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Is a music theory background necessary to start producing?
Why should you consider learning music theory?
I consider multiple perspectives and help you choose the best path.
Do you need to learn music theory to be a great music producer? After all, does it really matter? While some say yes, others say no. However, it seems fair to say that most say yes, but are the masses actually misguided when it comes to this issue?
Is a Music Theory Background Necessary to Start?
Music theory is not necessary for you to start creating your own tracks. It does help you, but it’s definitely not a “must-have” skill whether you’re starting out or you’re a well-known artist. Why do I say that? Simple… do you know two producers called Deadmau5 and Audien? Well, check this out:
Deadmau5 (6 Grammy Nominations):
Interviewer: “What is a musician to you?”;
Deadmau5: “To me? Someone who could read sheet music for starters. (…) Someone who studied music, who knows all the different types of scales, notations, polyrhythms… You know, I don’t know any of that stuff (…)”
Audien (Grammy-nominated artist):
“Now you’re getting all music theory on me and I can tell you right now (…) I don’t know what any of these chords are. I don’t know any music theory, I just draw them in. (…) I spent my whole career just drawing melodies in, I don’t play keyboards that well (…)”
I do think it could be considered an advantage if you do know theory, but it’s definitely not necessary we’ve seen. But why is it an advantage? This should be obvious. For starters, you’ll have more options when creating new chord progressions, melodies, harmonies, and rhythm parts. Plus, you’ll have a whole lot more knowledge to draw from when it comes to creating powerful arrangements.
Does That Only Apply to Electronic Producers?
Historically, some of the biggest artists didn’t know a thing about music theory, but they knew pretty well what they were doing “unconsciously”.
Michael Jackson and Elvis didn’t know music theory. Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Eddie Van Halen didn’t know how to read sheet music, they did it all by practice and ear, and they did it pretty well, right?
Therefore, no, this does not apply only to music producers. All musicians don’t need music theory to create or play their own songs. When it comes to electronic musicians, VST plugins like Scaler are just one of many tools available to help take care of the theory for you so you can keep making music uninterrupted.
Scales are important tools, so much so that there are apps like Scaler 2 out there designed to help musicians use them more effectively. Scaler determines what key and scale you’re in and suggest chords that match your music.
If you think that not knowing it will limit you and you’re afraid of starting producing because you don’t know how to play any instrument, Audien and Deadmau5 are two grammy-nominated artists big enough to show that knowing music theory is not necessary for success.
If you think the reason why you’re not producing good music is only that you don’t know music theory, I believe this is more of an excuse than a proper reason.
There are a couple of benefits to learning music theory, though. If you decide to learn it, I don’t think you’re wasting your time. On the contrary, you’ll probably become a better musician after learning it.
Now, you might ask “Wait, you just told me I don’t need to learn it?”. Although not necessary, knowing it will definitely help you better develop your ideas. I don’t think, as mentioned before, it’s a game-changer, but I think it will definitely expand your horizons as a producer.
Since you have to practice a lot and will probably get exposed to a lot of genres, learning music theory helps you develop your knowledge of how to process what you listen into something you like. Breaking down the music you’re interested in and learning why it’s appealing to you will give you a whole new perspective on making music.
The Main Benefit of Learning Music Theory
To be creative, what matters is your capability to process information and fluently transform your experiences into something meaningful. Your source of information (the music you listen to), your ability to rethink it and process it, and your fluency in your desired method of output (playing an instrument or drawing melodies directly on your DAW) are all important.
The main reason I listen to classical, bossa nova, jazz, and pop is not to learn to play them, but to get exposed to new music, new chords, new scales, and this is what will develop your perception of what is musically interesting and how you can innovate in your own work.
While learning music theory, you’ll be pushed beyond your comfort zone, probably beyond genres that you normally listen to or even to ones you don’t really like. Even though you don’t listen to it, once you study it, the new information you’ll be exposed to could be what will fuel your creativity to be original and unique in your own genre.
Therefore, the input you have and your ability to process this new data and translate it into new music is what will be the game-changer, in my opinion, whether you play it or draw it.
Where Can I Learn Music Theory?
My first recommendation if you don’t know music theory or if you want to refresh your memory is Dave Conservatoire. There, they offer a free beginner’s guide, which I’ve taken, and it gives you a LOT of examples and exercises for you to practice. I definitely enjoyed taking this course and highly recommend it since it’s free.
My second recommendation, if you are still not sure whether you should or should not learn music theory, is to watch this video from Andrew Huang:
In 30 minutes, Andrew explains to you the basics of music theory and will give you a good headstart on your training. If you want, watch this first and then do Dave Conservatoire’s free course.
Third, hire a professional teacher. With music theory, you can go really far without professional help, but a teacher will get you to push your limits and explore unknown territory. I can say for myself, if it wasn’t for my teacher, I would never have gotten into bossa nova, because why would I want to learn something I don’t listen to?
Therefore, a teacher can help you tremendously by guiding you to places you’ve never been before, which is exactly what I consider the main benefit of music theory.