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How Much Music Theory Do Music Producers Need to Know?

  • Michele
  • 07 November 2023, Tuesday
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Music Theory iMusician

Music theory is a significant part of music education as it is the basis for grasping its principles. It offers a structured framework for understanding the intricacies of music and allows artists to create mesmerizing works by applying their theoretical knowledge to their creative process.

While it makes sense to study it in depth, digital music producers don't always need to know every single detail as their workflow strongly differs from other musicians. In this article, we want to explore the role of music theory for music producers, offer insight into how it can benefit producers, and which aspects of it they can look into to substantially improve.

When and why does music theory matter?

In the world of music production, there is an ongoing debate over the importance of music theory. While some believe that it is essential to making good beats and instrumentals, others argue that it is not a necessity. Some even go so far as to say that too many theoretical rules can be limiting.

Many producers avoid studying theory in the beginning, hoping they can jump right into making music without having to spend hours learning and practicing the basics. At the same time, some advanced musicians overemphasize the importance of complex theory, therefore discouraging beginners.

While music theory remains important until today, the way music is created has changed tremendously. The invention of DAWs and virtual instruments created an environment in which music production is more accessible, allowing anyone willing to make time to get into it. Additionally, online resources (such as blogs or YouTube channels) make it much easier to learn and improve.

Although these aspects make a career in music production much more accessible and realistic, this does not mean that becoming good at it is an easy endeavor. In this context, studying the basics of music theory can help you improve faster and sustainably.

Advantages of music theory

Music theory can help producers to work in a much more intentional and efficient way. Instead of relying on experimentation and luck to achieve the desired results, they can choose what emotions they want to communicate by applying their theoretical knowledge to their creative process.

For example, studying and practicing scales will allow you to write better melodies and save time. Similarly, understanding how to construct chords and chord progressions will make it easier to create the vibe you are aiming for. This also allows for more experimenting and creativity in the long term, as spending too much time on a beat can lead to ear fatigue, which decreases productivity.

Additionally, understanding the language of music makes it easier and more effective to communicate with other producers. In this way, you can convey your ideas in a more precise way to ensure that the final product aligns with your vision. On top of that, you can explain to the people you work with what exactly you are aiming to achieve, as long as they also know enough theory to be able to respond.

How much theory do you need?

However, it is essential to recognize that music production is not solely about theory. Complex music theory is no longer an absolute necessity for music producers thanks to technological innovations. DAWs and plugins have become incredibly advanced, offering a wide range of tools and features that assist in music production.

For this reason, other aspects such as understanding your DAW and plugins are equally relevant to create a beat or instrumental that stands out. Similarly, exposing yourself to different artists and genres to get inspired can help you recognize what you feel drawn to and develop your own style.

Furthermore, there are different levels to studying music theory, and how much you should learn strongly depends on how complex you want your music to be. For example, if you want to make sophisticated, jazzy beats, you will need more theoretical knowledge than you would need for simpler ones.

Thus, while a foundation in music theory can still be valuable, especially for those who wish to push the boundaries of creativity, technology has democratized music production, making it accessible to a broader audience. This fosters innovation and diversity in the world of music, allowing for a more inclusive and dynamic landscape.

What aspects of music theory should you learn?

Based on personal experience, we would recommend all aspiring music producers to look into the following aspects of music theory:

  • Major and minor scales

  • Keys and the circle of fifths

  • Constructing basic chords (e.g., major, minor, diminished, augmented)

  • Extending and inverting chords

  • Understanding chord progressions commonly used in various genres.

  • Rhythms, including time signatures (e.g., 4/4, 3/4) and note durations (whole, half, quarter, eighth notes, etc.).

  • Song Structure and arrangement

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