can use whatever music-making software you like to make whatever genre you like. Make sure that you've got some sounds ready to go and let's dive in. Let's take a look at what we're going to be working with here in Ableton. I've got some really basic drums. Let's have a listen to those. I've also got this electric guitar loop in the key of A minor. Let's have a listen to that. What I'm going to be doing is adding a baseline, a melody, and a pad to this collection of sounds. In the class, we mentioned there are two common scenarios that you'll find yourself in when it comes to knowing what key to be writing in. You're either going to be starting from a blank slate and you get to choose a key or you're going to have the key of the track already determined for you by a sample or a collaborator. In this instance, the key is decided for me because I've got this electric guitar loop, which is in the key of A minor. If I didn't have this guitar loop, then I could create in any key that I want because the drums and the shakers don't have a key, so that wouldn't determine what key I need to write in. But let's bring that guitar back. Because we're in A minor with this guitar loop, that means that I need to use the notes in A minor when I'm creating my bass, melody, and pad sounds. What you could do at this point is look at the PDF that comes along with this class and have a look at what notes are included in A minor and use those to start making a baseline. One of the reasons that I picked A minor is because it's one of the easiest to remember what notes are included in that key. You might remember that C major contains just the white notes and then the black notes. A minor is exactly the same, but it starts from the A as opposed to the C, so it's different jumps between the notes. What I'm going to do is hit "Play" and I'm going to have a jam on my keyboard. I'm using a MIDI keyboard here, the Novation Launchkey, and I'm going to try and find something that sounds good. I'm going to make sure that I'm using the A because that's the root note. That's what it's going to feel like home, melodically, and I'm going to see what I can come up with. I like how that sounds, so I'm going to keep it really simple and record that in. Let's quantize that. Just to help the groove, I'm going to bring this forward a touch. Nice, so I'm happy with that. Next up, we're going to have a look at the melody. The first thing I'll do here is look at what I've already got. We've already got this guitar loop, which is melodic. I'm going to look for the gaps to see if I can create a cool and response pattern where the guitar plays its chord and then the melody replies with something. I'm looking at these gaps at the end of the first bar and the end of the second bar and I'm going to try and find something in there that I can just slot in that sounds really nice. This is the sound that I'm working with, so let's have a jam around. I liked the sound of that, and what I was playing, if we pull up a MIDI clip, I was playing a little higher up the keyboard, so the notes were a slightly higher pitch. What I played was this. We're coming back or finishing on this A, and that feels like it's bringing everything home and resolving. It was D, C, B, A. Let's go ahead and record that in. Again, I'm going to quantize that and extend the notes out a little bit. What I'm going to do so that loops over just two bars, I'm going to move this back to the start so that it just loops around like that. Cool. Now, you can go in and create as many variations of that as you want. You could duplicate this MIDI clip to make it longer and switch up the way that the notes are being played. We could swap these around. Some listen to that. Have a play around with it and as long as you're sticking to the notes that are in key, you're going to come up with stuff sounds really nice. The last thing to put in is going to be the pad. Now, this is something that just creates a little bit of atmosphere and sits in the background. Let's have a listen to what that sounds like. What I did there is I just played an A in a very high octave and then the octave down, but just playing the note A. What I'm going to do is simply draw that in. I liked this one. I'm going to make the MIDI clip nice and long, so I'm going to go for eight bars. Let's draw in that A. In Ableton, you can press this button, Legato, which extends the MIDI out for the entire clip. Let's have a listen to that.It's really, really simple. You can layer these up so that it's playing a host of different notes, and you can even add in different notes from the scale if you want to. But that's getting into chords, which we'll cover in a later class. But let's have a listen to this and see how it sounds. Nice, it just sits in the background. It's not doing a huge amount. But if I take it away and add it back in, you'll hear that difference that it's making. This is off. On. There we go. What I've just shown you is how to build up a track that's inky around a sample. This could be a vocal, a piano loop, or an electric guitar loop like I've got here. But we would dictate it as to what key we should be using, which is A minor. What I've done is I've built the bass, melody, and pad around that using the notes that are in the right key so that everything sounds really nice together. Like I said at the start, if we didn't have this electric guitar in here, then we could have chosen whatever key we wanted. You can always refer back to the PDF guide for more information about this. Now, remember to share your work in the project gallery. We'd also love to hear your feedback on this course, so please leave a review if you have a moment. 7. So long (for now!): Thanks for joining us on this short practical music theory course for producers. We hope you've gained confidence in the basics of music theory that you can put into practice straight away. This is the first in a series of music theory courses that we're making, Check check down below this video to see what else is available now. If there's anything else you'd like to learn about, then let us know in the discussion area down below. Now, remember to share your work in the project gallery, and we'd also love to hear your feedback on this course. Please leave a review if you have a moment.