81: Music Theory 101 – Tempo, Meter and Key

Many of us had unpleasant run-ins with music theory through involuntary music lessons as kids but is it actually useful as a studio tool? Maybe. Sometimes. It’s a tool that can help you out of arrangement and production jams. Stuck trying to figure out which chord to play next in a progression? Need to get a bassline that will work with your vocal melody? Theory can help. 

In this episode, Ben takes us through the three basic elements of music theory: Tempo, Meter and Key. 

You will learn:

  • Why theory is becoming more and more important for the DIY bedroom producer
  • The definition of music theory – and why Vadim disagrees with it
  • How tempo relates to meter
  • How common meters dictate “feels” in Western music 
  • How to use meters to create unique arrangements – and some famous examples
  • The basics of keys and how they subdivide the 12 notes in music and allow the creation of a “mood”
  • The circle of fifths finally explained in a way that even Vadim can understand and how to use it to help you determine what key a piece of music is in

Where to Find the Guys
Free DIY Recording eBook: https://www.howtorecordyourband.com
Vadim’s Studio Site – Get your FREE test mix today! – https://www.calmfrogrecording.com
Benjamin’s Studio Site – https://www.dreamloudstudio.com
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Even though most of us DIY cats operate out of small studio rooms, those rooms can inexplicably house a large number of elephants.

The elephants in the room, that is. See what I did there?

Ok, before this email gets too far off track, I’m talking today about music theory.

For those who took compulsory music lessons as kids, music theory may seem like the bedrock of creating music.

Isn’t it kind of like knowing English before you can read or write awkward emails?

Well, it’s NOT that. And don’t worry if you don’t know an ounce of theory and never even plan on learning any.

You can still make music.

You can still make incredible music that will cause people to stop dead in their tracks. 

Think of music theory as more of a tool that you can pull out to get you out of specific jams.

Trying to figure out what the next chord in that progression should be?

Need some synth pad chords to fill in your production?

Trying to re-record that guitar solo that your bandmate screwed up?

Music theory can reduce the amount of “guess and check” you have to go through.

My own run-in with music theory was both fruitful and intimidating.

While still an impressionable teenager, I was fortunate enough to learn jazz guitar from a wonderful teacher who focused on numbers rather than the weird names (some of which Ben goes through in the two episodes we recently did on the subject).

Thinking of numbers relative to the root note (which is the 1) was much more accessible to me. 

At the same time, my head started to spin with the possibilities! How do you keep track of the chord progressions and decide what you’re going to play next?

Wow. You can do a lot of cool stuff.

Unfortunately, my jazz guitar days started to dwindle right around the time I got into recording.

Today my music theory knowledge lives in that same part of my brain as that weird cocktail book that I bought one summer when I thought it would be cool to know how to make a million different drinks at parties.

In other words, I can dust it off from time to time and muddle through something fancy, but I’m mostly just going by feel and sticking to the basics.

Anyway, if you’re curious about getting a 30,000 foot view of theory and learning about some basic principles that you can apply in your productions, check out the episodes below.

As an extra bonus, here are some of the helpful tips Ben and I lay out to help your relative pitch ears:

  • A half-step interval (Minor 2nd or one fret distance on a guitar): Think of the famous tension building riff from Jaws
  • A whole step (Major 2nd or two frets on a guitar): Think of the change from Happy to Birthday in the happy birthday song
  • 1-6-4: Think of the NBC theme song. It features the root (1) then a Major 6th up and down to a perfect 4th away from the root.
  • A perfect fifth: This is the interval we know and love as the “power chord”. I like to think of this elevator music riff. Um if you listen to the episode, I try to sing it. You’ll know the one.
  • Octave: Think of Somewhere from Somewhere Over the Rainbow
  • Tri-tone: I call this the Black Sabbath interval but it has an even more sinister history 

Enjoy the episodes!

Vadim Kharaz

Vadim Kharaz mixes and produces music through his studio Calm Frog Recording.

He co-hosts the DIY Recording Guys podcast with Benjamin Hull because he knows that with a bit of knowledge and minimal gear, it’s possible for DIY musicians everywhere to get pro-quality recordings.