Ambient and Music Theory


Yeah a totally fair point. You’d still have a flattened fifth in there on top of the B chord, but I guess that fits with what I was trying to say more generally - that it’s easy enough to make things that sound fine but might at first read as weird.

I’m rubbish on “classical” music knowledge, but two keys a semitone apart will have the least notes in common, right? My very very rudimentary understanding of harmony as it’s studied is that when you’re modulating you are trying to keep plenty of notes in common to ease the modulation. Happy to hear more about this.


Well having 1 altered note in one chord is no big deal at all. Blues is characterized by blue notes, and I’ve never met anyone who thought those notes were out of place. In jazz often you’re just following the numerals, and the chords themselves are wildly out of the scale of the key. The mind can still make sense of it because the root of the chord will relate to the scale of the key enough that it creates a foundation for the other notes. Naturally this is a matter of art, so it’s all about how you put it together.

Regarding notes shared by keys, technically 6 semitones apart is farthest (opposite sides of Circle of 5ths), ie C and Gb/F# share only 2 notes, neither of which are C, where C and C# only share 2 notes, but one of them is C. But even then, expectations about key changes are entirely a matter of style, there is nothing in theory that says you can’t jump back and forth from opposite sides of the Circle of 5ths. Theory just describes what people do, it doesn’t prescribe what you are supposed to do. It’s true that historically you’ll find people using 4th/5th changes for gradual easy-listening modulation, but then you have Giant Steps, which isn’t really a jarring piece of music IMO, and was explicitly named for it’s large key changes (and maybe other stuff symbolically).


I want to say that both you and @hostnik are right. Perhaps the reason you’ll find the “truckers key change” in Baroque and recent music is because it can feel so jarring, throwing familiar material into a surprising new context. A Baroque composer would have had strong attendant feelings about how to accomplish such a modulation (including relying on common tones or smooth voice-leading) so as to take such a surprising effect into what “made sense” to listeners then.

A pop-song writer, on the other hand, relying on the cultural knowledge of the many ways this technique has been used before, might feel free to just make that key change with less preparation (in the sense of finding common tones or going through keys related to both the source and target keys), relying on the shared cultural knowledge of the effect she is trying to create to “prepare” her listener to enjoy hearing it.


FWIW, this book is by far the most useful I’ve ever run across for grokking the Circle of Fifths and the fundamentals of chords and keys. Can’t recommend it enough as a tool for analysis and generally understanding wtf this stuff is about.


Yeah, wow. I’ve had a tab open with this thread ever since I was first tagged and it keeps getting more and more difficult for me to formulate a response. I feel that @stripes said it all so well, and so to start, I want to echo her sentiments. The two of us do speak about this stuff with each other and we’re indeed looking forward to sharing these conversations in a more public way at some point.

But yeah, for me, making music is an intangible thing. It’s a magical act. There’s ritual involved to align the mind, align the spirit (and more recently, align the body, which I neglected for years as a guitarist and consequently experience chronic muscle and tendon pain).

But before the ritual is embodied, there’s the conceptual part. This sometimes happens piecemeal over the course of days or weeks or months. This tends to be the theory part. I might ask myself, how can I transpose keys on this thing? And if I did, how would it sound? How can I design a system to support my weaknesses? Harmonically, I tend to gravitate toward the tonic and just stay there. Hang out in the center because it’s so nice and safe and just sounds good there. It’s where I’ve always felt the most comfortable.

You see, I went to music school, and while I was able to graduate with honors, I left pretty much broken in one way or another. It wasn’t the theory that broke me, it was trying to do something that felt very unnatural to me and doing it in a very forceful way as if my life depended on it. Not taking the time to internalize the lessons, to allow my ear to grow, to meet myself where I was at and value authentic expression above all else.

I entered school confident in my ability to connect with other musicians in the moment, and left feeling inferior because of my lack of jazz. My inability to really hear and express within moving harmony with key changes as freely as I could over a drone.

Eventually, I embraced my strengths and upon discovering modular, I found a way to play to all of them. I suspect I’m preaching to choir here, but the approach many of us employ with modular is something that allows the user to create their own world.* Conduct their own orchestra. And that was liberating. It was a process built on exploration. Because I knew very little about it from the start. I just started patching with the intention to see what would happen. It was this realignment that saved my musical creativity. I didn’t have an identity to hold together as I felt I had with the guitar. I just had my ear and my knowledge (theory) and my ability to pay attention and get swept up by the beauty when it would appear.

*I just want to note that this process can be done entirely inside of Ableton Live, for example. @matthewdavid is someone who does this beautifully. Having the ‘training’ from working with modular has informed a more generative approach of using Ableton and it’s wild that I can basically build the same processes to create music.

So my first modular experiments were built conceptually through theory. I chose sets of notes that I knew would work nicely together from my years of experience improvising on guitar. It’s just what naturally happened when I asked myself, how do I make this sound nice? These were sets of notes I could hear. It was my harmonic comfort zone. I chose rhythms that felt good to me from years of internalizing things like the Ghana Bell Pattern in all its polyrhythmic perspectives. And it worked. It was like magic. Once those initial theoretical seeds were planted, I tended to the garden, allowing it to grow. This was the domain of the ear. Of listening. Of expanding my awareness through the practice of receptivity. And through that enters inspiration which turns the whole thing into play.

And this is the process that I’ve explored ever since. I use theory to build the composition and use intuition to guide the performance. For me, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both hemispheres come together in the holistic product.

I played a lot this year with a performance patch that’s been a work in progress for more than a year. The theory aspects have already been worked out. When performing with it, it’s mostly a matter of entering into the ritual to play with the muse. I’m not in my theory mind, I’m just listening and reacting and remaining open for inspiration. It’s where the emotional translation that @rbeny spoke of comes in.

Speaking of @rbeny, he had mentioned paying attention to compositional structure. That’s a good one. I tend to often allow compositional structure form through intuition as I’m improvising, but I’m beginning to become more aware of the value of analyzing the structure of pieces that I like. Not to directly make something like it, but to just understand it so that it comes out naturally when I’m in the zone.

So to directly answer the OP, it’s theory and jamming. As for the actual theoretical processes I use, I won’t lay it down as if it were a formula. But if you watch my Lightbath Zone videos where I explain my approach, and listen to the musical pieces, and maybe even transcribe some of them, all the while training your ear, you’ll get it. It’s not unique and it’s really quite simple in design. @stripes spoke to that a bit, we’re using a lot of the same scales, but the differences come from having developed unique relationships with the sound, with the tones, the combinations of pitches; with our own unique emotional responses to it all over a period of time. For some, like me, a pretty long period of time. What seems like a huge amount of hours to be spending with what is often less than 7 notes.

I’ve been a music teacher for two decades and I love working with students on theory. But not for the sake of nerding out on all the possibilities and getting all complex, because it can go too far. It can paralyze the creative flow. But for some people, myself included, learning the theory is like getting the map in The Legend of Zelda. It’s just easier to then hear and catalog what’s going on. But you can’t stare at the map all day and call that exploring. You need to get out there and just reference the map as needed. It’s the synergy of the ear and brain that works for me and I love exploring this approach with others.

I like to keep it simple, because for the most part, the basics are all that’s needed. And that’s where I got lost in college. I now see the importance of embodying the basics, the addition/subtraction and multiplication/division zones (an analogy I used last week with a student who is beginning theory) and then get to making music! Keep the balance and save the algebra (and beyond) once the ear has caught up to those first few dimensions. And I’m still solidifying my basics and learning to embody the theory that my brain thinks it understands.

Alright, thanks for your attention on this. I hope this contributes something meaningful to the thread. I know I don’t really tend to share a lot here on Lines (outside of technical questions/issues), so I just want to be clear that I appreciate the community and the devices and works that drew it all together in the first place.


:pray::pray::pray: I’m in the early phases of a project to bring more possibilities and deeper physical control to this zone


Really interesting, thanks - and lots of great links I’m quietly digesting in other tabs (that map from Zelda! :wink: ).

I suppose one thing that hasn’t been said is that with ambient music “timbre” is a massive part of how a piece works. Changes in EQs and filters, in envelopes, in echoes decaying, etc.

I was originally going to write “harmony is secondary” but that’s not it, but it’s certainly not everything and it’s usually very simple.

These things all interconnect (sorry, feel like I’m being Captain Obvious here) where timbral changes push and pull harmonics. The most simple example being a filter opening or closing, but delay fx of any kind can do it too. I always think of this beatless Autechre track (that I’ve apparently been listening to for 23 years now (yikes)).

I appreciated this as a reminder that “play” doesn’t have a fixed value - it’s often used dismissively in the context of music making and production. Like, a negative interpretation for picking a few notes and sculpting with them is that this is playing with fx and that that makes it inessential or inconsequential. It’s all too easy. Sometimes I feel that way. Sometimes I really don’t

Anyway, thanks again. I love reading and thinking about this kind of stuff.


Your post was excellent, thorough, and useful. You never have to apologize for that. Thank you for posting it. If I knew where the troll button was I’d have pressed it for Andrew’s (entirely useless non-content) reply. Please do not let him deter you from sharing in the future.


ahhhh thank you! @Andrew was definitely joking; I know him a little bit, and have definitely joked back at him. The nerve had been there before, he just happened to hit it.


Right on. From the outside, without that knowledge, looked identical to all-too-common bs that is intended to silence women in electronic arts.

Someone without that knowledge (like me!) would then easily think that this forum is a place that tolerates that sort of thing or that well-formed posts by educated women are not appreciated. As a result, other well-educated women may feel disinclined to share their expertise with all of us.


thinking in this vein - watched a video on the 4ms smr thing this morning and made this little generative bit using bandpass filters, delays, and water sounds in ableton


But also by this analogy, language is learnt aurally, and even complex language need not necessarily be learnt through written language. Musical language is even moreso an aural language. The wider you listen the broader your own sense of expressionusing that language will become, regardless of understanding formality.


Most interested melodies that I’ve created was a result of improvisation/random play with 960 sequencer of creating melodies by bricks drawing in ableton. No theory, no mechanical memories of scales/patterns.

If you need some basic hints how to play on keyboard: just use only white keys on keyboard - it’s C-maj and A-mol scale. Just use transpose/frequency knob to modify it from C/A to different major/minor scale.


If you’re going to stick to the white keys, I’d recommend exploring what it sounds like if you start from / hang around somewhere other than C or A. Modes are heaps of fun.


Oh man. Be prepared to get sucked into a very large YouTube rabbit hole!!!

CHORDS OF ORION does a really good job of teaching and demonstrating ambient guitar techniques.

ANDY OTHLING has an “ambient guitar tips” series that is really useful.

There are lots of others too. I loooove big washy guitar sounds. Feels like a perfect fit for interplay with modular synths.


I enjoy these artists. But their work only supports my assertion that “ambient” does not have a generally agreed upon definition.


This is also ridiculously helpful:

I just leave it constantly open in the background while recording.

(Read the user guide.)


Yay. I have a plastic one. I like the touchy feelyness of it. Very useful device though.


Can’t agree more that listening is one of the biggest things you should be doing to really develop a sense of what works, what sounds you like, how sounds work together, etc. It took me a long time to jump back into making music after my punk rock guitar days pre-family. But it seemed a lot easier for me to put things together, due to the amount of listening I do via my work running a record shop, once I jumped into the synth world.


it was just an advice to start for novice.
In my case I needed almost 15 years to refresh my interest in playing on keys after classical training :slight_smile: