Ambient and Music Theory


Freytags triangle doesn’t have to have a single peak. It can be more of a stair with smaller events building to a major event.

I wonder if this is still a very western way of thinking? I’m thinking of those Haruki Murakami books and Asian movies where there are a lot of, what I would describe as, non-events leading to a mild conclusion.

Then again maybe this is just the same thing without explosions and car crashes? Maybe ambient music is the same other music without guitar solos and falsetto screams?


Yeah, that’s almost to the point of becoming modal music instead of tonal music. You don’t hear chords for the progression and the movement they have between them, but your hear them by suspending them in an individual time and space and explore the chords themselves, and all the colors you hear inside them.

It’s a lot like the original vision of Ambient Music Eno had. The idea that it needs to be just interesting enough to be listened to and monolithic enought to be heard in the distance without being too implicating as a listener.


Yeah I think this is an incredibly common shape for ambient music - if you’re not just sticking with something that’s basically static (the example of Music for Airports’ loops fits what I’m thinking of), then a gradual rise and fall is much easier than either starting or ending big. A triangle, not a sawtooth up or down. :slight_smile: To my mind this just neatly lines up with the intended aims of ambient music - arcs are going to be less intrusive, if you like, than a sudden start or stop. I know it’s pretty relative though.


I was thinking about this while reading later comments that a lot of untrained listeners get a feeling of what sounds right. I reckon when people play chords and basically just shift a shape around (as in the shape of their hand), they often come up with things that sound right to them but don’t fit what trad harmony is supposed to do.

A classic example I reckon is an old punk staple of playing major chords where the root of each is the notes of a minor scale, e.g. E G B. I’m sure that’s about how natural it feels to play it, but it doesn’t fit any trad Western scale.

Another example of something that really sounds right to people, but is prob not a consequence of playing, is the old “trucker’s gear change” where you repeat the chorus (usually) but cranked up a semitone into a new key. That should not sound right whatsoever, but it’s such a well-known move for creating an emotional response that it’s derided as cheap and cheesy.

(Sorry this is all going away from what these relatively ambient music making folks are doing.)


I’m skeptical that “ambient” has a generally agreed upon definition…


I don’t think what you said is a departure at all, really! To piggy back on @Scarez0r, @Ethan_Hein, and others indirectly, there’s a flavor of harmonic destabilization about some approaches to ambient music in terms of this kind of “theory.”

I think particularly about how there are a lot of moments in a few of Eno’s Ambient records that remind me a lot of pieces of Debussy (La cathedrale engloutie and a few of the other piano preludes), Scriabin (again, late piano preludes) and the way they kind of explode some of the traditional notions of ‘how chords should progress’ but they just sound right, and a lot of that is shape movement, whether its from chords, arpeggios, or repeated motifs. Punk, metal, and folk traditions use these all over the place. There’s a really strong tie to those approaches and electronic music, even the way many synthesizers have been designed (automatic chord functions, arpeggiators, transposable sequencers).

Personally, I’m always very interested in the tension of the perception of progression in ambient music. Because music, nearly by definition, is experienced temporally, there are a lot of expectations surrounding what it means to start, middle, and end. Ambient music tends to turn these on its head in such an inviting way. I can listen to something like Carl Stone’s Shing Kee (not sure, I would call it ambient) or Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field (ditto) and get engulfed in this push-pull beauty.

And while I’ve never been, and I really would love to, John Cage’s ASLSP (As slow as possible) is supposed to go on for over 600 years, so that’s pretty epic ambient music if you ask me.


I have to agree with this.

I think we need to consider the definition. From Merriam Webster:



am·bi·ent | \ˈam-bē-ənt \

Definition of ambient

(Entry 1 of 2)

1 : existing or present on all sides : ENCOMPASSINGthe ambient air temperatureambient lightambient sound

2 : of or relating to ambient music (see AMBIENT entry 2 sense 2)



Definition of ambient (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : an encompassing atmosphere : ENVIRONMENT

2 : music intended to serve as an unobtrusive accompaniment to other activities (as in a public place) and characterized especially by quiet and repetitive instrumental melodies

I like this one from better:

[am-bee-uh nt]

of the surrounding area or environment:
The tape recorder picked up too many ambient noises. The temperature in the display case was 20° lower than the ambient temperature.

completely surrounding; encompassing:
the ambient air.
creating a certain reaction or mood, often a subconscious one, by being wherever people tend to be:
ambient advertising on a shopping cart.

  1. pertaining to or noting sounds that create a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.
  2. pertaining to or noting close and constant social contact and communication fostered by the Internet or the use of digital devices:social media sites that enable ambient intimacy and awareness.

Whoa, so as a noun ambient is music! Never occurred to me.

Maybe the word origin would help here:

ambient (adj.)

1590s, “surrounding, encircling,” from Latin ambientem (nominative ambiens) “a going around,” present participle of ambire “to go around, go about,” from amb- “around” (from PIE root *ambhi-“around”) + ire “go” (from PIE root *ei- “to go”). The notion of “going all around” led to the sense of “encircling, lying all around.”

Encircling and going around hmmm.


imo, Merriam- Webster is trying to follow the usage of the term ambient, not prescribe it!


Dictionaries are very much like music theory in that way.


Would it be uncool to tag in the people mentioned in the original post, in case they didn’t read this and would like to comment on the stuff about planned theory vs jamming? @fourhexagons @stripes @rbeny @annannie
I’d add @shellfritsch to the mix as someone else who does a lot with clear harmonic content.


I’ll chime in. I may not be the best at articulating exactly what it is that I do (spoiler alert, I really know nothing).

I do not have any formal music theory training, though I have picked up a little here and there throughout the years. I don’t know how much I actually put into the music, I’m usually thinking in more abstract terms when working on music. It helps to know what notes and sounds will likely sound good together beforehand, but I don’t know how much of that is theory and how much of that is just experience.

I think everything that I do is an amalgamation of my influences. Listening deep and thinking about why I like certain pieces, how pieces are structured, the processes behind the pieces. And then trying to apply those ideas to the basic knowledge I have of playing or patching up an instrument. It’s almost like trying to solve a puzzle.

From that, you start to see common threads and maybe some of them make sense to you?
Like I realized I listen to a lot of music with a linear, build-up type structure. I like certain timbres and textures. I like minor scales. I like the contrast of soft, beautiful sounds with distorted, broken sounds.

That’s part of what goes into my music making process. Another part of it is emotional translation, how do I translate what I’m feeling or thinking of into music. And the other part of it is the actual process of working with the instruments. How do I play this instrument? What does this button do?

Part of the reason I’m so drawn to ambient and instrumental music is that it’s so open-ended. I almost equate making ambient music to painting.

I’m not sure if I articulated that correctly, but that’s what’s floating around in the ol’ noggin. Maybe it can help someone. I’m an open book when it comes to anything music, so I’m always happy to answer specific questions.


Interesting, thanks!

A friend who works with modular setups suggested to me the above is one thing that is quite different when working with modular, compared to many types of instruments. While others upthread have said the results could be achieved other ways, modular systems tend towards a way of writing that maybe feels more like a duet than with most other instruments.

I do get the impression that if this is true, for many folks harmony/tuning is one aspect that is mostly predetermined or tightly constrained. So even if you’re recording modular jams, before you hit record you’ve got a setup with a relatively stable set of notes and during the jam that’s not something that you expect will change.

Is that fair? Just throwing an assumption out there. Interested in anyone’s replies.


Maybe with modular, it’s less how do I play this instrument and more how do I use this module and what context do I use it in within the rest of the system? Though I view my modular as a whole instrument, it’s almost like 5-6 different instruments within. Different voices and signal flows. A little mini orchestra.

I can’t speak for others, but for me the tuning is at least predetermined (usually everything is just tuned to each other, if I’m going to be adding other instruments in, I’ll tune to those). As far as notes go, that depends on what I’m using to play or sequence. I’d definitely say that that period of coming up with the notes or parameter of what the notes should be (think quantizing) happens during the patching period before I hit record on a jam.


I think one of the possible nice things about modular over against other instruments, perhaps, is that there’s less of a physicality barrier to getting to the point of communing with your instrument—that duet you mentioned—while still giving you a tactile sensation that you’re doing something “real”. I.e., I’d argue it’s possible to commune with almost every instrument—unless perhaps it literally doesn’t respond to your input whatsoever, but with many of them you have to spend hours and hours practicing the mechanics of it.

I do think that “modular communion” probably tends to look different from “guitar communion”, although both are pretty open-ended.


It depends what I’m working on. Sometimes I start with the texture of a drone and warp that and play with it and then maybe add harmony or melody on top.

But more recently I begin with a chord progression and chip away at it (a la sculpting) to get different bars. It might seem like it locks you in but having a set of rules to abide by makes things easier to organize. And it’s not like they’re not there to be broken if I think I have a better note or something.

There’s a huge disparity between eroding content and adding it on that I have a hard time balancing, but to beat that sculpting metaphor further, I think for me, it’s necessary to know the best slices and dices to cut stuff out or put stuff into your piece, and that is where theory is helpful.

I realize though that this is not related to the machines this thread may want to discuss, but I think from a bird’s eye view it’s good to have some basic knowledge of the rules in order to break them.


Tuning and pitch, harmony etc. with modular can go in different ways, in terms of patching, planning and recording. With some, everything is determined by the patch is strictly sequenced, but other times you’ve got things like spring reverb feedback loops with pitch shifters in them, which will go their own way and lend themselves to improvisation. One in a while during recording I’ll play oscillators’ pitch knobs directly, which introduces more risk :slight_smile:


Thank you for this - I’m going to delve into your online content as I’ve been pondering about electronic music arrangements vs classical/rock/pop.


i have typed and retyped a one million word response to this thread like three times now, but i think this type of response is easier at the moment. i can also say that someday in the future you will be able to hear @fourhexagons and i talk about this subject very much more at length.

the only very core thing that i can really say is consistent across the board for all artist you mentioned and is very basic but also critical : play in key.

i can only speak for myself but - very much completely intentional. composing is full of exploration and “happy accidents”, but the final recording is always a product of making changes based on my knowledge and heart of music to create what feels true. my beginning process is to pick a key, tune my sound sources to the root note (on modular with the v/oct CV plugged in but not moving, set also to root note), select my scale notes, program them into sequencers, start listening, and start writing. it’s really usually lots of simple relationships. 3rds and 4ths and 5ths and octaves. weird pop music! rhythmically i tend to like clusters of sounds not always snapped to any tempo grid that phase in and out with each other nicely… that’s just something i listen for. some have also mentioned drones. drones that add and subtract harmonics throughout can really give a piece a lot of life and mass.

tune (^^^) play in key :slight_smile: explore sounds, try to emulate the ones you like, go slow
(reverb and delay)
this i think gets more about sound sculpting and mixing.

i am inspired by the philosophy and design of monome which is why i use their devices, but for me the tools don’t have much at all to do with the sound or the theory. sequencing on the grid is tactile and i like the human interaction. it’s intuitive and easy to brainstorm ideas on quickly. teletype has near endless possibilities. but the sound of the music that i want to make is very similar on all types and brands of instruments/synths… modular or non modular. electronic or acoustic.

very similar (shared? :slight_smile:) emotional intention which i think is the most important. and playing in key
(also one of these people worships the circle of fifths * cough @fourhexagons * , ones loves minor, and i think all of us love 5 note scales)

others have mentioned this but i really think that the importance of listening can’t be overlooked. neither can practice. every piece of music you have ever loved is revealing to you why it sounds the way that it does if you just listen. and also i think you have to spend thousands of hours practicing music in many different ways… not because you are putting the time in, but because you love it. everyone starts at 0. i’ve spent almost every day of the last 10 years playing and practicing and absorbing and learning music in some way whenever i can, and every day i am an absolute beginner and i want to go deeper within my musical self. like others are saying, theory is helpful but there is no magic formula. this type of music is really simple actually. beyond my basic knowledge of theory i don’t really think about it too much, i trust my ears and my heart more. i have no formal education beyond barely getting a high school diploma. you certainly don’t need to be beethoven.

i hope this is in some way helpful and in line with the original question and not just mind barf. surprisingly a very difficult topic to respond to i think mostly because i find myself unable to stop writing lol.


So beautifully stated – this I think is the core of everything discussed in this thread – I’d only add that this stance – “every day I am an absolute beginner” – holding oneself open to the joys of perpetual discovery, the primordial experience of truth as revealing, instead of truth as adequation – this way of comporting oneself not only towards music but in fact towards anything in life is the only thing that really works to push oneself through the rough times, to pick oneself up after being defeated again and again and to emerge better for the struggle. Thank you!!!


@rbeny @stripes Thank you so much for answering and opening the doors to your creative approach here. So glad we are in this day and age where we can communicate directly with the people whose music we appreciate all over the globe! Was not so easy in the age of Bach :wink:

This is exactly corresponds exactly to my interpretations of the modular world: You are directing a little orchestra of voices. And it feels different from a DAW, as those little modules are actually charismatic characters, contributing more or less, sometimes planned, sometimes randomly to the tune. It also feels more of an interaction with the machines than in a DAW, where you are actually in the rather one sided hierarchical role of the composer and have not such a high energy level of interaction - and responses from your orchestra members. I believe this is actually what makes the modular approach so attractive, that you get a response. It’s like jammin out with your buddies. Sometimes they groove, sometimes they don’t.

Thanks for these statements. It takes things down to earth and reduces the Voodoo a bit. It’s weird, cause when working with a modular system to get smooth melodies and harmonies the nature of CV makes it crucial to focus on key and tuning before you actually start playing. I am a songwriter and I never thought about the key of a song - the song is there or it isn’t. Maybe that I overthink whether I should transpose the song a bit or not, but for the most part there is no process of defining what key to go for etc. While when working with modulars I feel more prone to establish a system (key, scale etc.) before I actually start to compose.

Thanks also for this honest statement! One reads so much about high quality musicians being wunderkinder, that the hard work and slow process behind it is forgotten and neglected.

Yes, this is very helpful, indeed! Thank you!