How to use theory to complete your music efficiently while enjoying it more — without relying on ideas and inspiration
AUGUST 2ND, 2021
Naturally, you don’t need to be a master of music theory to become an effective producer — but getting down the basics will help you in the long run in ways that are impossible to know just yet.
One of the most integral concepts in music theory is the harmonic motion: how different harmonies link together and form simple progressions, which can be extended to chords. You’ll sometimes hear this expressed as a ‘cadence’: the final two chords of a phrase and how they resolve. If you’ve been going on feel and instinct when ending your phrases, this will give you more clarity and offer options you can return to as often as you need them!
We use Roman numerals to denote chords, which is traditional — lower case equals minor chords, while upper case refers to major chords (the degree symbol refers to a diminished chord, which you can learn more about in iZotope’s article here). In major, this becomes one through seven for each note of the diatonic scale: I ii iii IV V vi vii°.
Quick overview of cadences
First, the authentic cadence: this is when the V or ii chord goes to I. This can be further split into two. First, the perfect authentic cadence: both chords are in ‘root position’ (the root note is the lowest note in the chord) and the melody is the highest note of the chord. This is the strongest harmonic motion you can achieve, good for grounding the music at critical moments such as the very end. There’s also the imperfect authentic cadence, which doesn’t satisfy the rules of a perfect authentic cadence but still creates the same V to I harmonic motion.
Next, the plagal cadence — in the resolution, the IV chord goes to I. This is generally considered weak, largely because the half step resolution from the V chord’s medial note doesn’t resolve up to the tonic. And the half cadence, in which the phrase ends on the V chord instead of the I, typically preceded by the ii or IV chord. You can use this to draw out the song for a bit longer, to create suspense or for any other purpose that crosses your mind. Don’t worry if this isn’t completely clear; music theory is impossible to learn in a day, but by absorbing small bits at a time, you’ll soon be able to use it to create better songs in less time.
There’s another type called a deceptive cadence; this is where you shift the target chord away from the tonic, often to the vi chord. This is a great way to subvert the listener’s expectations and extend an idea past its natural lifecycle then end with one of the other cadences when you come to the end of a new phrase.
There are multiple subdivisions of most of these cadence types, but this is plenty to get you started — time to put them to use! The best way to learn cadences is to use them, and as you begin using them, you’ll automatically start having ideas as to how to employ them, which is one of the fastest ways to learn. Let’s go into a couple examples — you’ll get the most benefit by following along and attempting these patterns yourself with either a piano or guitar VST. Virtual Guitarist SPARKLE is free for 30 days and will be applicable to many different genres, so it makes a great place to start!
Understanding harmonic motion
If you pay careful attention, you may notice that certain chords seem to “want” to move toward others — this often comes down to notes moving up or down a half step. We naturally assign more importance to half step motion than whole step motion, which occurs between I to IV, IV to V, V to I and so on. Once you get comfortable with these small resolutions, you can chain together different chords more easily, and your progressions will almost feel as though they’re stringing themselves together. You don’t have to rely on inspiration, because you already have reference points for what sounds good and you can tweak from there.
A key advantage of using cadences is being able to plan out entire phrases of your melody and chords in advance. If you’re much stronger at production than composing and songwriting, this will likely be a huge help — you can then write toward the ends of phrases, pick a starting point and create harmonic motion to get you there.
For example, you may decide you want to create a section that contains phrases ending in a half cadence, deceptive cadence, half cadence, and finally a perfect authentic cadence. Now you have 8 chords finished already, and since they follow music theory best practices, they’ll most likely sound good.
Let’s try another scenario: say you have a chord progression you really like but have no idea how to end it. If you understand that most phrases will end in an authentic, half, plagal or deceptive cadence, you limit your options significantly, allowing for a much easier decision. The decision doesn’t have to sound perfect; it will get you close enough that you can make any needed adjustments. You already have a framework for part of the section, so you have way fewer decisions to make as you move forward!
Tension and release
Now that you have the micro-level down between individual notes, let’s check out the macro: tension and release. One of the primary jobs of a composer or producer is to create moments of chaos and turmoil, then resolve them into order and release that tension. For example, a half cadence creates tension — if that’s difficult to believe, try playing C major, D minor then G major chords and stopping. Can you resist playing another C major chord, or does the lack of resolution drive you crazy? That’s tension and release at work, and harmonic motion is one of the best ways to achieve it.
You can also think of tension as anticipation. If you’re in the key of C and play a D minor followed by an E minor, you naturally want to play an F major — as you start going up the scale, it feels natural to continue, especially considering the half step resolution up from E minor to F major. Creating interesting chord progressions is largely about harnessing these opposing forces to create intrigue.
If you’re working backward from a cadence like we mentioned earlier, you’ll likely create multiple points of tension and release between the beginning of a phrase and the end. But you can also take that and extend it out further, creating a chain of tension building into a release. Orchestral composers can combine this with tricks like suspended cymbal rolls, and EDM producers with riser FX — these are common, but it’s less common (and far more difficult) to create prolonged harmonic tension and release. Regardless of which genre you usually create, there’s a piece you must study to understand what it sounds like to completely master this concept: Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose: V. The Fairy Garden:
The entire movement (roughly 4 minutes) is broken up into just a couple sections of tension and release, milking the grand finale for everything it’s worth. Ravel’s entire body of work is an excellent case study in doing a ton with very little. In the electronic world, you can find similar gems in songs from progressive house producers — the entire genre is centered upon extended tension and release. If you want to master it, try creating some prog house; there are valuable lessons you can transfer to virtually any genre, and its pacing forces you into a more deliberate, methodical approach.
Music theory isn’t a particularly exciting topic for many musicians across countless genres ... but the more you understand basic principles like harmonic motion, the better music you’ll be able to create in less time, helping you develop your skills faster with far less frustration. You might especially find this practice valuable if you’re more comfortable with production than you are with writing and composition — putting these concepts into practice will radically reduce the number of creative decisions you have to make by placing you in a position to best take advantage of tried and true principles that have been working for hundreds of years. Using harmonic motion deliberately can help you create a framework to insert into full phrases and even sections as a whole, and with cadences you can work backward from the end to make the process even easier.
Get the basics down and put them into practice — you don’t have to learn everything about theory, only what you need to become better at your craft in the way that matters to you!