Technology has recently made it possible to create very unconventional sounds, which has led electronic music to go down very distinct sub-genres that have very distinct noises. As some examples, there's "the drop" and the "wub-wub" of dubstep. But all of these things seem to be very different from chord progressions in music theory.

There is certainly a lot of talent and knowledge that goes into creating some electronic music. For example, here is an electronic artist going over how he creates his music, and he goes into a lot of detail about what types of sounds he's trying to create. Are there "theories" in electronic music? If there aren't, is it because the genres have been developed too recently for a "meta" theory to be created?

  • Music theory is much more than just chord progressions. One area that 100% overlaps with classical study is form. The exact terms you use to describe them may differ, but the concepts are the same.
    – Dom
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 0:22
  • 1
    "sound design" is a field in itself en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_design. it can't be compared to theory.
    – user34288
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 2:20

4 Answers 4


All the same conventions and lessons from typical music theory still apply in electronic genres, but I believe what you hinting at is some added emphasis on sound design. We sometimes take timbre for granted with non-electronic music styles, since there tend to be "tried-and-true" instrument/tone color combinations for most genres.

In synthesis, you have a lot of control over the timbre of each part at your fingertips. So much so that you might even be building up each sound starting from a sine wave as is the case for FM synthesis.

Many early synthesis focused on replicating timbres of real instruments, but some synthesis-specific descriptors of timbre have arisen over time:

Arp is a name commonly given to a staccato sound (or patch) suited for arpeggios. This developed in part because some prominent synthesizers (the Juno 60 comes to mind) included an automated arpeggiator to facilitate this type of playing. In the theme to Stranger Things you hear a typical arp sound throughout the piece.

Pads are sounds designed particularly for chordal work, and typically have a more ambient quality with slow attacks and long releases. It's kinda the synth equivalent to a string section. You can hear this sort of sound throughout in the background of the above piece.

Bass and Leads are pretty self-explanatory.

Then you can have some more genre-specific conventions for sounds, sometimes arising from a particular piece of gear that became popular during the time. An Acid Bass patch refers to the type of sound you can get from a Roland TB-303 while modulating the frequency and resonance controls.

In fact, most electronic styles have been influenced quite heavily by the gear itself. Most synthesizers through history have been best at repetitive patterns with different parts coming and going in piecemeal rather than sweeping, intricate compositional changes. Additionally, the "knob-tweaking" capabilities of most synths is an avenue for generating a lot of sonic interest in some styles. Acid house in particular is a good case study for how the style of a subgenre was heavily influenced by a particular instrument. Studying the equivalent development for other genres would be a good place to look for the "theory" of these individual genres.


Sure, there is theory to it. When somebody says "music theory" they are really just talking about an explanation of how something was done. You can pretty much always work backwards and figure that stuff out.

And, yes, the reason you don't hear more about electronic music theory is because of how relatively new it is. In order for the theory of say classical, jazz, or even pop music to be codified into something that everybody more or less agreed with it took years of people making that music and years more of people studying it and people studying those studies until finally some sort of pedagogy emerged. But the theory was there the entire time, evolving with the music, but there.

And just because that hasn't all happened yet for electronic music doesn't mean that the theory isn't there. The books just haven't been written about it yet—generally speaking; I'm sure there are some. Instead the information mostly resides with the people the make the music. There are books about some aspects of electronic music like sampling and synthesis. While other aspects—electronic music uses chords too—are much the same as in other genres.


I believe you are mixing up music theory together with sampling and mastering in the same box.

There are applications of music theory in electronic music, but in my opinion the focus relies more on producing and combining samples, creating wide and bright dynamic ranges and catchy dancing rythms rather than building complex harmonies.

Of course there are chords playing in the background as pads or synthesized violins and leading melodies following common scales like Minor or Major (maybe anothers like Harmonic Minor and it's modes on specific subgenres like Psy Trance for example), and this serves as base to the song. But the real challenge when creating a song in an electronic genre is finding the best samples and effects and employing them together in the best way possible to reflect your desire when building that song.

Techno has to be groovy with focus on rhythmics, trance needs more melodic content and more ups and downs, dubstep will mix a gazillion of different sounds and effects together in the same bar, ambient will use more harmonic contents and create more moody vibes, etc.

Applied music theory is very simple on these genres if we compare it to jazz or classical music. Theories for build ups before a breakdown or groovy sensations stand aside from conventional music theory and haven't been yet structured in a way that can be studied from, that I know of.

  • Could it be that your understanding of electronic music is limited to Electronic Dance Music and the like? Electronic music is so much more than EDM (most of the latter is primitive indeed) and absolutely don't have to be centered around sampling, not to say catchy rhythms. Moreover, there are quite sophisticated works in the genre. One of the prominent earlier examples is music of Iannis Xenakis.
    – ᄂ ᄀ
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 7:23
  • @fnt Yes, I assumed the OP meant electronic dance music. Electronic music as you mention involves many and entirely different subgenres, would be hard to mention concepts that apply in all of them.
    – EzLo
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 7:38

Absolutely. The concept of "music theory" is ultimately defined by musicians, so if people decide that electronic music is useful to consider under the umbrella of "music theory", then it is music theory. Some institutions (such as my alma mater), already offer courses in electronic music as part of a complete 4-year degree in music.

People that believe that the salient concepts of electronic music are incompatible with traditional music theory seem to forget that sound design is really an expansion of the traditional concept of orchestration. This is basically about choosing things like which instruments will best convey the intended effects of particular passages in a composition.

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