[Editors Note: This article was written by Chelsea G. Ira.]
Music theory is something that’s associated with boring lectures filled with outdated examples, and endless exercises lacking any practical application. For that reason, a lot of musicians skip it, opting to learn by ear or figure things out themselves.
But here’s the thing – music theory is at work in everything you play and write whether you’re aware of it or not.
Music theory is not a set of “rules” we need to follow, and it’s definitely not a box that restricts your creativity. Music theory is just a way of describing music and how we hear it. A major scale is just a way to define seven notes arranged in a certain pattern of whole and half steps – it doesn’t mean you need to only use those notes. Learn the rules so you can break them intelligently is what we always say.
A solid understanding of music theory can also open you up to new ways of expressing the sounds you hear in your head. Almost like a toolbox that you can pull from to make your ideas tangible. And that goes for your live sound as well. So today, let’s go through a simple music theory technique that can help you achieve a better live sound before the sound guy even gets there.
The Muddy Live Sound
A live performance can be an incredible sonic experience or it can be a muddy mess where everything blends together – and everything in between. And bad live sound isn’t always the sound guy’s fault (even though many musicians are quick to point the finger). In fact, your arrangement plays a huge factor in how clearly each element in the mix is heard.
Sure, there is a lot you can do with technology to polish up your sound, but in order for those techniques to be truly effective, you need to have a solid foundation. In other words, the arrangement and music needs to be up to par and sound good live before the sound guy comes into the picture to add the finishing touches.
Let me show you what I mean.
Let’s say you’re in a four-person band – a drummer, bass player, a keyboardist, and a guitarist/singer. Maybe the keyboardist is playing all over the place and bumping down into the bass register. And maybe the guitarist is hitting a bunch of high notes and stepping into the vocalist’s register. If everyone is bunching together, things start blending together in the mix. There isn’t any space, so it becomes hard for the ear to differentiate each part. And the result is a muddy sound that can feel pretty sparse – especially in a live setting.
Now let’s say we spread things out and give the guitar, keyboard, and vocal parts their own separate sonic space to stick in. All of a sudden the mix will feel a lot more open and spread out. This is how three-person bands like Rush manage to get a huge sound. You don’t need to add a ton of parts and turn the amps up to 11 – you just need sonic space in the mix.
Voice Leading and Inversions
Okay, now that we’ve identified the big problem, let’s look at how voice leading and chord inversions can help you address these issues.
Voice leading is a way of arranging the notes in chords so they move as smoothly as possible through chord changes.
A lot of times, voice leading utilizes chord inversions to avoid large jumps between chords. An “inversion” is when a chord is organized with a note other than the root played in the bass.
So let’s take a look at some examples. It’s pretty standard for guitarists and keyboardists to learn a few root position chord shapes and them jump them around to create different chords in a progression.
With root position chords, a standard I-IV-V progression would look something like this:
Pretty jumpy, right? You can see you need to make some pretty big interval leaps to get from the C Major to the F Major and from the G Major back to the C Major.
If, however, you chose to voice lead that progression, you can keep everything in a much tighter register:
By starting with a C Major chord in root position and moving to a 2nd inversion F Major chord, you’d only have to move two notes. Then move everything up one step to get to the 2nd inversion G Major Chord. Much tighter, right? Not only will this sound smoother, it also frees up a lot of sonic space on the staff for other instrument parts in the arrangement.
Using Voice Leading to Create Space in Your Arrangements
Okay, now let’s talk about application! Next time you’re feeling like you’re getting a muddy live mix, take a look at your arrangement. Is each part staying in their own sonic space? Or are they overlapping and butting into each other?
If you’re seeing a lot of overlapping, try using voice leading to tighten things up. Instead of playing power chords all over the neck, use inversions to keep the guitar part confined to a specific area on the neck. Same for the keyboard. That will free up the upper registers for the singer so your vocals will really soar out of the mix, and the lower registers for the bass to really plant a solid groove.
Music Theory is a Set of Tools, Not Rules
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to use voice leading or inversions all the time if it doesn’t fit with your vision for a song. Sometimes a jumpy chord progression can sound great when a smooth voice-led progression seems to lack the impact you’re looking for. The main takeaway is to just be aware of the space in your arrangement and how each part interacts in your mix.
(If you want more music theory tips, New Artist Model has a free ebook for you right here: click to download Inside the Hits. Not only will this ebook take you through key music theory concepts, you’ll also see how they are used in popular hit songs. This will give you some ideas for how you can use music theory in your own writing and playing.)
If you want to learn more about the language of music and how you can become more fluent in music theory fast and easy, then checkout Hit Music Theory. It is a new approach to learning music theory by taking a look at what makes hit songs tick, and how you can use the same techniques in your writing and playing.
Chelsea G. Ira is the Director of Marketing for The New Artist Model.