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Monophonic synths and music theory?
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Production Techniques Goto page 1, 2  Next [all]
Author Monophonic synths and music theory?
Ok, so I made a decision to learn some basics of music theory. Mainly I've just been playing round with minor scales, very basic stuff.

The thing is, everything I'm reading talks about composing melodies/basslines around chords. Now i understand with chords you move around different scales, maybe using the circle of 5ths/4ths. But since I'm only using mono synths composing around a set of chord progressions doesn't make much sense.

So what approaches could I take? other than just playing in a F minor scale for example.

Do you mainly stay in one scale or move around?

Sorry the brain fart!
It's good to know something.
OP - I believe this is a case of needing to understand the question better in order to understand the answer. Almost any beginning harmony text will provide the basis for answering your question yourself with a more complete understanding of the context. Asking anyone on the internet who cares to answer (and believing what they say) is not going to form a good basis. Pursuing the knowledge yourself will.

rockthomas: It is probably best to keep a clear distinction between KNOWING what you are talking about and ACTING LIKE you know what you are talking about. Here are your corrections:

• The 5th of E- is B not C
• Using the 5th in the bass is uncommon and a poor choice for a theoretical discussion regarding the relationship between chords and scales. It is unstable (the root is a 4th above thus creating a dissonance which requests resolution) and this usually precedes a cadence in common practice harmony. You will rarely hear this in any music except as a tonic 6/4 classical music or in jazz which often favors complex and more subjectively dissonant harmony.
• "If a bassline suddenly was focused on the fifth of E Minor, that's C, then maybe I would change the key to C Minor" - 'sudden' cross relations between E and Eb - A and Ab - B and Bb - GREAT! That will sound good... (actually it will not).
. • We are changing KEYS because of the 'sudden' movement of the bass to a certain note? NO - these keys are not related and the change will be jarring, an effect, not a harmonic practice useful as an example.
• "In every scale, you would play the chord in the key of the note being played, basically" - WHAT?
• "The root is in the scale but the chord is based on the root note not the scale" - DOUBLE WHAT?
• "Still, it's good to know something" - YOU CAN SAY THAT AGAIN!

You are not helping anyone - you would fail harmony 101 with such statements. A community college can straighten you out for free. The point is that the OP sincerely requested help and you spoke out of an orifice in your body other than your mouth while acting like you KNEW what you were talking about.

rockthomas wrote:
In every scale, you would play the chord in the key of the note being played, basically. The root is in the scale but the chord is based on the root note not the scale. If a bassline suddenly was focused on the fifth of E Minor, that's C, then maybe I would change the key to C Minor. Modulation keeps music interesting, you don't need to do it necessarily. Still, it's good to know something so you can at least make sure your bass drum is tuned to the tonic or at least in the scale you are using.

Perhaps I should start offering music lessons to anyone on muffs who is polite, humble, and interested in LEARNING: harmony, counterpoint, ethnomusicology, history, whatever you are interested in or need to know. I will happily admit when something comes up which I do not know about. That said, and judging from the 'learned advice' I have read on these forums, I doubt this will come up often if at all... Anything to counteract the disbelief encountered when someone posts some 'helpful' (read: WAY OFF) information about traditional theories of the structure of music. Alternative theories are fine but I did not coin the adage that it is best to crawl before walking and to walk before running...
Definately interested in expanding musical knowledge shred. Btw removed your double post smile
Just me
I know NOTHING of music theory. What I do is to please me. If it somehow follows any correct form or theory it is only by accident or because I am subconsciously aping what I have heard throughout my life. When I read the liner notes on experimental music or classical albums, my mind glazes over and I wonder if the author saw beauty in the music or just a mathematical relationship between notes. I've never had anyone who I could sit down and learn any of this from so it still borders on the arcane to me. If anyone can explain it so it makes sense, Id love to spend the time listening.
i would disregard chords in your case. learn the scales and play a melody in that key. then add a bass line in the same key. chords are useful to learn no doubt and when you learn the scales, you are most of the way there. but i think chords are overrated and it can get ridiculous trying to analyze music vertically so to speak. harmony or chords, is just what happens when two or more melodic lines meet. it can be very open to interpretation. learn to write great melodies and you will write great music. as for modulating to a new key, the most common way is to go to the nearest related key. one easy way is to go from a major to its related minor. for example, c major and a minor share the same notes. learn what a melodic minor scale is to spice up those minor moments. as mentioned, another way is to move to a closely related key like c major and g major. they both share the same notes except for one note. so you can play in c major and introduce an f# in a melody and that sets up the ear to accept g major as the tonal center. learn cadences which is just going from the fifth note of the scale to the first note. that is very powerful in a bassline to establish the tonic.

once you learn all of this, you can start to do things that break the rules or more like stretch them. it isn't impossible to modulate to some far off key. if you can do it well then many ears will perk up and smile. also, many clever melodies don't just stay in the key. it is the notes that stray off but still make sense that wets our appetite for more.
@ Mojopin I think what I've been doing is confusing keys and scales. Thanks for the input!! What you're saying confirms what I've been learning.

@shreddoggie. Like some others have said, I would deffo be interested in some pointers/lessons, If you have a chance. One thing I'm interested in learning is counterpoint. Some of the explanations I've been reading seem a bit convoluted. Or maybe aI need a better grip on the basics.
Would this be considered a form of counterpoint?


Anyway, I'm glad I've started learning some theory, the basic things I've learnt are really helping. Probably preaching to the converted here but it gives you a useful toolbox to use when playing round.
id be interested in this answer aswell, great to see some mills love in here
Is that counterpoint?

I will quote from wiki:

In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously. In each era, contrapuntally organized music writing has been subject to rules, sometimes strict. By definition, chords occur when multiple notes sound simultaneously; however, harmonic, "vertical" features are considered secondary and almost incidental when counterpoint is the predominant textural element. Counterpoint focuses on melodic interaction—only secondarily on the harmonies produced by that interaction.

The relationship and separation of harmony and counterpoint has developed over time. During the Medieval period, modes strictly defined harmonic changes and composers of that period had to fit the different voices of their compositions into these modes. By the Baroque period, however, harmony could extend to any key as long as simultaneous voices were in the same key. This retained until the modern period, where polytonality and atonality were introduced; Glenn Gould's String Quartet in F minor, Opus 1, for example, is a fugue with nearly full atonality.

There is a clear distinction between polyphony and counterpoint. Counterpoint generally refers to different motifs used against each other, and cycled through in each voice (of which there are at least two) of the piece, whereas polyphony means simply two or more independent melodies played simultaneously.

So I would call it polyphonic and that is basically what I recommended to the OP in my earlier post. Of course, you could also describe it as contrapuntal and you could make a case for it. I guess it depends how pretentious you want to sound hihi
I think music theory is very useful. I love mucking around and just twiddling BUT still get a lot of satisfaction from "composing" using musical theory. It certainly opens up mono instruments as you can build harmonies and chord progressions without sticking to plonked piano chords.
By this I mean you can think of chords as simply the alignment of notes and rather than just trying until it sounds good, you can head in a clear direction.
The best thing is, you don't need to be that great at it AND it's interesting.

When I was producing techno and working with artists, I used to notice that many unskilled techno artists would leap around with excitement when they found very basic chord progressions by random, as if they had created something new. I never looked down on this at all, but a bit of theory can be a time saver and can open up other avenues to your music ( much like experimentation and random approaches can open up a musician who has always stuck to theory)
flabby wrote:
Ok, so I made a decision to learn some basics of music theory. Mainly I've just been playing round with minor scales, very basic stuff.

The thing is, everything I'm reading talks about composing melodies/basslines around chords. Now i understand with chords you move around different scales, maybe using the circle of 5ths/4ths. But since I'm only using mono synths composing around a set of chord progressions doesn't make much sense.

So what approaches could I take? other than just playing in a F minor scale for example.

Do you mainly stay in one scale or move around?

Sorry the brain fart!

This is a really good question! While you don't need to stick to chords, it's often a very good idea. You'd think using a monosynth would make this difficult, but you can actually use it to your advantage.

First of all, let's start thinking about things in context. We want to make sure that all the notes we're playing go well together with other notes being played on other instruments at the same time. So moving around from one key to another is fine, but it's best to make sure all the instruments are in the same key as one another at any given time. For example, you could be in the key of C major, playing the chords C major, F major, A minor, then G major... then get bored and switch to another key that has G major in it, say D major. So you might play a B minor chord, then a D major chord, and so on.

Next up is how to play chords on a monophonic instrument. This is something that musicians working with the string family of instruments have known for some time, and thinking about chords this way helps you avoid the bad habit of playing block chords, in which you play all three notes of a primary triad at once in a dull, sustained fashion with no variation.

So you take your chords -- let's say they're all primary triads to keep things simple -- and your monophonic instruments -- let's say you've got four, roughly corresponding to voilins, violas, celli and basses.

Each of the highest three instruments can play any note in the chord. You'll generally want them to play one note each, so you can hear whether the chord is major or minor, but it's perfectly acceptable to have two instruments playing the same note (whether an octave apart or not), while one of the notes isn't played at all. There are no rules here.

Just as with writing block chords in a polyphonic instrument (a bad habit I had for far too long), you can use different inversions of each chord in order to be lazy and not have to move your fingers around so much when playing. For instance, I love the wonderfully depressing sound of going from a major chord (I), to the minor chord two above it in the key (III), only its second inversion, so that I'm only moving my thumb down a semitone and keeping my other fingers where they are. As I'm only moving one digit, it sounds only a little bit different, but that little difference is very significant and sad sounding.

But as you're now looking at three different staves or grids of notes, each monophonic, we can then take it a bit further. You can either draw in block chords and then cut and paste the high notes, middle notes and low notes, into separate channels, or you can just skip that step entirely if you're comfortable doing it all on the fly by ear. At any rate, you've now got three instruments each with a monophonic set of notes. Excellent.

The trick now is to embellish some of these slightly, while mostly staying within the notes of the chord, or at least the key. If you're in the key of C major, and you're playing an E minor chord, and this particular instrument is playing the note B, and you're about to go into a G major chord, playing the note G, then maybe for a small amount of time beforehand, you can play an A, so you're gracefully sliding down from one to the other instead of making a big leap. Or maybe you like big leaps, so you can occasionally go up from B to E, or down from B to G. With all these embellishments, it's not quite a proper melody, but it's much more interesting than just block chords consisting of exactly-one-bar-long notes.

As for that last of the four instruments, the bass, you have several options. You can play just the root note of the chord, the one that gives the chord its name. Even then, you can still embellish it a bit if you'd like, just don't move around so much the lower the average pitch of the instrument. Or you can play different notes in the chord. According to music theorists, this actually changes which chord you're playing to a fairly obscure other one, but you don't really need to concern yourself with that at this point. Or you could make a funky, rhythmic bassline, whether it mostly concerns itself with the root note of the chord or not. (It'll probably sound better if it does, but again, there are no rules.)

Quite aside from that, which is pretty much how I compose string-like parts, you can play arpeggios in each chord, which usually sounds boring at first, but you can similarly liven them up to make them more rhythmically and melodically interesting. Just changing the notes so they always fit into whichever chord is playing at any given time can sound good.

This is pretty much how I currently write all my music right now, anyway. Hopefully it's of some help!
Thanks all for sharing part of your knowledge ! It happened that yesterday evening, I was looking for some chords theory's informations and ended watching these videos:

Very helpful ! thumbs up

Hédi K.
I studied music for 8 years with Royal School of Music teachers, but those videos are like a ray of sunshine.... brilliant thumbs up
Thanks for all the replies!!! email notifications mustn't have been working, didn't know anyone had replied.

Anyway, all of them really help, plugging little gaps or doubts in my knowledge so far.

Need to have a look at those videos though, haven't had a chance yet.

And I'm deffo gonna start looking into polyphony a bit more. One thing about those Mills tracks is that technique of two or more melodies sounding separate yet the same, is something I really enjoy and find hypnotic about his music.

I'm sure more questions to follow!
I guarantee he is writing that music at a much slower tempo. It is always good to hear melodies and especially rhythms at different tempos to get a fresh perspective. And of course it is much easier to compose i.e. improvise another melodic line on top of another.
^ A nice trick also for this would be writing a melody on a step sequencer, duplicating the pattern, then shifting/offsetting it and have it triggering another synth/sound. Kinda of form of polyphony.
The Mills videos above don't strike me as especially polyphonic. The voices aren't moving independently. They're bound tightly enough where they form one melody in which the louder of the voices is a lead with the others forming an atonal harmonic support. (Using "atonal" in the traditional sense, "without tonal center".) I'd call this homophony.

I did like them, though. 8_)

For an example of independent voice lines, here's some Machaut:
i think that falls more into arranging, but yeah.

lately, i always use the pitch cv from my bass part for the kick part. i work with midi so i will have the bass notes on one channel and the kick midi on another. i use the pitch cv from the bass part and the gates/trigger/velocity from the kick part. that way the percussion is always in tune together. you can also hear the kick playing the bass notes as it decays (if the bass is playing more notes than the kick which tends to happen in my case). i once sent the melody to the pitch cv for a snare part and that was cool..must remember to try that again. basically, it is fun to recycle 'data' in new ways with the modular and layer and layer. i love a thick sound.
^Ahhh. i see what you mean by 'independent' with that Machaut piece.
The left and right voices are similar in melody and rhythm but kinda offset in timing. As one voice goes down the other follows after but maybe with a slight variation.

Dr. Sketch-n-Etch
This thread seems to have strayed from the OP a fair bit, but I wanted to bring it back to the idea of playing chords on a monosynth.

Of course, you can't play chords on a monosynth, but you can play arpeggios, which are just broken chords. To play a C7 arpeggio, for instance, you could simply play C-E-G-Bb. Now a C7 chord often resolves to an Fmaj chord. You could play C-E-G-Bb and then F-A-C-E. However, that would sound pretty dumb. It would be better to make a decent melody out of it. For example, you could play (all within a single octave):


Note that the (Ab) is a grace note or appoggiatura, played quickly and not stressed. The C-E-G-Bb makes a C7 chord, which resolves to the Fmaj chord made up of A-F-E-C. The last few notes are just notes within the scale of F to add a bit of melodic interest.

Of course, this is missing a bass element. Here is where things get interesting. Instead of thinking of chordal arpeggios in terms of a step ladder of third intervals, let's think in terms of shells and upper structures (this is getting into some jazz theory, now, but it's very useful).

A shell is a two-note formula played in a lower register which defines the skeleton of a chord. The most common shells are 1-3 and 1-7. For example, these shells for a C7 chord would be C-E and C-Bb. In bebop (post-war jazz), these are what the piano player often played in the left hand. A more common shell in rock is 1-5 which would be C-G.

An upper structure is a simple 3 or 4 note chord which further defines the chord and perhaps adds extensions or tensions. Extensions are additional diatonic tones (meaning tones which belong to the scale of the chord, so C mixolydian or F major for the C7 chord) which are not in the basic chord. These include the 9, 11, and 13. The tensions are non-diatonic (or chromatic) tones which make the chord sound funky or jazzy, and these are the b9, #9, #11, and b13. So, if we want an upper structure with only extensions (no tensions -- a pretty, "vanilla" sort of sound) then, on top of the C-Bb shell, we might play E-G-A-D. These notes are the 3-5-13-9 relative to C, so, two chord tones (3 and 5) and two extensions (13 and 9). All of this can be played as arpeggios on a monosynth -- the left hand playing the shell and the right hand playing the upper structure. The shell can be played first to establish the C tonic in the bass, thus establishing the basic harmony, and then the upper structure can be played and augmented with other scale or chromatic tones to flesh out a melody. Another chord in the progression can be approched in the same way. In this way, both the harmonic and melodic aspects of a tune can be played on the monosynth.

An example of a jazzy chord for C7 played in this way would be the 1-7 shell C-Bb, and an upper structure of Db-E-Gb-A. This is the b9-3-#11-13, so one chord tone (3), one extension (13) and two tensions (b9 and #11) (although the #11 is sometimes considered an extension because the natural 11 is so dissonant against major and dominant chords, but not against minor chords). You should note that the upper structure here is actually a closely voiced Amaj6 chord, but this vanilla chord against the shell of C7 sounds very jazzy (because of the tensions).

There are many excellent books about all this stuff (one of the best is "The Jazz Piano Book" by Mark Levine). Any chord can be arpeggiated, and therefore played on a monosynth or any other monotonic instrument, thus adding a harmonic aspect to single line solos.
Dr. Sketch-n-Etch
d'oh! I just realized that probably the most perfect example of the sort of arpeggiated shells and upper structures I was advocating in my last posting is the C major prelude (Prelude No. 1) from JS Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1):

As you watch this video, see if you can identify the 1-3, 1-5, and 1-7 shells in the left hand part. Hint: many of the 1-7 shells are actually played as 7-1 (i.e., on adjacent keys), in which case the root of the chord is actually the higher of the two notes. There are also some 3-5 and 5-3 shells (which omit the root), and maybe even some 3-7 or 7-3 shells. Indeed, harmonic analysis of this simple piece is very very instructive, and an excellent introduction to practical music theory. The first step of this process is to identify the root of every chord -- you should be able to hear and identify the root, even if it isn't being played -- Hint: it isn't necessarily the lowest note being played -- this is an incredibly important step in so-called ear training. The next step is to identify the chord (or scale) degrees of the shell (1, 3, 5, or 7). Then, figure out the upper structures (they are very basic in this piece -- no tensions, and only a few extensions).

This is a pretty easy piece to play. The sheet music may be found here if you need it:

There's been a lot of wise words spoken here but to be honest with you none of this information and advice is going to make any sense unless you have a polyphonic instrument of some kind - even a basic piano sound on a cheap sound card will do.

You need to be able to hear and try play chords on your keyboard to understand the basics of harmony. Arpeggios on their own won't work as you can't play harmonic ideas beneath them so as to hear what works ad what doesn't and more importantly how chords are linked and related to a key centre.

Get yourself set up with a piano sound of some kind then have one fun learning !

I agree that it is much easier to learn harmony on a polyphonic keyboard.

BUT you can still do polyphonic stuff using a Chord Machine on your modular and also by using a monosynth like a Mopho kreyboard/SH-2/MS-20/etc in tandem with your modular. I do that sometimes and scale and chord knowledge is very helpful.

I sometimes use the modular for arpeggios and chords, then I use a monosynth on the side to play a melody on top. no need for a polyphonic keyboard.

don't forget the Chord Machine which is capable of 4-note chords and 4-note arpeggios!
Those videos on the last page were extemely helpful, thanks!

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