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Music Theory for Producers: Advanced Pathway

Producing Music

How music theory knowledge is required to produce music?
Disclaimer: Vaping is bad for your lungs, and is in no way required to be a music producer.  LOL.
The definition has changed quite a bit over the last few decades.  In the traditional sense, the music producer, or record producer, assists an artist with their recording project, bringing their vision to fruition and guiding their sound along the way, ultimately helping the artist deliver their music to the world.
Today, musicians who call themselves producers are functioning as both the artist and the administrator in pursuit of distributing music to the masses.  The 'Bedroom' producer, as it is referred to recently, has come to be due to the ability of musicians to record on their own without the need for a music studio and expensive recording equipment.  With a laptop and a good DAW,  almost anyone can produce a  song.  
With the recent resurgence of Hip Hop music and inexpensive access to DAW software, many new artists that consider themselves "producers" are actually just "beat-makers" who develop grooves to give to others to use to rap on top of. They create loops or samples for others to use in their projects.  
What we are attempting to do in our class is give you the fundamental skills to "Produce" your own music using the tools that we have available.  As you advance your skills, you will learn that the production process has several steps:
  • Songwriting
  • Mixing
  • Mastering
  • Distribution
We are currently in the SONGWRITING stage of our learning, which has brought me to the question: How much music theory does a student need to know in order to write a song?

Music theory is the study of how musical sounds and silence combine to make music.

It is the study of melody, harmony, and form.


u write more compelling compositions.

Welcome to one of the most challenging units in this course. The topics explored here are incredibly important to understand, but very difficult to learn if you have never studied music before.  I have done my best to get you just enough knowledge so that you can function as a producer.  This new knowledge will come in so handy as you move through the course.  You will have to trust me for a bit.  Be patient, and take notes. 
  • Key
  • Scales
  • Chords
  • Progressions
A song exists in a key that is made from a scale.  Take the notes from a scale and stack them to create harmony and chords.  Put different chords in order and get a chord progression.


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Maj = Major
m = Minor
  • KEY:  Songs are an organization of pitches that belong to a group of notes called a KEY. 
  • INTERVALS: The space between two notes, how close they are to each other. 
  • SCALE:  There are seven notes in a key, determined by the intervals between each note.  This organization creates what we call a scale.  On a scale, we have half steps and whole steps.  Half steps are notes that are next to each other, Whole steps are notes that are two steps away.    C to Db is a half step, while C to D is a whole step.
C D E F G A B C  = Seven notes that follow the alphabet to create a scale.
This example uses only the white notes on the piano.
If we start on a different note, other than C, we need to use some
black notes on the piano to maintain the same pattern on the piano.  G A B C D E F# G
  • KEY NAME is determined by the first note of the scale.
  • KEY QUALITY There are happy keys and sad sounding keys.  Major and Minor respectively.
Play ABCDEFG on the piano.  Then play CDEFGABC.  Listen to the difference.  Just by starting on a different note, we get a completely different sound. 
Pick your key in your DAW by finding the KEY window.  The pic below is the key in LOGIC software
What is the key of F minor?
Figure it out and ask Freebern if you are correct.
Here is a chart of the scales on the piano. 
Pick a few and play them.
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THE HACK OVERVIEW:  Set your key in your DAW and then use the notes shown in the charts below to know what pitches to use in your song. 
In SoundTrap it is at the bottom.
When you set a KEY in a DAW all the loops you drag into the arrange window will stay in that key.  
When you want to create original material, use the notes from the key you are using.  These charts will tell you what notes to use. 
It may be a good idea to have your instructor walk you through this before you try this alone.
Simple Project:
  1. Go to Logic or Soundtrap and set the key to Ab major.
  2. Open the loop window
  3. Be sure to choose "Major" if in Soundtrap
  4. Drag in a bass line loop
  5. Drag in a simple drum groove
  6. Play the notes of the Ab major scale and record them with the groove you just made.
    1. You may need to draw the notes into the piano roll if you don't have a keyboard.
    2. Be sure you note the notes on the piano.  If you skipped that work in the last unit, you will need to go back and do the work. 
  7. If all goes well the notes you choose will sound good. If they don't, double-check to make sure you are still in the key of Ab.  ​
Hack overview: Using the scale and key you choose,  play different notes of the key at the same time to create chords.
HARMONY:  When multiple notes are played at the same time.  Harmony can sound pleasing = consonant, or not so please = dissonant.
CHORDS: Usually three or more notes stacked on top of each other. Based on where in the scale you stack the notes will determine the quality of the chord.  
QUALITY: Determined by the space between the stacked notes in a chord.  Major, Minor, Diminished or Augments. 
Take a key and write out the notes.  (Use the cheat sheet above to find the notes for your key)
Over each note, stack notes every other alphabet letter
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Notice that the notes are every other letter?
Here are the chords in the Key of D Major
Notice how the qualities of the chords stay the same even when you change the key
The I chord is major, the ii chord is minor etc.
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Step 1: Write out your scale.    (Use the cheat sheet above to find the notes for your key)
Step 2: Put a note above each scale degree that is two letters away.  E to G as an example
Step 3: Do it again  G to B to get EGB chord.
Step 4: Play it. 
Look at chords from the piano roll view
Once you know how to create a chord, you can put them in an order that will sound pleasing. 
There are some simple rules that you can try.
Using the number of the chord go from
1-2-3-4-5-6-7      In C = CMaj, Dm Em Fmaj Gmaj Am Bdim
1-6-4-2-7-5-3-     In C = CMaj  Am  FMaj  Dm  Bdim. Gmaj  Em 
1-4-7-3-6-2-5-1   In C = CMaj, Fmaj Bdim Em  Am Dm Gmaj
Here are two other ways to look at chord progressions.
Know that whatever number you are on, find that number on all rows - it will give you alternative pathways. 
I.e., The chord on the 2 can go to a 3,  or 5
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This is very complicated stuff.  To simplify this for you I offer a piece of software that will allow you to generate chord progressions and export them into logic.  Watch this video to get started.  There are many more resources online. 
Take the time to master this software, it is easier than taking a music theory approach.

Hooktheory Login:
In Each Key
A much easier way to determine which major and minor chords are found in a key would be to use the circle of fifths.   
In music theory, the circle of fifths is a way of organizing the 12 chromatic pitches as a sequence of perfect fifths.
This order places the most closely related key signatures adjacent to one another. It is usually illustrated in the form of a circle.
Here are the chords found in the key of C major/A minor
 Look at how the pattern works.  In the Pie, C is in the middle, all the notes around it are the major and minor chords that work in that key.
  • Outer-Circle, Center Position: I chord

  • Outer-Circle, Counter-Clockwise Position: IV chord

  • Outer-Circle, Clockwise Position: V chord

  • Inner-Circle, Center Position: vi chord

  • Inner-Circle, Counter-Clockwise Position: ii chord

  • Inner-Circle, Clockwise Position: iii chord

This holds true for all of the 12 possible key signatures. You can try it for a couple other keys if you’d like. These are the chords in the key of G major/E minor 

The I, IV and V chords

The most common chords to use in any given key signature are the I, IV and V chords. These are the 3 major chords found in the key, and they can all be found in the outer portion of the circle within the grouping of 6.

  • C = I

  • F = IV

  • G =V

The vi chord

The vi chord is a special kind of minor chord found in the key signature as it acts a direct replacement for the I chord, only “sadder”. The vi chord is always found in the center position, inner circle right in line with the I chord:

  • A Minor is the vi chord.

You can play two progressions back to back:

  • Progression #1: C – G – F

  • Progression #2: Am – G – F

The ii and iii chord

These are the other 2 minor chords that are found in any given key signature. Each of these chords produces a very specific sound and feel.

  • The ii chord: Provides an interesting dynamic to any chord progression without sounding extremely “sad”

  • The iii chord: Arguably the “saddest” sounding chord to use within the grouping of 6


Borrowed Chords

If you want to really spice up a chord progression, consider using borrowed chords. What this means is that you can use chords that are found in “parallel keys”.

  • The “parallel key” of C major is C minor

  • The “parallel key” of A minor is A major

The chords that are found in the key of C minor can be found in the adjacent grouping of 6 in the counter-clockwise direction.

C minor is now in the Green Pie.  
While you are in the Key of C you can steal chords from C Minor!  How sick!
Five bucks says you almost understand the next set of resources to help you.
Holy Moly, this is hard &%^$
At the very least you will have an appreciation for the complexity of music
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