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Music Computer Tutorial

:: Music Theory (II)


The importance of chords in creating our music is that they fill out the sound, add mood, and perhaps, keep rhythm. Chords are two or more notes being played together. In the previous section about scales, we discussed the system of numbering the notes in a chromatic scale with roman numerals. In this section, we will use those numbers to create recipes for chords. Take any note, for example C, and look at the chromatic scale in numeral form:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

To create a "C major" chord you would play C-E-G, or the numerals I-III-V. So to make a major chord, the recipe is the first, third, and fifth notes of the major scale. The images below show this chord in music notation and as it is played on a keyboard.

C Major Chord C Major chord

This is a list of some other chord recipes:

Major --> I, III, V
Minor --> I, IIIb, V
Sixth --> I, III, V, VI
Seventh --> I, III, V, VIIb
Major seventh --> I, III, V, VII
Diminished --> I, IIIb, Vb, VI
Augmented --> I, III, V#
Minor seventh --> I, IIIb, V, VIIb

And this is an example of how they sound - in the same order than the list - : chords.mp3

When playing these chords, the order of the notes can be changed, so there are different ways of playing the same chord. These modes are called inversions and each will sound slightly different. For instance, the "C major" chord could be played [I, III, V], [III, V, I], [V, III, I], etc... Also, it is not necessary to play full chords; often some notes of the chord will be all you need.

Chords are used in several ways. When played rhythmically as in strumming a guitar, they can help keep the beat, or play counter rhythms. If you think of an organ or string section, you will see that they are then used to fill the sound, to add depth and mood. Listen to the sample chords and see how they sound. What type of mood does each suggest to you? I think the minor chords feel sad or mysterious, the diminished are suspensful, sixths are airy, sevenths are happy, etc... So you can use chords to give your music a certain feeling or mood.

A certain way to play the notes of a chord is in arpeggio: instead of playing them simultaneously, they are played in a rapid succession. If you are familiarized with synthesizers you surely have often seen an arpeggiator bank on those, which automatically creates those effectist arpeggiated melodies so typical in electronic music. In the image below you can see the arpeggiator of the legendary synth MiniMogue VA and the available adjusts; the arpeggiator can be set to play the arpegios down or up, this is, playing the notes from bass to treble or vice versa; the speed selector, set in beats per measure, indicates how the arpeggiator will fit the duration of the notes in the measures, this is, how much notes (beats) will it play in each measure; and it also has a gate that allows to mute some of the beats, creating this way different rythmic patterns, if we want; leaving the gate off would allow the arpeggiator to play all the beats. And that is all, basically...


So, hopefully, you have mastered the basics of creating tracks in a music sequencer, and learned a little about music. Available music sequencers and virtual studios offer a wide range of features, and you should check out their help files to explore these, before harassing your poor friends and relatives with never-ending questions...

Up until now, we have been working with a recognizable melody. How would you create your own music? Everybody has a different approach, and I can only offer some suggestions. Maybe do you need some background music for a game that you created, or for any other project, and have no idea where to start? I can suggest you this path of work:

Look first at what speed (tempo) do you want the music. Is it a fast moving game or video? Perhaps you want to set the tempo at a speed similar to a racing heartbeat. Once you have a tempo in mind, you can set a simple drum or bass beat and develop the theme around it. What style or feel are you trying to create? Try to find which scales are more appropiate for the melodies. What instruments would be adequate for the style of the composition? Tune your ear to listen to what each instrument is playing, and how it fits into the song as a whole. Above all, just experiment. Put down some notes, see how they sound, rearrange them, etc...

Remember that, while we have worked with four basic tracks, not all of them are always necessary, and to a degree are interchangeable. For instance, a thumping bass can often keep the beat as effectively as drums. Some very beautiful music has been written for only one or two instruments. On the other hand, with software and midi technologies, you can add as many tracks as you wish: you have an entire orchestra at your command.

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