Breaking Musical Rules 2

This is the second in set of examples of musical structures which sound good despite being well outside of the rules of traditional Western music theory, and revolves around pad sounds.

Pad sounds usually exist (as the name suggests!) to ‘pad-out’ an arrangement, and give it some additional texture and depth.  As they’re usually designed to sit behind the main instruments/elements of a track, you can often get away with more abstract textures, created by more complex chords.  I can still clearly remember my eureka moment many years ago, when I discovered that really nice pad sounds could be made with a low-pass filtered synth patch, played by a thick, jazzy chord (9th, 11th, etc…).

During 2016 I experimented quite a lot with different ways of making pad sounds, and discovered that you don’t have to limit textures to complex jazz chords… you can use all kinds of diatonic structures and ‘chords’ which are way outside of the bounds of traditional music theory.

The example I’ll use is part of the pad sound I used in ‘Push On‘.  I used a couple of different instrument layers to arrive at the final sound, but one of those layers used a preset sound from Spectrasonics Atmosphere.  The soloed layer sounds like this…

… and was played using the following ‘chord’…


That’s basically the first 4 intervals of a C major scale played together in consecutive octaves.  It’s also miles away from anything that you’d learn from traditional Western music theory (it can actually be ‘played’ by two very comfortably spaced fists on the keyboard!).  This is the kind of chord I would never expect to fit into anything but the most avante-garde of music styles (due to preconceived ideas of what harmonies will work), and hence would be very unlikely to try or experiment with when putting a track together.  But I discovered last year that you can often use these types of complex and unconventional chords for pads (I used similar and often more complex chords in other tracks I produced in 2016 aswell).

Part of what makes it possible is the use of low-pass filtering in pad instruments.  If you were to play the same chord on a loud piano or with an orchestral string patch, the mash of upper harmonics it would produce would sound quite messy and dissonant (like playing the piano with your fist!).  But as this patch has a lot of those upper harmonics rolled off, it allows more complex (and traditionally dissonant) sets of intervals to work better together.

Just as a reference, a single note played on the same Atmosphere patch sounds like this (with no high-pass filter and hence more low end)…

When creating pad sounds, it’s worth messing around with complex and unconventional chords and intervals.  It often allows you to create much more texturally rich and deep sounds than you could achieve with more traditional chords, but still maintaining consonance in the overall result.


Breaking Musical Rules 1

In my recent post on questioning ‘Does Knowing Musical Theory Help Production?‘, I said I’d give a few examples of where I found a musical structure that was outside the rules of traditional Western music theory, but sounded good none the less… so here’s the first example…

My most recent track on soundcloud ‘Cantana 1‘, has a bassline whose pitch rolls around a lot through portamento… but is centred around an A note… hence you could say the track is in the key of A.  But… the main synth ‘stab’ and vocal pad sounds are based around a B flat minor chord.  That’s a semitone away from the key of the track, and is about as far detached as you can get from ‘correct’ structure and harmony according to the rules of classical Western music theory I learnt from the AMEB.  With this semitone interval the track sounds like this (as per soundcloud)…

…if I was to pitch the stab and pad sounds down a semitone to match the key of the bassline, it would sound like this…

Interesting huh?  It’s subjective, but although the second clip does sound more ‘correct’ in terms of harmony, the odd interval in the original version gives it a more dark, and unresolved sound… and to me, ultimately makes a better track.

Looking back, I’m a bit surprised I discovered using a bassline and chord separated by a semitone at all.  When I’m putting together the various layers of a track, I’m usually implicitly aware of what key the track is in, and that leads me towards preconceived ideas of what harmonies will work, and what won’t (these kind-of ‘burned in constraints’ I mentioned in the previous post).  Given that traditional theory would say that a tonic and tonic + 1 semitone interval would not work, I’m surprised I even experimented with that combination in the first place.  I can only guess I had adopted a kind of ‘hit random chords’ approach to finding new parts, and just happened to stumble on this semitone part that happened to work well.

Anyway, the takeaway is to try and keep an open mind when you’re coming up with new parts and ideas.  Use any knowledge of music theory you have to help expedite the process, but don’t get caught up in letting that knowledge restrict your ability to discover things.

I’ll post more examples soon.

Does Knowing Musical Theory Help Production?

I watch a lot of the Fact TV ‘Against the Clock’ series.  It’s a nice way to look at how other producers do things, and sometimes get some new ideas that can help your own approach and work.  One interesting observation from these videos is that there’s a fair variation between the formal practical and theoretical training that producers possess… I.e. you see some guys who seem to go for the ‘lots of random notes until something sounds OK’ approach on an Abelton Push-type device, and on the other hand, guys who get behind a keyboard and start dropping improvised parts like a jazz session musician.  I’m not making an elitist-type judgement here either… there’s not necessarily a correlation between the quality of the track ultimately produced, and the instrumental skills of the producer.  But it’s something that got me thinking, and something that I was aware of in my previous year of full time music production.

I always learnt instruments and formal music theory from a fairly early age… first through the AMEB and then through school and high school, and while I’ve been very grateful for that knowledge and how it can often help and expedite my music production, like other elements I’ve written about, it can sometimes be a double edged sword.  On the plus side, the benefits I see are that…

  • When trying to come up with new ideas for tracks and parts, an understanding of scales and their relationships can help you to more quickly come to potential parts that fit nicely with whatever you’ve already got.  I think without that understanding, you’d have to cycle through things a lot more randomly (like just trying every key in an octave until something sounds good).
  • I think it’s easier and more quick to translate ideas you hear in your head into a tangible sound, project, score, etc…

But, at the same time, there are lots of ideas that don’t fit into the formal bounds of music theory that can still sound interesting and/or good… and I feel like the problem is sometimes, that having those theoretical constraints ‘burned in’ to your thinking can stop you from accessing and finding these “don’t fit” ideas.

There’ve been several times over the last year, where I surprised myself by finding a sound, interval, or harmony which was a bit outside the boundaries of Western musical theory, but sounded good nonetheless in the context of the track I was working on.

I’ll try and go into detail on a couple of these over the coming weeks.