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How to improve your live sound with music theory

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Music theory is a set of tools you can lean on to help you write and compose, and being deliberate in how you arrange your parts can translate to a better sound on stage.

Music theory is something that a lot of musicians learn in the context of 100-year-old classical music. It lives in a book with tedious exercises and that’s about where the practicality ends. But as a musician, music theory is one of the most useful things you can learn – and it goes way beyond scales and Do, Re, Mi.

In fact, here’s a really easy music theory technique that can instantly improve your live sound.

Overcoming the muddy live sound

A lot of times when musicians go into a live venue, they think a good sound is totally dependent on the skill of the sound guy, and if the sound is bad, the finger gets pointed straight at the person behind the board. But in reality, a good live sound starts with your songs and how you arrange the parts.

If you have a five-person band and each instrument is playing in whatever register they want to without really thinking, there’s going to be some overlapping. Maybe the guitar is playing power chords all over the neck and cutting into the register the keyboardist is playing in. And maybe the bassist is playing too high and bumping into the guitar part. In this case, there’s no space between each instrument and you end up with an overall muddy and small sound. Even the best sound guy out there won’t be able to get it sounding incredible.

But, if each of those five instruments stay within a certain register and are careful to give each other space, the mix will sound much bigger and more open. This is how some bands with only a few players are able to get such a big sound on stage. It’s not necessarily that there’s a lot going on, it’s that everything is spread out, creating more sonic space in the arrangement. Go into a venue with an arrangement like this and the sound guy will love you.

Creating space in your arrangements

Okay, so how do you actually create space in your arrangement? The easiest way to instantly improve your arrangements is to learn and understand voice leading.

A lot of times when we think about voice leading we think of choir arrangements – literally arranging voices. But it goes way beyond that and is totally practical in modern music.

Essentially, it’s just a way to go from one chord to the next with as little movement as possible. So instead of jumping around the keyboard playing the same root-position chord shape, you would use inversions and different voicings of the chords to keep everything around the same place.

As a quick example, let’s say you were playing a basic C, F, G chord progression. If you’re only playing root position chords or power chords, you’d have to jump up an interval of a 4th to get from C to F and down a 5th to get from G back to C. Play it on your instrument and you’ll see how jumpy it sounds.

If, however, you chose to voice lead that progression, you could get from C to F by only moving a few notes. By starting with a C Major chord in root position and moving to a 2nd inversion F Major chord, you’d only have to move two notes. The C would stay the same, the E would move up to F, and the G would move up to A.

music theory voice leading

As you can see, you’re hitting the same chords, but you’re staying in a much tighter sonic space to make room for other instruments and parts in the arrangement.

It’s going to take some practice and you’ll definitely have to learn more chord shapes and inversions, but master this technique and your arrangements will improve. If you want more examples, we’re covering voice leading in an upcoming free online master class.

Other voice leading applications

Once you get a hang of playing chords in different inversions, you can start experimenting with other voice leading techniques using open and closed position chords and strategically moving the notes in your chords to create a sense of movement and anticipation in your arrangement.

Open position chords are simply chords whose notes are spaced out over more than an octave – so there’s more space in the chord itself. Close position chords are much tighter and take up less than an octave. You can use open and closed position chords deliberately to create a sense of “opening up” or “closing off” in your songs.

You can also choose to move all the parts in your arrangement in a certain direction to create a sense of anticipation. If the bass, guitar, and keyboard are all moving up through a scale, the listener will start to anticipate where the progression is going. This creates a strong pull that can be used before a chorus to draw the ear into the big hook. You can also choose to intentionally do something unexpected and not follow through with the anticipation you created, which is another cool effect.

Tools not rules

Music theory is not a set of rules, it is simply a way to describe how we hear music and a set of tools you can lean on to write and compose. What you use in your music is entirely dependent on what you want to hear.

If you want a really jumpy chord progression in your song, play it. If you want to mix voice leading in some sections with blocky chords in others, go for it. The key is to be aware of how the parts in your arrangement are interacting and use the techniques intelligently and deliberately to achieve the sound you’re hearing in your head.

Dave Kusek is the founder of New Artist Model and Berklee Online. Over the years he’s worked with tens of thousands of musicians around the world across every genre imaginable and in many different markets. New Artist Model is an online music business school designed especially for indie musicians. Learn how to turn your music into a career, understand the business, and start thinking like a musical entrepreneur.

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