Producer Blog

Making Trapanese: The Art of Music Theory 

Quest For Sauce

If you're anything like me #WOLFGANG, you've probably found yourself struggling with creating dope melodies. Especially after only sampling for years. Being a prolific sample based producer doesn't always translate well to being a dope composer. So I struggled with "scales and chords" using A Passion For Jazz - Tools. I became prolific at playing all the chords in C Minor, but no Sauce.

While working on "Sounds of the Samurai" in 2008 with Tommy D (an old beat tape), I discovered what I was missing ... something exotic. And from that project forward, I continued to practice this style until Trapanese Vol. 1. Which was released in 2017, and received well by many of my fellow producers. I realized this was my "thing".

Get Trapanese Vol.1 & Vol.2 (Sample Pack)

Exotic Scales

There's something about "Jap In Sen" that took my playing to a new level. I found myself creating interesting melodies for the first time in my life. I'm not sure if it's due to the note spacing in this kind of scale, or if it's the sounds it lends you to using, but it just works for me. But like all things, you may get tired of the same 'ol scale. So over time I added a few more "Tricks" to my tool belt. 

  • Akebono scale. 
  • Hirajōshi scale. 
  • In scale. 
  • Insen scale. 
  • Iwato scale. 
  • Ritsu and ryo scales. 
  • Yo scale.

Read more about them: Wiki - Japanese Musical Scales

Doing The Most

Playing 5-7 keys in a scale seems easy, but remembering those groupings, 7+ variations over 12 different keys, can be challenging. I have a few "pictochords" books that promise to help you with your memory, nope! Not for me atleast. I even flirted with taking a few courses from well known gospel keyboardists on youtube. But they focused more on their squeeze page then providing context of their "simple" methods. So I never took a bite ...

So I figured, "what if I can take the 1 scale I really know, C Minor, and apply it to any other scale?" sort of like transpose on your midi controller (which is how i made music outside of C minor for years). And that's when my Eureka moment with Ableton Live came ... 40 Scales Presets For Abletion Live

Hacking Music Theory

For most scales, the 1, 4, and 5 chords are the most important, as they reveal what the key is. For major scales this is usually seen as I-IV-V. Minor is usually listed as i-iv-v. With that limited know-how, I would setup many scales in Ableton and transpose my midi keyboard to have my C key start on the chosen scales "root" or I/i. So I never had to learn new hand positioning or change my muscle memory. So much so ... I'm super prolific at ONLY playing C minor, but I end up creating music based on so many more scales and keys. (You could also use Pitch Midi FX in ableton (before the Scale FX) to transpose incoming notes to desired position as well)

The japanese scales are tricky since they only use 5 keys, similar to pentatonic scales. For this reason, I made my Ableton templates use "only black keys". With a little transpose magic I'm able to make C# (first black key) match the Root of any exotic scale (usually 5 keys) and play the same keys no matter what. This way, i strengthen my muscle memory of just those 5 keys, and just focus on melodies. No more worrying about hand positioning and variations. I hate variations 

Learn about more the circle of fifths and visualize the I-IV-V easier here: Rand Scullard Interactive Circle of Fifths

The Outer Limits

So it may come as no surprise that this sort of workflow has it's limits. For instance, what about other DAWS?

For me, that's what made "ghost channels" in FL Studio so important. At the very least, I could "Draw" the scale in piano role and trace it on a new channel. This is way before Melodyne Hacks and other prolific uses of this tool. And Scale Highlight came long by the FL Studio Beta For Mac. Which allows you to take those "Drawn" scales and save them as presets. 

But when I started using Reason 10, I noticed I didn't have that kind of flexibility with "Players" such as Scales & Chords. As it has a fixed preset list of Scales for each of the 12 keys. Which is fine, but what about my "Yo Scale" ?! YO! 

That's when it dawned on me, these scales "share" keys with OTHER known scales. Even western scales. I always wondered how Tommy D could play "Western" chords around everything I did in a japanese scale. And the answer was super simple - 7 Keyed scales (i.e. C Major), can contain "those 5 keys" found in Japanese, or other exotic scales. You just have to pay attention to the "odd 2" notes when making chord progressions. That revelation changed everything for me. And when I heard about Plugin Boutiques Scaler (Music Theory Chord Generator) - I had to get it! It's detect mode would let me play my "goto" Notes for those scales, and then find EVERY other scale they fit in. It's crazy - you would have to try it out.

Music Theory ... For Life 

With all of that said, I'm starting to take the training wheels off. I'm learning "relative" scales of C minor by hand - where only 1 key changes. I'm playing all white keys (C Major) more often. I'm playing different versions of "all black" keys and starting on a note besides C# and adding a white note. I'm experimenting - and that's what music theory is all about - experimenting. That's how we get the cool "neptune" or PHARRELLIAN stuff as I call it. That's how they made Jazz. That's how you really make music! However, I didn't let "not" having that revelation stop me from composing hundreds of beats prior. In fact, If I didn't get tired of playing the same ol scale - I would of never have come this far. 

If you are like me and need some extra sauce to help you cook up, be sure to check out my sample packs. And also! I made a playlist for you guys -> all of my Music Theory revelations on youtube: MG The Music Theorist Playlist (Youtube) 

Thank you guys for your time and support! 

- MG, You know what I'm about ...