I had an e-mail from boyinaband.com reader “Eclectic Electric”…

The Question

Hi Dave,

I need your advice/help, I hope you don’t mind emailing you directly…

First off your clear, concise, intelligently worded and often amusing tutorials are awesome! I’ve learnt a lot in the past week that I’ve been watching some of your videos, keep up the excellent work! :D

Now for the part where I need help! I’m a programmer from South Africa, who used to dj and mess around with production back in high school. I was all set to go to sound engineering college, but my parents wouldn’t pay for it and said it wasn’t a worth while career. So I decided to pursue my first love – programming, I love what I do, but it did result in me spending less and less time on music, until I eventually stopped completely.

A few weeks ago, I met up with a mate who is still dj’ing and trying to make it big, and hear the new Paul Van Dyk album and was blown away, I realised that I’d been missing something that I really love! A few days later while catching up on what I’d been missing, I came across the new deadmau5 album, which is more along the lines of my old dj style and decided to get back into production! At least part time…

Previously I used to create samples in fruity loops, export as wave and arrange in acid music, but this time around I wanted to do things properly, my ultimate goal is to make professional sounding tracks! I don’t care about making buckets of money, I’m in this because I love it, but I am very self critical and want to make tracks on par with the pro’s…eventually!

So after finding your videos (FTW!) I’ve quickly got to find my way around reason, and feel that I’m going in the right direction. My problem, and the reason for this email, is that I’ve always felt like I’m just messing around and don’t really know what I’m doing. I still have a lot of my own samples, and kicks and so on that I have from my dj’ing days, and I manage to get kicks, basslines and effects going ok, but once that’s down I feel lost. When it comes to making a riff or synth or melody, I’m lost. At best I’ll mess around in a synthesizer till I get a sound I like, but when I get to the note editor I really am lost. I have no idea where to put notes, how long they should be or anything! I’ve managed to sometimes get by with random placement, but it just feels wrong and is never what I was after obviously, because it’s all random!

I followed a trance lead tutorial you did, but when it came to the notes I was lost again. I have no idea how to get the lead going as you did! This is part of the problem, but also how one comes up with original leads/riffs. It blows my mind a little how one would come up with an original arrangement of notes, surely it can’t all be random placement until it sounds good?
This all being said, I’m getting frustrated because I don’t know how to change the situation. Other than my dj’ing, I don’t have any musical background, so I’m starting piano lessons since I think it will help the situation, and I’ve always wanted to play an instrument.

I know that it’s going to take time and effort to get where I want to be, and that there’s no shortcuts, but I also feel like I’m missing some fundamentals and don’t know where to start! Can you point me in the right direction?

Thanks for taking the time to read all of this, I hope it makes sense and my questions aren’t too open ended!

Best Regards,
Eclectic Electric

Something any self respecting beginner producer will ask – how do I make my riffs sound better?   How do I go about learning to make good melodies?

Here’s my answer…

The Answer

Hey there!

Thanks for the kind words, it is awesome to hear that my tutorials have been of use!

It’s also awesome to hear that you intend to chase the dream :D

Regarding coming up with notes – Let me tell you a Short Story.

I remember when I first played on Dance eJay as a kid I used to use premade loops, then when I found the note editor I was completely at a loss.   I specifically remember thinking that I’ll never be able to come up with anything that sounds good and being quite disheartened.

About 7 years after that, I got back into music production and started simple – I made some pretty crap songs, but from doing that, I learned which parts of those songs stuck in my head.   I tried to emulate songs I liked, writing similar riffs and progressions.   Eventually, I accidentally found I’d taught myself what the key of C minor was, since that was my favourite selection of notes to write riffs with.

I started getting frustrated eventually because most of what I wrote sounded very similar.   I tried my hand at writing different genres of music and found that I had to use a whole load of different techniques.   Hip hop is one of the best genres to try for a beginner since it’s so varied, but you can still keep things simple and have them sound awesome!

Later, my band You and What Army got two new members, both of whom had done music at university, so they knew a load of stuff about music theory.   I learned some of the basics from writing with them – and it didn’t at all feel like it was hard going – it was fun, since we were actually making music rather than just using the theory.

And that brings me to now – I’ve written more songs than I can remember and that has taught me so much.   The above story can be summed up in a few concise pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t get disheartened – Everyone starts from scratch
  2. Try to write as many songs as possible – you’ll naturally learn what sounds good.
  3. Emulate your favourite artists to begin with – your own style will occur naturally as you begin to understand which parts of their music you like best!
  4. Make friends who are also musicians – you can teach each other things (I’ve taught my friends in the band loads about computer music – they even watch my tutorials sometimes!)
You mentioned Piano lessons – I only took those for a while as a 5 year old kid so I haven’t got that much experience with them (except that, as I remember it, you get free dinosaur stickers after every lesson), but I’m sure they’ll help considerably so long as you have a good teacher!

It is definitely not random placement, there is a huge amount of theory behind note selection, but if you keep working at it; following tutorials, researching the theory and just making music, you will learn what works and what doesn’t :)

And then chances are a year after you feel satisfied with your skills, you’ll feel like you didn’t know anything a year ago.   You never stop learning :D

Any answer to an open question is going to be subjective, but I hope that helps you or at least encourages you somewhat!

I’ll try to make a blog post on top 10 tips for writing riffs or something as well at some point when I get a moment which might have a few useful starting points for you!

It’s quite a difficult question to answer since so many people learn in so many different ways, so I can only respond with what worked for me – years of arduous self-loathing.   I mean writing music.   It is not easy at all, but it’s so worth it.

So that’s my story – how about you?   If you have some tips on how to go about learning what notes work together then leave them in a comment below!


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8 Responses to “Reader Question: How do I choose notes that work together?”

  1. Hey!

    First off I want to start by saying that I’m fairly new to reason 4.0 (less than a month) and I have learned more from your tutorials than anything I have seen on youtube and read in the book. Thank you!

    Since I was a little kid I always wanted to do something with music. My mom made me take piano lessons with I was young (about 7), up until I was about 14. At the time I didn’t necessarily like going to my lessons. Now I’m 23 and when I look back I have my mom to thank for getting my foot into the door.

    I stopped taking lessons when I was 14 and completely stopped playing the piano. I always wanted to be in a band so when I was 18 I bought a casio 3500 keyboard and became the keys player in our old band my friends and I put together. When I started playing again, for some reason, I was able to play 10x better than any point during my lessons. It’s almost like it was meant to be.

    As time went on the band split and I ended up buying a yamaha motif 6 keyboard, mostly to just mess around on, but always wanted to do more with it. When I got to my early 20′s I started getting into the rave scene here in Salt Lake City, UT, which is booming. Not just to party but for love of electronic music. I always love watching the pro’s. (deadmau5, Tiesto, Armin, Rabbit, etc)

    Me and some friends always talked about how cool it would be to become a DJ. I finally went out and got some turntables and started messing around with them. I felt like playing other peoples music wasn’t enough, but rather thought how amazing it would be to actually spin my own music. To become a producer I guess.

    I just got a copy of reason 4.0 about a month ago. I love it, even though it confuses the hell out of me. Like I stated earlier, your tutorials help a ton! However, I feel like my ability to write piano music, and play excellent piano, is limited. No matter how good I am on the keys I just can’t seem to translate this into my work.

    Now I have put two full songs together and am currently working on my third. I love progressive trance the best. That’s the sort of style I guess I’m going for. I guess is what I’m trying to ask is what would you do (if you were me) if you had excellent piano abilities, and loved trance music? Would you rely more on your piano skills or just strap that and learn from scratch? I am familiar with redrum and what not but I just feel like I am constantly limiting my abilities by not fully utilizing my piano skills. What would be some tips on that approach? (if you have any at all)

    I feel that in life you should do what you want to do, not what others want you to do. I would rather be poor and happy, doing something I love, rather than rich and miserable, doing something I dislike. I feel like music production is the only thing I truly want to do so I am going for it. I have been spending about 4 hours a day on this computer trying to learn as fast as possible. You have helped me more than you know. thanks again

    Thank you!

  2. hey there-

    i, too felt awash in a sea of possibility when faced with the note editor. any arrangement of any notes of any length is a little daunting.

    the first step for me is getting a midi controller keyboard. i can not stress to you enough how much this will help you write music. find or program synths you enjoy and then start playing with them on the keyboard!

    you will soon discover a much more accessible way to write music. use reason’s record feature and hammer out your basic tune, THEN go into the note editor and clean it up a little bit.

    before you know it you’ll already know what the notes will look like before you even play them!

    hope this helps.


  3. Hey mate,

    When I started music production I found the note part the easiest, but the other stuff hardest. This was because I played guitar and had learnt scale shapes and note names. I recommend learning an instrument (piano will really help) – but focus more on what sounds good than trying to stick to scales and play what’s ‘correct’. What’s correct is what sounds good to you – so please make sure you don’t limit yourself with scales you learn on piano. Having said that, they can work as great ‘guidelines’ to help start you out on what notes might or might not sound good together.


  4. I do tend to agree that a knowledge of some instrument (piano) in this respect is very necessary and atleast a basic grade 2 theory knowledge. This has aided me in so many productions from clubs for churches to plain down chill trance and the like.

    Wot I can say is that Eclectic Electric – keep at it.. I been busy for two years now with Reason but have learned more in 15 minutes on the loo watching Dave’s tutorials than an actual Reason Manual written for sound engineering students.

    Well I must say that I hope this sight flourishes and we can attent this sight like an online university because Dave’s tut’s are straight and to the point (and with his sense of humour aswell).

    But where notes are concerned, it is a technical thing and well hopefully we can all learn something from each other because music is a universal language and religion which touches almost any person no matter wot!

  5. composition is my major, so naturally I’m going to talk about theory a little bit :]

    Theory is everything when it comes to note selection. For me, the melody is based off the chord progression and so on. “Well” ,you might ask, “what if you come up with the melody first?” My first approach is that I just write the chord progression based of the down beat of the melodic notes, obviously there are more ways to do this, but yeah. Example- D major to G major and A major (I IV V :] ) I would write the melody based strictly off those chords, or loosely, depending on what sound I’m going for (either dissonance, consonance or in between)

    Anyways, I don’t want to ramble on about something that might not make sense to some.

    As Dave said, one will naturally figure out which notes work the “best” together. Listening to many styles of music and trying to emulate those styles can really expand ones thinking about note selection and song construction.

    K I’ve rambled on long enough. I just want to give a BIG thank you to you Dave. Your tutorials are among the best on youtube and your site absolutely rocks. Cheers!

  6. I’m an avid computer user, former party kid, and passionate about music but with Salieri’s talent (so far, anyways).

    The commenter that earlier said to get a MIDI controller is dead on. You can get a used M-Audio Oxygen on ebay for ~50-60 bucks. It’s worth it. It only does 2 octaves, but for simply figuring out a chord progression or riff, it’s soooooo necessary.

    One trick I’ve learned, so far, is this:
    Figure out your chord progression first — just tape pairs/trios of keys together cyclically until you find a sequence of 3-5 chords that sounds resolved (comes full circle).

    For your riffs, figure out your full scale (play eight notes that include one of the chords you determined earlier) this may take a few tries until you get the hang of it. Past musical experience will help TONS. Once you have your scale, just start tapping something out in it. Don’t be afraid to be bold and hit high notes AND low notes, or off-scale notes too. Once you find something good, hit “record” in reason, play it out as best you can, then stop and go into note editor and clean it up.

    When I write music, I generally have no idea WTF chord / scale I’m playing in is called, I just know that I like how it sounds. I’ve learned a few tricks in chord building (re: whole and half steps) to make educated guesses about which keys to try, but I am functionally illiterate w/r/t music theory.

    Another thing:
    Learn how to use the EQ features in Reason. OMG is that sooooo important.

  7. These are some brilliant suggestions coming from all the commenters!

    It’s great to see such a variety of techniques being used successfully.

    I agree that a MIDI keyboard can be seriously useful when composing, if for nothing else than recording things more quickly!

  8. Woah, awesome comments! I think everyone should join the forum ;)

    I’ve got a StudioLogic VMK 188 Plus midi controller on it’s way to me, and have started piano and composition classes, which are already helping! I can’t wait to get the midi controller, I think that for something like writing a riff or a melody, you need something tactile like a midi keyboard.

    PVD once said that playing live or writing in the studio is something very touch based, you need to feel what you’re doing.

    So between that, and Dave’s awesome videos, I think I’m sorted \:D/

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