Ambient and Music Theory


yes this +++++++++++


so like many here I quite appreciate the output and the influence of the ambient YouTuber scene (or a better name for that), but through talking to people my age who are new and just getting into this music with not a lot of money, I’ve definitely noticed that it’s had the somewhat negative effect of convincing people that gear is vital to this particular sound and mode of composition. since the gear and the things are the most visible elements, people seem sometimes to naturally equate things to the sound when really, like what most people are saying, it’s more about technique and practice, and the * hands behind the machines *, and the gear could totally be switched out with other stuff and someone with those skills could make that same kind of music

I don’t think it was the intention of these artists to communicate that kind of message, I think it was more about an appreciation for the machines, but I think sometimes it totally comes off like “this stuff is how I make the music”

videos more in this vein seem to send a better message. I like some of the recent process videos @fourhexagons has been posting. even as a non-modular artist the video on tides totally got me thinking about electronic composition and it was awesome. @whitenoises does a great job too. he talks about funtions and the logic of everything way more than the modules and the stuff, so they’re way more helpful for anyone with any kind of setup and access to the things.

(oh and @Dan_Derks move to give people the teletype functionality that defined his album in a completely free download is GREAT)


i agree with you that the message should absolutely not be type of gear = good music. @Dan_Derks and i had a good and long convo about this recently. it’s weird… when i started making youtube videos it was really to document my learning process and share some things in a format other than the album, which i now prefer to videos. there was a tiny amount of ambient content out there with eurorack at the time, so i also thought that it would be fun to show a different side to the machines that was kinda obscure and didn’t have a big platform. i don’t think there’s anything wrong with modular synths and mom+pop gears costing what they do - it’s a niche thing, but it shouldn’t be more praised than making all your music on a laptop.

also… most people with modular synths, music studios, and wide selections of gear are either established professional adults with good paying jobs who love music or career musicians. there is an illusion with the internet that all these everyday people have beautiful euroracks and tape machines and effects and are making dreamy soundscapes. every musician i know has taken a long time (years) and gone through lots of gear upgrades to end up at having just one $2000 analog poly synth or a 6U of euro.

it does make me sad that the cost of these instruments is inherently attached to a “cool scene” that excludes so many. i have thought about sharing public videos and tracks made with just garage band, or only an acoustic guitar. it’s really so important to me that people know they make music from the feelings inside them and not what they can or can’t afford to buy. i think it’s exciting to sit down with software instruments and try to recreate the vibe of something someone did with some fancy synth! i bet someone could post a youtube video of modular shots secretly with audio from a track made in ableton (or VCV rack) and no one would bat an eye.

[we are drifting a bit from the original topic now i think]


I’ve thought about doing some “point the camera at the laptop” videos !

and yea I see your point here. cost can be a wierd thing to talk about, cause there’s so many variables. my setup of fancy laptop controllers probably costs about what a euro does, and so does a nice guitar. I think the percieved correlation between gear and style is probably a more important/meaningful conversation.

but hey, just want to say your influence on the ambient scene is very real and very cool :pray:. I’ve met people irl who are in it because of your work, so the fact that you’ve been generous enough to share, whatever the format, is totally meaningful.

anyone know how to do the split topic thing?


that makes me so happy - it’s the same for me with the artists who inspired me to start making different kinds of music throughout my life. part of my process regularly is listening to new things i find on instagram and youtube and i still discover new inspirations all the time. it’s so important we continue to share with each other and cultivate community where discussions can take place :slight_smile: :slight_smile: i learned everything i know and met all of my friends + communities from books and the internet and people showing the world things they create


i have sooooo many thoughts on cost/perception of gear but i’ll wait til the new thread on that one

on the original topic though, reading this thread has sort of prompted me to consider making some sort of “music theory for modular” content (with a way catchier name). being fortunate enough to have a formal music education, it’s also the only kind of tutorial-esque content I feel comfortable making.

although modular is a bit more abstract than traditional instruments, there’s still plenty of “music theory” built-in to a lot of modules (generally quantizers/sequencers, but specifically things like the Telharmonic, Qu-Bit Chord come to mind). generally though, i don’t see much “theory” discussion built in to demo material for modules, and especially not in a way that translates to different modules/instruments.

it does make me wonder if this perceived “gap” in modular music theory videos/guides/blogs/etc just comes from how open-ended it is. certainly a lot of people just use modular for more experimental/sound design uses. but i also wonder what percentage of modular people in the world have no prior music background. despite the high cost of entry (funny how this topic keeps rolling itself in here), i still see a decent number of posts/comments/etc on various platforms and talk to modular people that don’t play guitar or piano or any instrument like that.

in a lot of ways that’s an amazing thing about modular: it gives such a tactile and responsive way to create music and sounds without large physical barriers. i got into modular while tendonitis prevented me from extensively playing guitar. if it was able to bring back so much creative expression into my life while away from my instrument, i can only imagine how it would feel for someone that’s never been able to play music before.

i hope we’re going towards a point where accessibility and creating music is almost as easy as just listening to music


I would love this. I would especially love to better understand what “ambient” means on an acoustic guitar. It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out.

(Always a way to bring it back on-topic!)


So, if you take it all the way back to the beginning, Morton Subotnick, while quite accomplished as a western symphonic composer, approached Don Buchla because he wanted to create an electronic music instrument that was freed from preconceptions about music theory. They succeeded! And this has had a lasting influence on the genre.

But I feel a bit bad for newcomers to modular who seem to have gained the impression that western music and music theory are somehow bad or wrong. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, in my opinion. Morton can play multiple acoustic instruments quite well. He may have been determined to find a “new” music, but I will forever maintain that his “new” music can’t be separated from his “old” training, no matter how hard he tries. His long, deep, and varied pre-modular musical experience modified his ear, his mind, in ways that we all benefit from when we listen to his modular music, no matter how “weird” or divorced from western musical theory it may at first appear to be.

I do think we’re getting there, and I think it’s very exciting! Increasingly I’m almost as likely to fire some generative things up as I am to turn on Spotify when I want to relax after work in the evening.


this is true! not to bring the cliche east-coast/west-coast thing too much into play here, but we’re definitely in a time that’s bringing both worlds together and combining them in new, inventive ways.

this remind me a lot of guitarists (and other musicians but especially guitarists) that think learning theory actually constrains and hinders your creativity, or that taking lessons will only teach you “how to sound like your teacher, not yourself.” personally i’ve never believed this, i don’t see how expanding your perspective in any way could negatively impact your personal journey (i feel this way about the state of many things in the world too but that’s many topics for many other threads)

it’s easy to get hung up on “rules” but thankfully art isn’t defined by it’s rigidity towards rules


I wanted to highlight a common thread throughout several replies: learning how to make what you like by first listening intentionally to things you like and then secondly taking what you’ve learned and trying to fit it into your own practice. I used to think that calling one’s art work “my practice” sounded really art-school snobbish, but now I’m starting to think it’s exactly the right way to describe the learning-by-doing aspect of making stuff.


although modular is a bit more abstract than traditional instruments, there’s still plenty of “music theory” built-in to a lot of modules (generally quantizers/sequencers, but specifically things like the Telharmonic, Qu-Bit Chord come to mind). generally though, i don’t see much “theory” discussion built in to demo material for modules, and especially not in a way that translates to different modules/instruments.

it’s true, i would say that everything you do on a modular synth has some theory wrapped up in it, there is also modular theory that i think is relevant when talking about composing with that specific instrument. modular is very easy to approach without thinking about western theory, especially with the “new music” approach. but you could also take the initiative to think of the theory behind every patch. i try to do that more and more, but it’s also after a certain point not helpful anymore for me.


agreed. now to throw more synonyms at synonyms, the gradual “refining of your craft” is present in everything from practice to performance. it’s usually just matter of what, where, and how.

i guess the biggest problem with music theory is the terminology itself. calling anything in a creative field something academic/scientific (or at least perceived that way) like “theory” is probably going to turn off a lot of people.


i agree that the academia vibe can be offputting or, more accurately, intimidating to someone who doesn’t come from that background and that can lead to a rebellion against theory, but it’s not really theory that we want to rebel against, right? i like the idea of people feeling empowered to learn without the imaginary barrier of higher education standing in the way.

i guess i’ve also always been pretty open minded to the fact that there must be a lot of people who think of music mathematically or within the sets of guidelines that music theory gives us and compose that way. do we have good, fairly contemporary examples of this?


Speaking out of my depth here a bit into the particulars and paraphrasing from memory, but Caterina Barbieri talked about this a bit in her ableton loop talk.

The gist, if I remember it correctly, is that the sequencing system she has set up starts out with a simple melody and goes through permutations based off of mathematical functions as the piece she plays go on.

I think Ellen Arkbro does some really cool stuff in this kind of vein too. I believe that some of her compositional stuff is based on really simple intervalic theory, where the intervals the notes moved in is set (so like consecutive fifths or something) and the sequence of chords kind of build themselves out of that. She also does some intonated microtonal stuff where certain harmonics will phase in really interesting ways. Again, may totally be mischaracterizing some of the particulars and I can’t remember where I read this stuff, so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt, hah


Indeed. The problem is never the theory itself, it’s the absolute claim theory stakes on its object(s). It’s the always unspoken directive of musicology: that no musical object can be “given” without the (transcendental) “givenness” of some theory, in other words that all that is musical must “someday” be expressible in terms of theory (basically a Principle of Sufficient Musicology), and that it is the goal of musicology to progress (always dialectically) towards such absolute knowledge. Neither the composer or listener are spared: such givenness must always prevail either when one composes musical objects or when one perceives them. All of these notions are ways of forgetting that theories and their objects both come from the same place, as productions immanent to the Real and hence that theories can be treated as material.

Examples (non-musicological uses of theory):

  1. One can fold theory back into the interface or musical body, a la Theoryboard, Ornament and Crime, and so on. Theory, objects of theory, and musician directly plug into one another in a sort of feedback circuit, instead of the fixed and transcendentally-given relationship of adequation of theory and objects granted by musicology. In each case something new emerges, something that cannot be understood by the constituent theories, for any such understanding would be conditioned by the regime of adequation. Exactly the same logic applies when one connects a lowpass filter, a delay line, and a nonlinearity in feedback and produces a flute sound; the “flute” cannot be found in either the filter, delay, or nonlinearity, but emerges out of the feedback connection.

  2. One can pursue a counterpoint or a democracy of theory, treating theories not as mutually exclusive but in a sort of quantum superposition where a radical heterogeneity of theories is the foundation for the music, is how it is performed or improvised. Such a superposition is never thought but directly performed. Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics as exemplified by his work in the 1970’s is here a pre-eminent example.

  3. One can, again, free oneself from notions of truth as adequation of theory with object, and create new configurations in the mode of fiction, which is often a much more powerful way to disclose that which we hold most sincerely as the true. Productions would then have the same relationship to music-theory concepts and the discipline of musicology as science fiction does to scientific concepts and the scientific method. This is the movement of musical theory-fiction; I contend we all do this to some extent; artists from Stockhausen to Sun Ra to David Bowie have always held open this “speculative” dimension, if only in its sincere hope for a better world, and willingness to act to bring forth that world… With Stockhausen, becoming-starseed (rather than any purely formal structures) was always the point, whether after 1976 or before; it points to the extreme poverty of musicological thought that they never have been able to deal with this. Famous and interesting theory-fictions outside of music consist of the Voynich manuscript, Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinius, Reza Negarastani’s Cyclonopedia, and so on. If any of these were complete nonsense they would not keep inspiring so many people…

Each of these non-musicological configurations constitute a positive and productive use of theory, in the end producing new musical objects and theories in ways that are musicologically uninterpretable in terms of these theories.

The options #1, #2, #3 should not be obscure, they are what most of us do when you really think about it. The phenomena at least should be very near to us, if one finds fault with my rather convoluted descriptions…

It may be proper to call this approach a “performative non-musicology”, where “non” is interpreted not in the sense of “anti”, but in the sense of “non-Euclidean”. Non-musicology rather than theorizing, describing, evaluating, thinking “of” music produces direct action within music, in terms of compositions, performances, recordings. Yet it preserves the other “axioms” of musicology; it does not deny theory, only the way theory is performed by transcendental musicology, and thus provides the strongest possible affirmation of theory as it has found ways to deploy it within immanence. Non-musicology is always something then that must be performed – a performance that preserves the radically immanent origin of the theories it takes to be its material. What is suspended here is the absolute claim theory stakes on its objects, the requirement that objects be “given” in terms of theory, the idea that all objects are theorizable, even in terms of “exceptions” or other (negative) forms of givenness. What is suspended then more generally is the transcendent splitting of the Real (consequences of which include: 1) dividing all productions into “musical” and “non-musical”, or people into “musicians” and “non-musicians”; also: 2) flattening difference or heterogeneity within all of what’s considered as “musical”, so that everything simply is the expression of or the violation of some theoretical concern.)

These thoughts, BTW, owe a huge debt to what little I can understand of the “non-philosophical” project of Francois Laruelle, which (in the US) only seems to have taken hold in obscure departments of religion. But it’s a project that should be much more widely known, as this entire problematic (what should be done with theory or philosophy in ways that preserve their origins in the radical self-immanence of the Real; in other words, how to think the given-without-givenness) has been his life project, and it’s what’s most relevant here. Also of interest is the “speculative non-Buddhism” of Glenn Wallis. I should give links (there are plenty around), but this was long and I’m tired (may follow up).

In other words, we can’t let the eagle win over the serpent.

Anyway, hope this helps inject more optimism into this discussion, and hope I at least was somewhat convincing that we should affirm theory, in ways we creatures of immanence, of the chthonic and telluric realms can accept, if I may give this post a little theory-fictional twist :dragon:




Not surprisingly, many of these models are based on lattices that can be wrapped around cylinders to form helical structures.

I think it really must be my bedtime :joy:


When I hear someone talk about art as practice, it doesn’t strike me as pretension. I think of Natalie Goldberg who wrote Writing Down the Bones. She writes prose, poetry, memoirs, and books on writing, but most important for her is that she sits down and writes every day. For her, as a Zen Buddhist, it’s a spiritual practice.

I think a lot of people who gravitate to the arts are people who have found that the way for them to discover meaning in their lives is by creating meaning through their artistic practice.


I really appreciate this discussion as well as hearing from Emily Sprague and r beny. I have been dabbling in making music for years but started to take it seriously a year ago after stumbling into the “ambient” eurorack scene on YouTube. I struggled for a month or two trying to get back into ableton with the intention of pursuing synthesis. I took a course on reaktor and synthesis in general and nothing really gelled for me until I saw a video of Emily Sprague playing guitar through the Hologram Dream Sequence. For some reason that sound catapulted me back to guitar and I started taking lessons, with a focus on theory, and making the kind of ambient music I want to make with acoustic and electric guitar through pedals.

I say all this to set up my current musical state which is one that varies from inspiration to excitement to confusion to discouragement and back again. I can say this has gotten better and worse as I have gained more knowledge about music theory and composition. Theory has really helped me improvise and create, but sometimes does the opposite. There are times I listen back to sketches made earlier this year when I knew nothing about theory, but I really like the music. It’s all pretty confusing to me in the end because I felt like I couldn’t be a musician without knowing theory. Or, that theory was necessary for me to “really know what I’m doing” and would add some kind of legitimacy to my creations. I’m learning that really this has more to do with my insecurities about what I create, music or not, than anything else.

All this to say that I think knowing more about music and theory will deepen the experience, in both positive and challenging ways, all of them meaningful. You obviously don’t need to know anything about theory to make incredible music. I think that if you want to play with other people, compose, etc. that knowing and being able to stay in key is really helpful. I can also say that music theory is something that only gets deeper, more complex, and sometimes more overwhelming the more you learn. So, there is also immense benefit from taking a step back and letting yourself go when making something.


Most punk guitarists are playing power chords, so major/minor tonality often remains ambiguous unless there is a melody in the vocal or lead guitar that outline a particular scale. So E, G & B are not necessarily “notes of a minor scale”; if a song is in C Maj, the iii & i7 (E & B) are minor chords, but the V (G) is major. So if you’re just playing those 3 as power chords, and a melody comes along ruminating on CF&G, the song clarifies as in C Maj, and the fact that the E&B power chords are in the minor positions makes perfect sense within Western theory, because they are the ii and iii notes of C Maj.

Also I’m curious why you say moving up a semitone as emphasis for a particular section shouldn’t sound right? Baroque music used a similar move to the trucker’s gear change, and I don’t think Vivaldi and Handel were exactly inclined towards experimental avant-garde key changes.