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Ambient and Music Theory
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Author Ambient and Music Theory
Trigga
I've been listening to a lot of Eurorack ambient these days, R. Beny, Lightbath, Ann Annie etc. What I found is that this style is overly harmonic and melodic far from the more noisy and disharmonic bleeps and blops style which is also around.
I wonder, how you get these smooth evolving harmonic and melodic patterns via Eurorack? Would be great if people could open their production processes a bit and let us know whether there is a lot of actual music theory involved (what I suppose) or whether it's just jamming ...

In fact, to me it seems to get quality harmonic and melodic sounding recordings you have to be a very good musician in the non-euro world, as this stuff is often almost classical and sometimes lending exotic scales etc.
ayruos
A lot of times these are actually coming from the modules themselves - look at this walkthrough from Lightbath, the harmonic relationships between the scales both in the frequency domain are available with a sweep of a knob on the new Tides.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tg4j0LQ6TvI&t

However, stuff available through a sweep of a knob can only get you so far though! But, knowing musical theory by heart is also not a requirement - if you can tune by ear and can sequence a scale that sounds melodic and harmonicto you - you don't necessarily need to know what that scale is, do you?

There are lots of modules these days that help in these sort of compositions, programmable quantisers, of course, but also a lot of modules come pre-programmed with their CV outputs available as melodic functions - apart from Tides, I think Marbles can also be set to be quantised to a scale (not sure!).

The non noisy nature comes from the oscillators too - and the relationships of their transients.

A very good example is using the 4ms spectral multiband resonator - the module can be quantised to a band of a scale (comes pre-programmed and can be tuned to custom scales as well) and thus it's resonating the frequencies that makes sense in a scale and removing the disharmonic content.

But again, modules can only get you so far - at the end of the day you are the conductor of your rack, and you decide what it does. But that doesn't mean you need to know classical music theory.

Here's a favourite video of mine - Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith explaining her setup. I love the fact that there are so many STOs (I mean, really, how many STOs are too many STOs?) and they are tuned to different relative pitches to each other, going in and out throug the RxMx and making one of the melodic lines. Beautiful!

https://youtu.be/fcb-xv174GM
Trigga
Thank you for your insights! I'll check teh Tides video. Unfortunately, the Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith video is not online anymore...

Yes there are the modules and there is your feel/pitch. It seems to me that one has to re-think writing music on modular. I come from writing songs on guitar which I find easy and a non-thinking process. I sit down, lay down the chords and come up with a melody. With Eurorack it's different as it is not really chord based due to the nature of most modules being monophonic. This makes me want to know the scale prior to the rest of the process. Just like in classical music. E.g. laying a foundation with the 4 MS SMR and staying within its scale bed.

Speaking of the 4 SMR: I got this module and it's quite tricky to master, as you really have to watch out what each scale does and it can become quite redundant when used the standard way.
ayruos
Oops, I made a typo on the second youtube link - it's fixed now!

And yes, writing music on the modular is it's own process, something even I'm coming to terms with now. But it's not totally different from the process of making music with the guitar, as you describe.

If you're laying down the chords first, then you're already limiting yourself to a scale as a chord is nothing but the relationships between the notes of the scale, usually a 1-3-5. With different chords, if they're not on the same musical mode relationship, then you're further restricting and making the scale even smaller - and then you're melody line is coming from those notes that make up that scale which give rise to those chords...

Coming back to the modular, if you're writing your melody first, as what is often done, the relationship between the notes of the notes of the melody determine what chords will go with it... even if you don't have a chord module, but are using two other oscillators, the easiest chord there would be the root and the fifth of the scale that's making up the melody. Now the melody determines what type the scale + the chord is, does it have a minor third? Then you're in minor territory. No? Then you're in major. Neither? Then you're free to assume, or use sus2/sus4 chords. Once you determine that, then comes the rest of the notes.

Once you know the rest of the notes, you know the scale, and therefore you know the chords that go with it.

Of course, it's not as easy as it sounds. I've come to realize that going by ear is far better than trying to analyse everything. I try to not think of them as chords and melodies either (I do have a Telharmonic that does play chords!) but listen to the relationship between the different sound sources that I have. If I find it pleasing, I move on. If I don't then I start changing the knobs/the CV sources/etc until things start to make sense again.

I'm not sure if any of this helps though! I do think everything realizes their own workflows from enough wiggling and understanding how each module they own reacts how and what sound they're after.
Trigga
Thanks for your reflections!

You are right, all relationships between notes are chords in some way. The thing is, when composing on the guitar or even the piano you got your safety net and crutches of chord figures, scale patterns on the fretboard etc. In modular it's much more based on pitch and the actual capacity of listening, as you have to tune everything yourself. Sure, quantisers may help, but still it's a much more free form process. And here is hwere I'm often getting lost. Maybe I have to forget about classical musical theory. In fact, that's what the West Coast philosophy was all about ...

Quote:
I try to not think of them as chords and melodies either (I do have a Telharmonic that does play chords!) but listen to the relationship between the different sound sources that I have. If I find it pleasing, I move on. If I don't then I start changing the knobs/the CV sources/etc until things start to make sense again.


In fact this may be the key to the modular world. But I'm having a lot of respect for those ambient composers who may also know exactly what they are doing, what key they're in etc.

The video by Lightbath is great!
Panason
This forum is awesome.

I've been playing a wooden flute- a drone flute in fact. It seems to awaken my sense of melody and i can "find" tunes easier if I play it every now and then.
Also, overtone / throat singing/chanting.

I suppose the same effect can be had by taking up the piano or any "real" instrument... but I feel that singing and wind instruments offer the best results to begin with.

I'm pretty sure most of the more famous electronic musicians have a background in music.
Sunden
one really easy way to create structure/evolution in an ambient piece is to work within a scale, but always restricted to some “mask” of that scale - eg notes from a single chord within it. If you are working on longer, slower/evolving ambient, then 3-4 notes and their octaves should be enough for a section - when you are ready to change the energy/feel, you can then create evolution in your piece by slowly changing your scale mask, eventually ending up at a new chord. So for instance if you are working in Cmin, then your initial scale mask might be C-Eb-G, but when you are ready to change, maybe introduce the 7th, so now your scale mask is C-Eb-G-B, then maybe add in the 4th, C-Eb-F-G-B, then drop out the Eb for C-F-G-B, then add in the 2nd for C-D-F-G-B, drop out the root and you are now at G-B-D-F, so you’ve arrived at a 7th chord for G, still in our appropriate scale. You can then slowly work your way to another chord with no notes in common with the original C triad, and then maybe back to the G chord, and then back to the C chord. So much of traditional harmony can be boiled down to transitions from the Fifth back to the Root, and it really can be a great compositional structure.

The challenge then will all come down to how you actually algorithmically select notes from your various voices!

Guiding yourself through these slow harmony changes is a great exercise though and can really shift the energy in a while oatch without actually changing the modulation structure of the patch.

I recommend you check out a module like the Ornament and Crime, which has some great scale mask rotation options, or the teletype, which can let you really dig into algorithmic note sequencing.
Trigga
Quote:
one really easy way to create structure/evolution in an ambient piece is to work within a scale, but always restricted to some “mask” of that scale


A great tip, which many ambient composers seem to practice.

I come from pop/rock music where you have a chord change every bar/every second bar. So ambient is a totally different concept. And in modular it's getting even more complex due to all the chance effects and polyrhythmic textures.

I can recommend listening to the pioneers of ambient who sounded modular long before eurorack ... e.g. Iasos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkaFYZv2LyM[/video]
His compositions are really deep and it's all played by hand. His music is quite a reference point when it comes to the ambient sound. I remember reading that he didn't even use synthesizers in the beginning, just effects, voice, acoustic instruments ... genius.
Sunden
Yeah Iasos is a classic. The work of Laurie Spiegel and JD Emmanuel is another super inspiring place to look.
matthewjuran
The timbre and frequency range of each voice is a consideration too.

Are you familiar with how these sounds can be separated into a set of sine waves that vary by frequency? How a voice looks this way (how the sines are mathematically related) has a perception effect similar but different than chords of a same voice. This is timbre.

In all kinds of music with more than one voice there’s consideration for mixing. If voices overlap in frequency range then a "muddy mix" dissonance might happen. In electronic instruments filters remove parts of the input frequency range and can be a tool to help make a more pleasing mix by separating voice frequencies.

For Eurorack the concept of voices can be finer than with other instruments, it can be like your guitar strings can each sound like a different instrument (depending on your patch and modules). You have to look for pleasant timbres and frequency ranges in addition to the chords.
thevegasnerve
matthewjuran wrote:
The timbre and frequency range of each voice is a consideration too.

Are you familiar with how these sounds can be separated into a set of sine waves that vary by frequency? How a voice looks this way (how the sines are mathematically related) has a perception effect similar but different than chords of a same voice. This is timbre.

In all kinds of music with more than one voice there’s consideration for mixing. If voices overlap in frequency range then a "muddy mix" dissonance might happen. In electronic instruments filters remove parts of the input frequency range and can be a tool to help make a more pleasing mix by separating voice frequencies.

For Eurorack the concept of voices can be finer than with other instruments, it can be like your guitar strings can each sound like a different instrument (depending on your patch and modules). You have to look for pleasant timbres and frequency ranges in addition to the chords.


good points, one of the reasons I love filters for example, they can really help craft a sound to sit in the frequency range of a jam or recording. same goes for timbre as you mention, switching wave forms, etc..
Lux A Turner
Trigga wrote:
...exotic scales etc.

Use the internet to identify Middle C on a keyboard, then play it, followed by the seven white notes to the right of it. You have just played the scale of C major.

Now do the same thing, but start with a different white note - one that isn't Middle C. You have now played an exotic scale.

Experiment with different starting notes ("roots"), until you find a scale (or group of notes within a scale) that appeals to you. Then make a tune from that scale / group of notes.

Then experiment with playing pairs / trios of notes from within that scale / note group together. Try adding black notes, to see which ones (if any) sound cool, or evoke the feeling you are trying to create.

It really is that simple.

Years ago, when I was a kid, me and my mates used to argue with our parents that our rock/pop idols were actually really great musicians, because they used all these exotic chords in their songs. Later we found out that some of them had 'just' tuned their guitars in non-standard ways, through experimentation; or marked their keyboards with bits of coloured tape, to indicate notes which sounded great when played together.

You really don't have to 'know' anything about music at all... wink
circuitousvibes
This topic intrigued me because I was classically educated in Music Comp and Theory. And I have been working for years to completely eliminate that theory, while still playing ambient that is harmonically and melodically pleasing! No easy feat.

To me, Music theory was all about learning the building blocks of tonal music, to then move to the "rules" of harmony and voice leading. This eventually leads to a much deeper understanding of counterpoint (fugues), sonata form, and eventually Schenkerian analysis.

Because I was a keyboarding who dabbled in jazz and standards, I found that I was going back to hackneyed changes and subs all the time, which is fun, but unoriginal, and oftentimes under appreciated in a live setting.

When deciding to buy electronic instruments, I unflinchingly decided to get as far away from keyboards as possible, to avoid falling into the same old harmonic traps. I was too familiar with the rules of harmony and voice leading, and it was stifling!

I am now heavily dependent on the Electron Analog Four, and while yes, it does have a set of buttons to represent one octave, and these function as notes, I do not think about harmonic chords or melody like I used to: the Electron instruments are too limiting to be messing about as I normally would.

I have also thought heavily about what notes and chords (and melody) even means. Because I learned about the power of requencies, and the correlation between meditation and chakra work, I started to think about the concept of "key" in a different way.

Simply put, I create sounds based in A, and I focus on the A Major chord, often times in A Maj 7. I will offset this chord with f# min 7, and also cary texture with D Maj (7). I also create melody or complimentary notes by working in the pentatonic scale in A. That way, I am less reliant on voice leading, or melody that is expected or reminiscent of another melody.

Indeed, once I get the notes part of the composition out of the way, I mess about with variation in sequencing, frequency range, filtering, etc. In other words, I am looking for textural variation, not melodic and chord variation. I am looking for unexpected, quirky sounds, with unexpected and jumbled rhythms. In effect, it all sort of creates a homophonic pleasantness to it, because there is no hook, no real melody, no verse, chord, verse, chorus, bridges etc.

And I have one module (MI Rings) to help vary the texture with melodies that ring out about the pads and swirls.

In short, I learned a lot about the language of Western tonality, and have worked hard to try and forget it, while still retaining some of the lessons. I hope that makes sense.
MindMachine
matthewjuran wrote:
The timbre and frequency range of each voice is a consideration too.

Are you familiar with how these sounds can be separated into a set of sine waves that vary by frequency? How a voice looks this way (how the sines are mathematically related) has a perception effect similar but different than chords of a same voice. This is timbre.

In all kinds of music with more than one voice there’s consideration for mixing. If voices overlap in frequency range then a "muddy mix" dissonance might happen. In electronic instruments filters remove parts of the input frequency range and can be a tool to help make a more pleasing mix by separating voice frequencies.

For Eurorack the concept of voices can be finer than with other instruments, it can be like your guitar strings can each sound like a different instrument (depending on your patch and modules). You have to look for pleasant timbres and frequency ranges in addition to the chords.


Along these lines, VC Crossfaders, VCA's and mute switches can introduce and de-select whole voices or timbre shifts. Even effects mixes.
eddh
I think a big deal in these tonal ambient things is MI Rings.

I've patched a tonal drone like setup with Rings, Manis Iteriras and a Model D witch control CV coming from Noise Engineerings Mimetic Ditigalis:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN4kzzgHKFI&frags=pl%2Cwn

I learned the basics of the tonal system at school etc.... but don't know the circle of fifths by heart.

Rings has this nice feature (when in orange mode), to have bigger areas to hit a tone in scale of the root tone over the range of the "structure" knob (in the video, the green one).
I feel like sometimes its hard to not sound nice with Rings... thats why it had a longer break (some months) from staying not in my main rack.

And the other thing to change the whole "drone root tone" is the Mimetic Digitalis in my case... 4 CV outputs individualli tuned and simply forwarded 1 step by hitting the button.
sillyhatsclub
this is an awesome thread. we seem to share a list of inspirations and as someone who doesn't have much music theory background, i'm finding a lot of useful stuff here.
Panason
Lux A Turner wrote:


You really don't have to 'know' anything about music at all... wink


I'm not sure if this entirely correct and the post that follows it perhaps supports my doubts.

I taught myself how to play percussion because i was able to understand rhythm as a language... but I know there are a lot of things I have not discovered that could be explained to me by a teacher in a couple of hours.

When it comes to melody and harmony I think trying to play it by ear puts one at a serious disadvantage- trying to re-invent the wheel in a sense.

Once you know the rules you can bend them....

I'm just about to graduate from the minor pentatonic!
operator808
eddh wrote:


I've patched a tonal drone like setup with Rings, Manis Iteriras and a Model D witch control CV coming from Noise Engineerings Mimetic Ditigalis:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN4kzzgHKFI&frags=pl%2Cwn



Really enjoyed that. Curious to know if and how you're using the Mimetic Digitalis to change the pitch of the root bass note.

xx
cycad73
Music theory is a great tool just as long as you don't take it too seriously as having any ultimate meaning in terms of what music should or shouldn't be.

counterpoint, harmony, tone rows, ragas, African polyrhythms are like oscillators, filters, delay modules -- abstract machines or open circuits to use/not use/abuse, to patch together in all kinds of convoluted feedback routings

theory can form part of one's extended body or interface (consider theoryboard, or many other kickstarters). consider in the future even drugs or manipulations of the genetic code to influence one's sensibilities toward particular chords, scales, rhythms.

in other words, treat theory just like the 'material' theory tries to claim -- refuse only the claim that theory has over its material, not the theory itself.

music is at its most vital when thought as "sonic fiction" .. in this way, it should have the same relation to music theory as science fiction does to scientific theories and in particular the scientific method.


.
Panason
cycad73 wrote:
manipulations of the genetic code to influence one's sensibilities toward particular chords, scales, rhythms.


that's a bit too hardcore for me! eek!
artieTwelve
Trigga wrote:
TUnfortunately, the Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith video is not online anymore...


If you are referring to ayruos's link in his post, it works fine for me.

https://youtu.be/fcb-xv174GM

Also, I'm getting a ton of new ideas from the Patch & Tweak book by Bjorn and Meyer. Well worth the $85 IMHO. I got my copy from Patchwerks in Seattle. They got it in my hands in two days and I'm in Baltimore.

http://store.patchwerks.com/item/patch-tweak-book
shreddoggie
It is very beneficial to understand what exists in nature, what has been 'bent' and what has been entirely made up. This is not a clean continuum nor does anything adhere exactly to these categories. Almost all musical practices have evolved from a basis in natural acoustic phenomena into flavored systems.

Music theory is an enormous subject but many dilettantes treat it as if it is an arbitrary set of rules created by some old euro in a powdered wig. Understanding the 8ve is crucial. Understanding 3:1 and 4:1 on down the line is extremely helpful. Eventually, with a grounding in elemental acoustic phenomena one can begin to appreciate the basis of the so-called rules, why they exist, how they came about, and what bending and breaking them actually is.

re: Ambient - Pandiatonicism is a very common approach, indeed it is what many people in this thread are referring to, and would be an excellent area of inquiry, made in reference to the basic acoustic principles referred to above.
felixer
well most of this ambient is just an extension on a drone. so start off with that. even if you don't use it in th end. set up a nice big, low sound. with some nice random modulation of timbre. and then simply experiment with other sounds. get some rhytm (or pulse) going and modulate various aspects of those sounds. this can get as complicated as you like. any sort of hand percussion is good too. although you would need a mic to record that. often an item which is sadly missing in an 'analog studio'.
and obviously some theory can be advantagous. nor that difficult, really.
noisejockey
I was having a discussion with a friend with a graduate degree in music composition about how we each start pieces, and to my surprise, we did the same thing: Noodle, find a riff or progression, decide that's the direction. Then "back it into a key." Sometimes that means changing a note in the original, or diminishing or augmenting one of the notes in the scale to fit. That way you get that intuitive wandering around discovery thing that feels great, but then you get it into a framework where the initial notion can be extended and built upon, especially if you want to shift to complementary keys later (which I don't do all that much TBH).

That works great with keyboards and stringed instruments; for modular, I tend to pick a starting key on a quantizer, find something I did, shift around between related keys to see if something sounds better, then settle in and start extending the basics that I devised.
lauprellim
I’ve been reading this thread with interest. I think that the idea of “dropping” or at least backgrounding one’s theory knowledge while performing, composing or improvising is a fairly common and useful thing, to be sure — there isn’t enough cognitive brain space to work intellectually when one is in the midst of an intuitive process. Still, it’s telling how many of you write that theory informs your decisions in the moment (to some degree), and I definitely feel the same way when I’m in the thick of it all.

However, one thing I’d like to emphasize — music theory is not really a set of “rules”. Unfortunately, this is exactly how a lot of theory teachers try to teach it, though. “Rules” are really only guidelines for a particular style. Avoid parallel fifths? Fine, if you are after the style of common-practice tonal music (and by the way, one can find many parallel fifths in traditional tonal music as Brahms was quick to point out). Use mostly seventh chords and an occasional triad? Fine, if you’re after a mid-20th century jazz style — but not if you’re going to compose circa 1570!

The problem is that music theory teachers often get wrapped up in a false rule-based approach, without understanding that what they are really teaching are guidelines. And even then, these guidelines are only a means to an end. Guidelines are collated from a consistent and coherent genre of music. There are common practices for House, for Techno, for every other genre of music that has some sort of intertextual consistency. But stylistic guidelines are not there for their own sake, nor are they forever etched in stone as some great immutable Law. The greatest composers and musicians don’t write rule books — they write music. This is where J.S. Bach was so right on the money. He never wrote any “textbook” but he wrote *pieces*. Damn good ones, too! His pieces are his textbooks, and you can learn more from that than most any textbook!

Thanks all of you for a really interesting thread and I hope to come back to check in again soon.
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