How To Make Music Without Knowing Music Theory


A common question among aspiring music producers is how important is music theory knowledge for electronic music production. Personally, I had no prior knowledge of music theory before I started producing EDM and I had many doubts. I didn’t know whether I should spend some time learning music theory prior to producing anything.

While it does help to know music theory in order to be creative, you can absolutely start out and make music without knowing anything about it and learn as you go. Creating EDM music without knowing music theory is possible thanks to various midi plugins.  

There is an abundance of plugins, both native to most of the major DAWs as well as third-party VST plugins, that are designed to supplement or complement our understanding of music theory, or lack thereof.

These plugins are called MIDI effects and they work by altering MIDI data before it reaches an instrument device. 

So for example, if you have a melody in your head but are not sure which notes belong to that particular key, you can use a plugin to correct any notes you play that happen to be outside of the key by transposing them to the nearest note within the key.

In this article, we will take a look at some of these devices and how they can help you make music without having to take a course in music theory.

justinguitar.com on Twitter: "It's not rocket science, it's much harder  than that! What's your favourite bit of music theory?… "

4 Midi Effect Plugins That Will Help You Make Music

Cthulhu

This plugin from Xfer Records is a chord generator and arpeggiator that can manipulate incoming MIDI in a variety of ways. The chord generator takes single-note presses and converts them into chords, allowing you to play complex chord progressions with one finger!

On the other hand, the arpeggiator takes incoming notes and chords and manipulates them in various ways, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how chaotic or precise. This module can even turn a single sustained note press into an awesome riff!

Captain Plugins

This suite of plugins from Mixed in Key contains five MIDI effects that can essentially write your music for you, allowing you to focus entirely on sound design. With the flagship plugin, Captain Chords, all you need to do is choose the key of your track and it will give you different chord progressions in that key to choose from along with different options for rhythms, passing notes and more.

The other plugins – Captain Beat, Captain Play, Captain Melody and Captain Deep – all work in a similar way. You can even connect the melodic plugins across channels so that when you change the key in one of them, it will automatically change in the others, allowing you to experiment without having to manually change settings in each one!

Scaler 2

Scaler 2 is a hybrid virtual instrument and MIDI effect plugin. It comes with built-in sounds but can also be used to trigger any other synth you like. Similar to other MIDI effects, this plugin can take a MIDI input and turn into something else like an arpeggio, an extended chord, etc.

But what sets Scaler 2 apart is its tuner feature that can be used to detect the key of incoming audio to make suggestions that will fit that signal. So if you have a sampled melodic loop in the key of E minor, Scaler 2 will suggest a few chord progressions in that key, so you don’t have to waste precious time trying to figure it out for yourself!

Chord Prism

Chord Prism by Mozaic Beats is another plugin that enables you to generate chords and arpeggios by pressing one MIDI note. However, it comes with another handy feature known as “Strum”. This feature gives you the ability to make your virtual instrument sound like a guitar being strummed.

The strum feature exists on a few plugins like the Probability Arp from Max 4 Live, and without this feature, it is a very tedious task to emulate the strumming of a guitar.

Built-In MIDI Effects

Most DAWs come with a range of MIDI effect plugins built in, so if you can’t or don’t want to buy VST plugins, you can always achieve the same results within your DAW.

Ableton Live

Ableton Live’s MIDI devices are simple but straight to the point – Arpeggiator, Chord, Note Length, Pitch, Random, Scale, and Velocity. These devices, when used in conjunction with each other, are very powerful composition AND sound design tools.

Logic Pro X

Logic Pro X has a similar range of MIDI effects – Arpeggiator, Chord Trigger, Modifier, Modulator, Note Repeater, Randomizer, Scripter, Transposer and Velocity Processor. These devices do pretty much the same things as other native MIDI effects with the exception of Scripter, which enables you to write your own MIDI processing and generation scripts.

Reason

Reason’s MIDI effects – Scales & Chords, Dual Arpeggio, Note Echo, Beat Map Algorhythmic Drummer, Drum Sequencer, Quad Note Generator, and PolyStep Sequencer – are a bit more sophisticated than the native MIDI effects of other DAWs. Reason offers a couple of devices that are designed to help you program drum beats!

Bitwig

Bitwig is one of the newest DAWs on the market and it is quickly moving up to the number one position with its overall innovation and intuitiveness. The MIDI effects in this DAW, usually referred to as “Note FX” are similar to the native MIDI effects of other DAWs but updated to offer a bit more.

For example, Bitwig has a plugin called “Micro Pitch” that allows you to fine-tune individual notes, transform scales, shrink or expand octaves, and even play microtones that don’t exist in the standard 21-tone scale!

Should You Learn Music Theory?

While you can get by with plugins like the ones written about in this article, there is no denying that it does help a lot to know music theory for the simple reason that it gives you more control over the composition end of your project.

However, learning music theory does not mean that you have to get rid of all your MIDI effects. In fact, music theory knowledge combined with these plugins will probably give you ideas that you never would have had by using just one or the other!

Can You Learn Music Theory Through These Effects?

Absolutely! If you send the MIDI output from one of these devices to another channel, you can record the MIDI data that the device is generating into that channel to see exactly what notes are being played.

In this way, you can learn about keys, scales and chords, how they are all related to one another, and what works in the context of your music. This could even be a better approach than traditional music theory lessons, since you will be learning through your own music!

Related Questions –

Do I Need To Know Music Theory To Make Beats?

When it comes to making beats, knowledge of music theory can help but a trained and experienced ear can make a world difference to your beat making skills. You can improve in beats making by learning transcription and listening to a lot of music.

How Long It Takes To Learn Music Theory

It takes 3 to 5 months to learn all the basics of music theory.Mastering the ins and outs of music theory will take an average of five years.

Are Midi Effects Considered Cheating?

Some musicians and producers do consider this a form of “cheating” but from a creative standpoint, it is simply an alternative approach to songwriting.

As Steve Duda said when he was promoting Cthulhu, it is easy for performers to get locked into what is comfortable to play and not really explore anything beyond that. And that was his inspiration behind Cthulhu – To have a plugin that can enable us to go beyond our comfort zones!

Conclusion

To sum it all up, you don’t really need to know music theory to start making electronic music. There are several MIDI effects available that will help you compose your music by converting your MIDI data into complete and professional sounding chord progressions, melodies, arpeggios and more!

You can also learn music theory as you learn how to use these plugins and combine your knowledge with the unique features of your plugins to come up with something that has never been done before!

Mori B

I'm a music producer, a dj and a blogger.

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