Ambient and Music Theory

I’ve been listening to a lot of Eurorack ambient these days, Emily Sprague, 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 and what’s the role of the Grid and monome scripts in this way of writing music? 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 … I just know that many of the early ambient pioneers were perfectly trained musicians well versed in what they do.

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. Sometimes it’s even perfect voice leading, almost baroque techniques involved besides all the sound design - at least that’s what it sounds like. Chance or strategy?

I have posted this also over at Muffwiggler and would love to see a discussion in the Monome community, as the Monome devices do add so much to this style of music.


I don’t mean to contradict you, but I want us to in this discussion hold on to that Brian Eno assertion of himself as a non-musician. Indeed, Brian Eno has had no formal music theory training, and his whole schtick for saying so is that it’s not necessary.

And I strongly agree; music theory training is not necessary for making beautiful, even harmonic music.

I’ll defer to some of the good people you mention in your post to talk about their process more if they’d like, but maybe I’ll share a challenge I’ve had when writing music. (It’s actually something I’m still negotiating.)

I have an undergraduate degree’s worth of classical training—so both more than some on this forum but definitely less than others. I also love pop music. When I was studying harmony and voice-leading, I noticed that whenever I would try to follow the prescriptions of my textbook to the letter while trying to make pop or dance songs I would end up with something that sounded way too “cheesy”, for lack of a better word. This bothered me, so I spent actually a good amount of effort trying to understand the chords in songs that I really liked and how they fit together and I realized that maybe they were following some music theoretical rules, but they weren’t rules that I was going to be taught, so I would have to learn the rules of “pop music theory” by studying songs I liked and trying to see what sounded good.

my point isn’t to toot my own horn at all, but just to say that I used to have this conception that if I could learn some rules for how to fit notes and chords together, I would be able to write good songs. I learned “the” rules and I still couldn’t write a good pop song with them. Now my thinking is more along the lines of learning what sounds good to me by trying a lot of different approaches.

I put “pop music theory” in quotes because my perspective on this is that theory follows practice. I bet you that Brian Eno is far from the only musician working today whose knowledge of music is more experiential (“that chord progression sounds good”) than theoretical.

I’m excited to hear more perspectives!


*desperately tries to leave horn un-tooted *


It seems to me that a lot of ambient music is made of slow, simple harmonic movements, and that a large part of the composition actually resides in sound design and rhythm (especially in the land of “Eurorack ambient”, as the tool requires the composer to explicitly craft their own sound). This interpretation is very likely biased, as I’ve observed that I am far more attentive to timbre than harmony, and that my ear might be too poorly trained to latch onto complex musical patterns that escape my perception.

I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s impressions on this.


:weary: I was hoping to come across as “I have relevant personal experience” and also “I’m not an expert,” which is honestly all I ever am shooting for on lines. I used to think I did a good job of that but lately I have no idea


“Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.”
― Claude Debussy

Anyway, I’m no music theory expert by any means, but the impression I get of this sort of sound (while currently listening to something very different and only working from memory and speculation) is that it’s mostly about minimizing dissonance and keeping chord voicings open/spread out. It seems like many songs in this vein are essentially one-chord drones, with the movement coming from gradual level and timbre changes and gentle rhythmic pulsing.

I don’t know the process those particular musicians use, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it comes down to “this sounds pretty.”

I know at least one of Lightbath’s recent-ish videos went into some detail about gear, process, creative choices, performing and recording the patch etc. and if I remember right, the theory was on the level of “fourths and fifths sound nice” with no need for more complex rules.


As another person with a music degree (composition, though that was over a decade ago), my few thoughts about this are, roughly:
.it can be nice to learn things in order to know what you don’t like, and often specific training can either be a hurdle that you realize you don’t want to leap, or that once you get past the hurdle, you look back and say, “well, I don’t really like what this side has to offer, now I know”
.most of what looks/sounds like “music theory” can easily be handled by a quantizer
.most of what makes up “music theory” in schools are descriptions of how people wrote music 150-300 years ago, as @alanza put it “theory follows practice,” i.e., the music was written before it was described
.that said, study is a great tool, and I would look to the influences of the people making music these days, like Brian Eno, Steve Reich, John Cage, John Luther Adams, others, and see how their work has split off from more academic music
.in part, ambient music and many precursors to electronic music were precisely trying to be ‘un-musical’ in the sense that they were departing from the academy
.academic music itself has made very strong departures from the caricatures of proper voice-leading and fugues, so that’s also a fruitful lesson (it does sound cheesy!)
.I think what I’ve garnered the most from thinking of my music in an academic or theoretical way is form and structure, and how to listen
.learning how to play any instrument is music theory, in a sense; play a ‘G’ chord on a guitar and the intervals and harmonics are built in, the understanding is felt by doing it, it’s more difficult to teach a ‘G’ chord through music theory


Isn’t there a category bias sort of problem here? You’re labeling these acts “Eurorack ambient” because they’re not as noisy, disharmonic, etc. - presumably, you would call those noisy or disharmonic acts something like Eurorack drone, Eurorack noise, Eurorack experimental, whatever.

I’ve often found these terminologies very muddled. In practice, I’m not entirely sure these artists care to be grouped together, or be seen as part of a unified scene, or be described in this (not super flattering, in my opinion) way. If you consider yourself an innovative sound artist working on exploring timbre and space, etc. it’s probably not too inspiring to hear your music being defined primarily by overt melody/harmony.


I do think the named artists have a lot in common. They do all use Eurorack (sometimes the modules are very recognizable), they do all make ambient music, and they do pretty frequently have a sort of common harmonic aesthetic among them, even though the music they create is also recognizably different from each other.

Categorization and comparisons happen, regardless of what the artist thinks of it. If you look at r beny’s YouTube page, you’ll see “related channels: ann annie, Lightbath, Emily Sprague” right at the top (and likewise for any of the four).

As categorizations go, this is better than Google calling everything “Dance/Electronic.”

Anyway, further thoughts while listening to an Emily Sprague album: first, why haven’t I listened to this before? I like the textures she’s using :slight_smile: Second, the sense I get in at least some of this music is a harmonic series – a root frequency and everything else is an integer multiple. That leads to a little bit of dissonance once the multiples go high enough, but it has the root still tying it together.


It’s just an observation that there is a certain trend towards smooth ambient by Eurorack and Monome users. This music is inspired by the pioneers of ambient and it is very melodic and uses great harmonies. It may not be a genre yet, but there are more and more people going for this sound, getting deep reverbs, delays and Mangroves. And it raises the question whether the production tools are also stimulating this kind of sound.

it’s probably not too inspiring to hear your music being defined primarily by overt melody/harmony.

I regard this as a compliment. Forward thinking music does not have to sound disharmonic. Many of these artists are both great composers and sound sculptors.


How you had hoped to come across was exactly how you did come across, imo :slight_smile:


echoing a lot of people here when they say a lot of composition comes down to practice. In my experience I’ve had much more success practicing the composition side on more of a “human played instrument”. I believe all four of the artists you’re mentioning had a lot of experience playing guitar in bands before starting into the “ambient music genre”.

but I do think it is best to supplement practice with a bit of knowledge. It sounds like I have pretty similar taste to @Trigga at least in terms of harmony. something that sort of opened up my mind was understanding harmonic intervals. moving between something minimally dissonant like a fourth or a 6th then back to the hella-harmonic root and 5th is used a lot in this style. there are also often very few notes in the song probably (maybe 3-5, but the best composers will do a “chord change” move and switch out those notes). the octaves of those few notes will be used quite a bit though. ultimately I don’t find thinking about Harmony in terms of chords is too useful here, it’s kind of all just one chord. It’s like condensing the “key” of a song to a “chord” and a “chord change” to a “key change”. that analogy works pretty well for me.

also, not saying you are in this zone or not, but I would strongly advise against characterizing these artists by modular or the gear they use. compositionally, this sound can be achieved with really any setup, and in my experience often a simpler setup than what these artists use, even just a laptop, works better. but that’s totally up to personal taste and discovery.


i think information is good. music theory is really, really good to know. how ever you come by that information – through formal training, intuitively by ear or whatever the case may be it is good to know. helps you get from point a to b more efficiently. another point i think is relevant here is that many of these artists have plenty of non-modular music out as well and that music often shares a similar harmonic / compositiononal sensibility to the modular stuff.


I think a lot of more traditional musicians would talk about theory being a tool to analyse and talk about “What happened”

It’s just a tool though - it’s useful to know what sounds other people figured work together and are interesting (because let’s face it that’s all we are talking about - it’s not magic - it’s just a notation that says “this tone and this tone and this tone followed by this tone and this tone and this tone - sound quite cool” :slight_smile: )

Is it useful for ambient - of course - because it might take you places you wouldn’t go otherwise. Might you without knowing it happen upon constructs (chords , harmonies) that theory talks about - of course - you are making music. Can you be overly theoretical sticking to the rules and not letting the music come through - yes.

I sometimes will pick a rule or construct I’ve been reading or watching youtube videos about so as to explore an idea for a piece - but I’ll just as often follow my nose as it where - if you listen in the latest tracks thread to the two tracks I posted yesterday - one is a simple chord sequence, knowingly “pretty” (by my standards anyway) - the other I’ve no idea what was going on - it just came to me and I played what sounded right - the notes were often what you’d consider discords but because of the patch they worked nicely


My mother in law taught me that if you use every other white key on a piano keyboard, you can create chords. I read a handful of books on harmony, but that one comment she made to me off hand is pretty much the basis for my continuing modular doo-daddery.

Your mileage may vary.


I had a tape in the 80s that I bought from someone selling (lovely, mellow) flutes and their own recordings at rennaisance faires. Both sides were 100% acoustic drones, entirely in the same chord on both sides, with just subtle shifts in the balance between instruments/notes. Compositionally it is quite similar to this music.

But I do think there’s a reason these artists chose modular to make this music, and not, say, guitar and reverb pedals, or laptops, or flutes.

I’ve seen this resistance to referring to music or musicians as “modular” in a few places, and it baffles me a bit. Do people think that makes it seem less authentic or less musical, or implies that the artist is less skilled? I haven’t seen similar complaints about “guitar ambient” or “acoustic drone” or the like, but maybe I just hang out in the wrong forums to see that :wink:


you certainly won’t be making a schoneberg piece with this technique, but if your main interest is in timbre I certainly think this can take you pretty far. my advice would be to find more patters in that vein to switch it up!


I would personally recommend listening (maybe some would call it active listening), and when you hear something you like figure out what it is. You didn’t mention what your background is exactly, but it seems like you at least know that music is/can be made out of chords and melodies. If you have a traditional instrument you can play, try to use it to figure out what the chord progressions or melodies are that peak your interest and then apply those to a euro thing or a synth thing or however you want to do that part.

I guess what I’m really getting as is what @junklight was talking about as well. Generally it’s best to come up with great music and then figure out how you made it, maybe so you can explain it to someone else. I’d say it’s often more difficult to come up with a great music theory conceptualization and play it and afterwards end up with some great music.

I think you’ll find your most important answers this way.


Seems like the chord theory really matters when you have a melody.

My friend who I work with in the studio produces for indie bands and he is classically trained but I have non. What he has said though when working with me, is when I’m creating sequences is that he could never of come up with the melody I chose as he says I’m listening to it from a non education point of view and I’m just listening to what I enjoy.