82: Music Theory 201 – Modes and Moods

If you’ve just been sticking to open guitar chords and pentatonic scales then you’re cooking with salt and pepper. What if you had a whole arsenal of spices to work with? Sure you might make some weird meals at first but you’d probably also make some pretty memorable ones – and over time, you’d learn when to use (and not use) certain spices. Hint: NEVER use star anise. That stuff will ruin anything. 

In the last episode Ben gave us a high level overview and what’s included in this monster we call “music theory”. 

This time, he pulls out his guitar and talks about specific modes, scales and paths from note to note which allow us (as songwriters and performers) to change the mood or character of a composition or performance. 

You will learn:

  • What the difference is between a major scale and a minor scale and how to convert one to the other. 
  • Some helpful memory techniques for distinguishing intervals (these even work for the relatively tone deaf)
  • What the different modes within a key are and some helpful memory joggers from pop culture
  • Ways for guitarists and bassists to use modes
  • Chord notations. How to interpret what you see in chord charts and why you don’t need memorization to figure out what to p lay
  • The secret behind why power chords and pentatonic scales are always safe bets to get you out of jams (like salt and pepper in cooking)

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.