Theory Hacks

classroom project by Ethan Hein

Many producers struggle with music theory. In this module, we make concepts like chords and scales intuitive using the MIDI keyboard, Push, and Live’s MIDI devices.

Note: You can do these lessons in the sequence they’re written, or pick and choose from them as needed.

Lesson 1: Melody Writing with MIDI 

Getting started with songwriting and music theory is daunting. The color scheme of the piano keyboard is a painless way to try out ideas with no “wrong” notes, and to learn some scale theory by ear. In this lesson, students use the white keys and black keys to write two short melodies.

Lesson resources

Preparation

  • Download the included Live Sets and open White Keys.als on each computer

  • Consult the extension resource with a list of well-known melodies you can play on just the white or just the black keys and demonstrate playing them (see below)

In the classroom 

  • Step 1: Introduction – What is a Scale? Demonstrate how playing only the white keys creates musical-sounding note combinations. Do the same on the black keys. 

  • Step 2: Warmup activity – Melodies in black and white. Student volunteers use the white and black keys to improvise over “So What” by Miles Davis. 

  • Step 3: Creative Challenge Part One: The White Keys – students open White Keys.als and create short original melodies over the provided drum and bass tracks using the white keys only.* 

  • Step 4: Creative Challenge Part Two: The Black Keys – students open Black Keys.als and create short original melodies over the provided drum and bass tracks using the black keys only.* 

  • Step 5: Wrap up – students share their melodies with their peers. 

*Activity Option: More advanced students may continue to develop their short loops into full-fledged tracks.

See full lesson plan ›

Lesson 2: The Scale Device

In this lesson, students are introduced to the concept of scales. Students listen to different scales used in well-known pieces of music. They experiment with scales and modes via their MIDI controllers and Live’s Scale device. Finally, they set the Scale device to Phrygian dominant mode and create a short melody.

Lesson resources

Preparation 

  • For the practical introduction: Load the Demo & Sketch Live Set from the Templates folder on each computer

  • For the creative challenge: Have the Phrygian Dominant Live Set downloaded and ready to open on each computer

In the classroom 

  • Step 1: Introduction – explain the concept of a scale, and play examples 

  • Step 2: Demonstrate how to select and play different instruments in the Live Set 

  • Step 3: Practical introduction – students load the Scale device onto one of the MIDI tracks and improvise on the white keys to hear the results

  • Step 4: Creative challenge – students create a short melody in Phrygian dominant mode using the provided Phrygian Dominant Live Set 

See full lesson plan ›

Lesson 3: The Chord Device

Take the mystery out of chord theory using Live’s MIDI devices to generate chords by playing single keys on a keyboard or controller. In this lesson, students learn how to generate chords using Live’s Chord device. They learn to make these chords fit in key with help from the Scale device. They then  have a creative challenge to add a chordal accompaniment to a bassline.

Lesson resources

Preparation

  • Consider students’ skill level at recording melodic parts via MIDI, and select support resources as appropriate.

  • For the creative challenge: Have the Harmonize a Bassline Live Set downloaded and ready to open on each computer

  • Ensure a class playback system is available for students to share their work.

In the classroom 

  • Step 1: Introduction – explain what a chord is and play some examples of chord progressions in various styles 

  • Step 2: Practical introduction – have students use the Chord device to create some short progressions, with and without the Scale device

  • Step 3: Creative challenge – students use the Harmonize a Bassline Live Set to add chords to a short bassline via the Chord and Scale devices 

  • Step 4: Student sharing and feedback of work – students upload their files, play back their melodies, and give feedback to their peers 

See full lesson plan ›

Assessing Project Learning

We have listed some considerations that may inform how you assess and give feedback on the creative challenges.

See more about assessing project learning ›

Learning Live and Push

The project makes use of the following workflows and concepts:

  • Recording MIDI into clips
  • Editing and quantizing MIDI in the piano roll
  • Playing scales on Push

Learn more about these workflows and concepts ›

Get all lessons and materials 

All the lesson plans and materials are available for you to download from Google Drive. Feel free to copy and edit them to suit your needs and teaching style.

Select the language you want to view the materials in:

Author's Bio 

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in music education at New York University, and an adjunct professor of music at NYU and the New School.

As a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the development of online tools for music learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza

Together with Will Kuhn, he is the co-author of Electronic Music School: A Contemporary Approach to Teaching Musical Creativity, from Oxford University Press.

He maintains a widely-followed blog at ethanhein.com.