Ambient and Music Theory


That’s a pretty helpful post for me… cheers for that. I have the same issue with some of my stuff just sounding cheesy, and you’re right… to break the mould you just have to reverse-engineer the stuff you like for new ideas.


That pretty much sums it up, and from an early master of ambient composition.
Even better, can be applied to all creative endeavours!


I do my music making with Ableton rather than modulars, but this is a topic near and dear to my heart.

When we talk about “music theory,” that might mean one of several different things. In most college and high school music classes, music theory is a formalized description of the harmonic preferences of Western European aristocrats in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If you take this description as a rule set, you can produce music that follows Western European conventions of that era, which to contemporary people sounds pleasant, but boring and stodgy. These conventions will probably not to be very useful to you in producing loop-based music, because they presume that you’re working with linear structures of tension and resolution, and the whole point of current electronic music is to avoid those structures. It’s not a complete waste of your time to learn Euroclassical theory, but it’s not adequate for producer purposes.

The more progressive schools also offer jazz theory, which is a formalized description of the harmonic preferences of African-American musicians and their white imitators in the United States in the twentieth century. Jazz theory is a superset of late nineteenth and early twentieth century classical practice, together with the blues, which is not well explained by Western tonal theory. Jazz theory is significantly more useful than classical theory to producers of electronic music, because concepts like chord extensions, unresolved dissonances, fourths chords and blues tonality all apply very well. However, jazz theory is mostly concerned with using V-I cadences to establish key centers, and in electronic music you rarely find cadences at all. (Instead you establish key centers through repetition, or there is no unambiguous key center.) Learning jazz theory will get you closer to where you want to be, but it will still leave some holes in your understanding.

Finally, there’s music theory as practiced by current music theorists, especially the more progressive ones who come from “new musicology” or ethnomusicology backgrounds. The idea in current practice is not to try to find universal rule systems that explain everything, the way that classical theorists did in past centuries. Instead, you look at existing musical practice in a particular style or genre, and see what patterns or rules you can derive. Sometimes you might try to use an existing theoretical structure to do your explaining, and sometimes you invent new structures. These people are doing a more formal version of what self-taught bedroom producers do: listen to a lot of real-world music and try to figure it out. This is the kind of music theory that is most useful for people on this thread. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to get your arms around it, because it’s being published in academic journals that are heavy on jargon. The good news is that all the younger and more progressive music theorists are on Twitter, and will happily answer your questions (including me.)

Here are some recommended resources:

Music Theory Online is an open-access online journal that publishes some excellent pop music analyses.

My favorite single book on music theory is Everyday Tonality by Philip Tagg, which encompasses a huge range of pop and vernacular music. It’s dense, but it’s worth the effort.

The blues is the most important harmonic development in the past 150 years, and it is very poorly explained by most music theorists. I did my best to explain it here:

I wrote a quick and dirty guide to some commonly used scales and modes here:

And a guide to making chords from those scales and modes here:

My favorite books on jazz theory are The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine and Something Borrowed Something Blue by Andy Jaffe.

Finally, if you like my approach to music theory, I created some online courses with Soundfly that you might find useful.


Thanks for sharing these links, I’ve been enjoying your blog. Also this gave me a laugh (it’s so true).

E: :fire::fire::fire:


@ Ethan_Hein thanks so much for your reply and links! This is a true goldmine of theory knowledge. Philip Tagg’s approach is really refreshing and makes it easier to grasp music out of the classical spectrum. Have you also done any work on ambient music? I really wonder how eccentric works by Iasos, Steven Halpern, J.D. Emmanuel or Hiroshi Yoshimura would be approached …


Great point. The harmony and musical conventions are strictly learned our preference is learned. I read a story about music shown to natives in the amazon who knew nothing about western music. Apparently the Pscho theme was fun and interesting to them Beethoven was frightening.


Yeah, presenting Western European conventions as if they’re some kind of universal and objective truth is serious educational malpractice. You don’t even have to go to the Amazon rain forest to get wildly differing emotional reactions to tonal harmony; I grew up listening to the blues and pure diatonic harmony sounds less correct to me than parallel fourths and unresolved tritones.


I haven’t done any writing about ambient music, but I should. I’ve been playing around with Paulstretch a lot recently, using it on music that’s familiar to me. The psychological impact of harmony is amazingly different at long time scales. So much music theory is dependent on the limits of your short term memory - meanwhile, ambient music is designed so that each event is so long that you forget what happened before it, and have trouble anticipating what’s going to come next. When I listen to Paulstretched songs, every chord comes to feel like the tonic after it hangs in the air long enough. This seems like a principle that could be generalized. Like, you could establish a tonic three different ways: using functional harmony, like in jazz and classical; through repetition and metrical emphasis, like in rock and blues and funk; or through sheer length of exposure, like in ambient and dance music.


Parallel fourths have never been a problem :wink:

I’m curious about your assertion about Paulstretch! I’ve found that if I’m really focused on the harmony, I can retain the sense of having “left the tonic chord” for a good while, even if the, like, harmonic rhythm is slowed down enormously. This is from listening to common practice music, though; something more like a pop song would likely feel a bit different, since so much of pop harmony is about avoiding settling into any kind of cadence…

All of this reminds me of a thought about using music theory for ambient music. One idea I like to explore when thinking about harmony is from the point of view of song structure. Let me illustrate: many pop songs are crafted around the bridge, and my favorite bridges often have an eye-of-the-storm feeling to them.

If you’ll let me be hyperbolic, the whole point of the rest of the song in these cases is to situate the bridge so that when we reach it its impact is stronger than it could have been on its own, or if the bridge had been a chorus or a verse. That way, if the bridge is really pretty or minimal in some way, it feels special, rather than, like, childish or something.

I like to think of some more experimental or ambient music as stemming from this same idea, just omitting the scaffolding.


@alanza that’s an interesting point about the bridge. I wonder if ambient music has a general structure like Verse chorus bridge chorus? Would it gain anything from this type of structure or maybe the structure is only a tool?

I like to think and plan in this form, but have a hard time with the implementation on modular, the tool makes it difficult.


I think ambient generally is a lot looser with structure, going all the way back to Music for Airports, where the structure comes from tape loops gradually coming in and out of phase with each other. I think that thinking structurally is (in general) a powerful tool for writing music, but it’s not necessary for success.

As for verse/chorus structure on modular… I think this is just a Hard Problem, because you have to effect the Big Change between sections all at once, but if you break that into module-knob-sized bits, it’s just tough to do. I don’t really try to make “full tracks” live with my modular in that way, though, which is I guess my way of sidestepping that problem.

ninja-edit to add: one kind of structure that I think some ambient music will tend to have is more of an “arch”, where your “intro” builds gradually into the rising action of the piece and then we reach a climax and then bring things back down to a conclusion from there. To my ear, Tim Hecker’s 100 Years Ago is a good illustration of this idea.


I think the verse/chorus/bridge/etc. structure is one of those things in music theory that straddles the line between descriptive and prescriptive for many genres.

We don’t hear much about New Age music anymore but I think a lot of that was ambient-meets-pop, in terms of structure.

I agree that ambient tends to be looser about structure. Sometimes there is some sort of development over time, a sort of narrative/dramatic arc. Often it’s just a matter of parts coming in and building up, and then going away and coming back down, along with some shifts in timbre or key or octave.

But I think it was Caterina Barbieri who pointed out recently that this is a Western idea. In some cultures, music isn’t really considered to have a beginning or end, just your perceptual window on an eternal loop or sound :slight_smile:

Generally when I am working on a piece, if I am sequencing in MIDI there might be A, B, C, etc. sections as a result of habit and the way my sequencer works, and I’m likely to return to A or B by the end of the song. But sometimes, the structure is simply AAAAAAA, or ABCDEF. If I’m sequencing entirely in modular and/or improvising then things are just going to flow naturally; the most structure I might decide on in advance is the order in which I will bring parts in.


ABCDEDC do you agree?


@Starthief your suggestion of “narrative arc” in ambient music reminds me of Freytag’s Triangle and how this could tools for building ambient musical performance.


I think of ambient more in terms of narrative or journey, rather than any song structure. Perhaps because I’ve worked in film sound design a lot over the years.

Wasn’t that one of Eno’s original influences for his ambient work - background film score, but without the image?


I was recently talking with a friend about how useful it would be to have a sort of “music theory for modular” series that went through some of the basic ideas here (i.e. nothing super formal, open to weird vernaculars) and explained them in relation to typical modular kit: quantizers, LFOs, precision adders, what FM does to pitch, etc. Basically, once you get more than one voice going, this becomes a real hurdle in the “dick around until it sounds good,” Eno-style studio as compositional tool approach.

I read an interview with Emily Sprague somewhere in which she described her basic approach to composition, which iirc was something like iteratively sculpting a background hum, then a slow-moving bass line, then a twinkly high bit. Nothing too fancy, but with great effect. But then you have Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who has formal composition training, and some of what folks are saying here makes sense: the faster and more intricate you go, the more useful some music theory becomes, since you can’t rely on the duration of a note and the rare use of just a few notes to make things sound “right.”


I’d make the analogy color. When you mix too many colors they will turn to grey-brown mud. Mixing color careful produces very rich colors.


One analogy I like for music theory is articulate language.
If you want to be understood by someone, you’ll have to use articulate language - and unless you produce very experimental music, you’ll have to follow some eventually, in that case the rules of Harmony and Melodies.
These rules can be very instinctive, a lot of people without any knowledge are able to tell when a melody “does not fit” the rest of the composition. And a lot of musicians, even when they don’t know the rules, tend to abide by them instinctively. So knowing those rules won’t “break your creativity” or whatever, they will expand them. More than doing stuff you know sounds good because you tried it, you can know what sounds good and what sounds even better than what you initially thought of, and what could sound great before you even test them.
The rules of music are so big and complex that it’s impossible being “trapped by the rules”, when these allow so much combination. You don’t “break the rules” and do something totally new, usually what sounds good is already known by those rules.

So it’s kinda like language; to have a broad palette of meanings, you have to know a lot of words. You’ll know some chord progression fits a composition better as you know some word can have a synonym that implies totally different meanings. You chose to use the world “lonely” or “forlorn” knowing they have the same function, but one will fit more the idea you’re trying to pass, and trying to do harmonically rich music without knowing harmony is like shouting words at random to see if they, together, form a coherent sentence.

Obviously, language and music theory both evolve, but every evolution is not done by completely breaking the rules, these are new and more nuanced ways of thinking those rules, for exemple Be Bop. Bebop was a revolution for Harmony, because they improved rules, and not because they broke them.

Obviously, this does not apply to hardcore experimental music where there’s no form, or no will to have a certain form or structure. Filtering white noises to get noisy textures is not (yet) a part of academically recognized rules (but it could be, at some point, we already see that synthesis starts to have its own set of rules, of things working and things not quite working for other contexts). I see this musical view as some kind of “free writing” where the meanings of the words are overshadowed by how they sound and the point of the writing is to be dissected in aestethic research, which is also created with another set of rules, for process, or frequencies and stuff.


Freytag’s Triangle was in the back of my mind, I just couldn’t remember what it was called :slight_smile:


I can retain memory of chords I’m not hearing at the moment if I work at it, but if I just listen in a natural and relaxed way, then my sense of harmonic orientation resets after a few seconds of hearing a chord. I’m talking here about stretching by 50x or 100x, so five seconds expands out to five minutes. At that length, dominant seventh chords just feel like tonics in Mixolydian, you know?

To me, the idea of harmony in ambient music is that you’re having it be as structurally uninteresting as possible, because when you stop thinking about how a given chord fits into a larger structure, it frees up your bandwidth to think about that chord as an entity unto itself. You can sink into the timbre of it, hear how the overtones interact, all that stuff.