“Producer” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Some producers focus on making beats, others produce bands, some make remixes. When it comes down to it, we’re all working on music that we hope people enjoy. So, do you need to know music theory to be a producer? I’ll go ahead and give you the short answer at the top: kinda.
How does music theory help producers?
At the end of the day, music is all about conveying a certain emotion. The single most important way to make that happen is through a compelling composition. While lyrics play a huge role in the emotional content of a song, melody, harmony, and chords also play a big part. Using the right 7th chord at the right moment can add a sex appeal and a certain smoothness to your song. Playing a minor or major 2 chord in the right spot could give a nostalgic feel to a pop rock tune. Going modal could add to the exotic feel of an otherwise sterile song.
Can you figure those things out without knowing the numbers of the chords, or all of the modes? You absolutely can. If you play an instrument, it’s not hard to experiment with different chord shapes or progressions, and use your ears to find something that sounds cool. I’ve certainly stumbled upon some really interesting musical concepts completely by accident.
Of course, this all has to do with composition. As a producer, your role in each project will vary. That means that sometimes, an artist will come into the studio with an amazing song, and your role is to focus on capturing it and helping them deliver it to the audience. Other times, you’ll be in charge of re-writes, tweaking the composition to help the artist create an impactful work. In those cases, a base knowledge of music theory can come in handy. If something about a certain section is rubbing you the wrong way, it’s helpful to be able to identify why so you can help fix it.
If you’re making beats from scratch, knowing some music theory will help you pinpoint ways to increase the emotional impact of your beats. If you’re wanting to capture a certain vibe, knowing the theory behind how to create that vibe will help you get there quicker and with less experimentation.
Even though the line between producers, songwriters, and engineers has started to blur (often times one person is handling all three), it’s important for producers to be somewhat knowledgable about composition and theory.
The downsides of music theory for producers
After so many years in the music industry, I’ve come across producers and artists who are dogmatic with regards to music theory. Sometimes, those folks have shot down cool ideas because it didn’t fit their mold of what is “correct”. There are going to be times when you’ll create something that’s “wrong” by traditional music theory standards, but it might sound cool to a listener. When it comes to applying music theory as a producer, it’s important to remember this one key thing:
It’s all about communication.
Producing music for artists is all about communicating. Sometimes, you’ll want to make a tweak to a song to bring the level of the composition up. If that’s the case, I’d avoid using “music theory says this” as your reason. If you can explain your proposed changes using emotional language, instead of theoretical, your ideas will probably be better received.
Saying something like “I think moving to this chord during the last part of the verse will really highlight the emotion you’re trying to convey with the lyrics” is a lot more compelling to an artist than “it’s good music theory to use a minor 4 here”. Then, you can play the section back to them with your suggested change. Yes, ultimately you’d be suggesting the same thing, but explaining why the changes will make the song more emotional or more interesting to the listener is the best way to communicate.
Nobody (reasonable) is expecting producers to be theory wizards
If you’re producing for an artist who knows all about music theory (let’s say they’re a jazz group with tons of unique changes), they’ve probably got the music theory covered. They’re coming to you because you know things about production that they don’t.
I’ve worked on some projects where the theory is way over my head (weird time signatures, crazy harmony), but if the artist is writing music using intense theory, they’ll have that figured out. You can focus on getting good performances, making sure the tones are on point, and making the sure vibes in the studio are good.
So, do you need to know music theory to be a producer?
Like I said at the start of this post, the answer varies based on what you’re trying to do. In my opinion, it’d be really hard to have a career as a producer with zero knowledge of music theory and composition, and at least a basic skill level at one instrument. Realistically, I don’t think you’d be looking to become a producer without at least some musical background. But if you know absolutely nothing about music theory, it’s probably a good idea to do some learning. Knowing the note names, chord shapes, and some basic scales would be a good starting point.
Concepts like the circle of fifths are worth being familiar with (e-book about Circle of Fifths for Guitar (free with Kindle Unlimited)), and things like alternate tunings and modes are also useful for guitarists (Killer Guitar Rigs has a big library of theory content).
There are tons of resources for free on sites like YouTube. Andrew Huang has a great video that breaks down the basics of music theory in half an hour.
There are some things you realistically will never need. I still don’t know how to read music. I don’t have perfect pitch (something you’re born with). I have decent relative pitch, but nothing like Rick Beato (check out his modes video here, it’s great). However, over the last few years, I’ve done what I can to brush up on theory. If you are into YouTube, channels like 12tone, Adam Neely, and Charles Cornell are great places to start. They fall into the “info-tainment” category, aiming to entertain viewers while also imparting some knowledge. Click around their videos and find ones that interest you. I promise you’ll learn something!
Truth be told, music theory isn’t totally required for producers, but nobody has ever regretted learning more stuff about their art-form/career! So take some time, click through some videos/e-books, and you’ll expand your musical toolkit.