Working in key. It’s all in the formula!

Here’s a useful tip on understanding basic scales for those of you who aren’t the greatest at music theory but want to start experimenting and make sure you are staying in complementary keys to your samples. First off, on any keyboard, each key (white or black) represents what is called a semi-tone.

Piano Keyboard

With this in mind, depending on whether you are in a Major or Minor, the rule for determining the scale is as follows:

Major scale: Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone
Minor scale: Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone

So how do you put those formulas to use?

Let’s say you are starting out your track with a loop from a sample pack that is listed as being in Cmajor. If you put your fingers on the keyboard for a CMaj they will be on the blue keys below. (If you aren’t sure where your fingers would be placed for any chord, you can use this)


We are in a Major scale, so we’ll use the major formula. Moving from the first key in your chord (C) just count up key this way: Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone.

So what you would get is C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C. This is the scale of C, and all these individual keys will be complimentary. You can play them individually with your chord, or you can make complimentary chords using combinations of them. (C is a unique scale in that it’s Major scale is made of all white keys).

What if we started with a Dmajor though? Well, starting with our finger on D, if we then count up Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone we get the following: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D. This is the scale of D, which includes some white and some black keys.

So again, these keys can be played in succession individually (let’s say to make a bassline to compliment your Dmaj) or they can be used in combination to create complimentary chords (like an AMaj or a GMaj for example).

So how can you put this to use in the studio?

Let’s say you find a sample from a sample pack and it’s in a CMaj. A great next step is to take some pieces of coloured tape and stick them to the keys in that scale – remember for a major just take the root key and then count up Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone, sticking a piece of tape on each key.

You can now start playing with sounds and using these keys individually come up with some great accompanying melodies or basslines. Or you can use some of these keys in combinations to make complimentary chords. (If the complimentary chord bit is a bit confusing remember you can always refer to the Camelot wheel (below) and then use this chord finder to find complimentary chords.)

Camelot Wheel

Use the same method when working with samples in Minor keys – the process is the same, but in the case of minor chords just use the formula for a minor scale, which is: Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone. Again, this will help you to determine what keys make up the minor scale of your root note.

Just memorizing those two patterns and having some coloured tape handy in the studio will begin to build a great foundation for you and really start to open your eyes to the basics of music theory, making your music making a much more enjoyable process. In the end, your track will sound much more professional and pleasing to the ear, because the parts you play in will be in key.

Want a little extra help? There are great tools out now that can help you create great chord progressions without being a trained musician. Check out Loopmasters Deep House & Jazz Chords Ableton Rack, or Plugin Boutique’s Scaler.

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