I’ve had this theory that producers, particularly those that were forced into piano lessons at a young age, usually don’t turn out to be great hip hop producers. I had always felt that in order to master hip hop production, one would have to have a good grasp on what I call sound design (Having the right taste to pick out the coolest sounds) and not necessarily know music theory. Obviously, this theory is supported by basically every universally great hip hop producer, you know your Kanye’s, Dr.Dre’s, and Timbaland’s. I’ve even noticed this phenomonen anecdottally, whenever I come across producers who know music theory, their beats usually come across as mediocre as if they are confined by the rules of music theory. In other words, they are only hearing the notes and not the way the actual instrument sounds in relation to the other sounds within the beat and can’t tell it doesn’t sound interesting and cool.
But I’m starting to reconsider this.
And here’s why: I finally bit the bullet and learned music theory. Now I’ve always had a basic understanding of things like chord progressions but I never knew why certain chords follow others and was mostly content (and proud) to play by ear. Now that I’ve learned the why (through the help of some great teachers), I’ve actually found myself paying more attention to the notes rather than the sound design. And this has switched around the way I hear music, as an audio engineer, I usually focus on sound design first (i.e. Does this sound cool?) and music theory second (i.e. Does this chord progression make sense or is this singer in key? ) And in learning music theory, I’ve realized that my original theory is actually wrong or at least not the whole story.
As you can probably guess, the key to being a great producer is not only have a solid grasp of sound design but also of music theory! (I’m not shouting at you when I say that but it feels like such a eureka moment).
Sound design + Music Theory = Greatness