Teaching Theory Using Ableton Live

Teaching Theory Using Ableton Live

A New Way to Approach Music Theory

by Michael Hayden


Do you incorporate music theory into your classroom? Ever thought about using a digital audio workstation? Regardless of your previous experience, programs such as Ableton Live are a wonderful way to teach music and music theory. Ableton Live specifically can be used to show students how scales are constructed, how to build chords, and to highlight differences in rhythmic patterns that students will encounter in music. Used widely in the music industry for genres ranging from electronic to hip hop, jazz to experimental, Ableton Live (or more commonly Live) is a powerful digital audio workstation that can easily be used with all music students, regardless of previous musical experience. Let’s take a closer look at a few theory basics and how they can be taught in Live using the piano roll.


What is the piano roll?

The piano roll is a term used to refer to the vertical graphic representation of a piano. This is used for note entry (via keyboard MIDI controller or mouse) in Ableton Live as well as other digital audio workstations. In addition to pitch, the piano roll in Live graphically represents note duration (rhythm), meter, clock time, and the numbers of measures/beats within a measure. In the image below, there are four beats (indicated by numbers 1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4) which are circled. Finally, each horizontal cell represents a division of that beat. In the example below, each cell is one quarter of the beat, or a sixteenth note.

Piano Roll Layout


Rhythmic patterns

Since the piano roll is a visual representation of what’s happening in a segment of music,  it can be used to see the differences in rhythmic values and can thus be used to compare differences in note length (duration). This works well with students who are being introduced to more complicated rhythms as well as with students who are learning about rhythmic patterns and note durations for the first time. The image below illustrates common rhythms and how they appear in the piano roll.

Beat Duration


Now let’s take a look at an example of a simple drum pattern (created in Live using the piano roll) with the same drum part written in standard notation layered on top. The major benefit to using the piano roll to teach drum patterns is that it allows students to see how much space a particular rhythm occupies, rather than solely using a musical symbol (like a quarter note).

Drum Beat


You can use both notational systems (standard and iconic) to link the similarities between the two.


Building scales

Ableton Live can also easily be used to introduce how scales are built. Again, because of the visual aspect of the program and the piano roll, students are able to see the interval distance between each note in the scale. See examples below for both major and minor scales. Looking at the examples below, we can build scales in the same fashion as standard notation and notes on the staff.


The benefit of using Ableton Live is that you can teach more universal concerts (pattern of whole and half steps) of building scales without having to narrow to a specific instrument or clef.

Notice the pattern of whole and half steps in the major and harmonic minor scale example below. Ableton Live also includes note letter names which is critical for performing scales and can serve as the building blocks for creating triads and chords.

C Major Scale


a minor Scale


Now go for it!

You can teach music theory using Digital Audio Workstations like Ableton Live. Using the piano roll allows students to see how rhythms, scales, and chords patterns are constructed. This approach also incorporates relevant music technology and teaches using a piece of sequencing software that our students are using to create music.  You can download free 30-day trial versions of Ableton Live at www.ableton.com. Additionally, there are numerous MIDI keyboard controllers, and trigger pads which include lite versions of Live. Since beginning to use Live in my digital music composition classes, I have seen students walk away with a firmer grasp of rhythmic values, beat duration, how to build scales, and how to build chords.


Michael Hayden presented a session on “Rock Band: Bridging the Gap” at the 2015 National In-Service Conference. Submit a session proposal for the 2016 National In-Service Conference by January 15, 2016.


About the author

orchestra teacher

Michael Hayden is a music educator from Milwaukee, WI. He teaches 6th-12th grade orchestra, digital music production, and rock band for Whitnall Middle/High School, which launched 1:1 iPad programs in 2013. Hayden is passionate about music and technology, especially the new and relevant ways students can create meaningful and unique music compositions using a variety of recording/sequencing hardware and software that are readily available. Additionally, Mike is a frequent presenter at various state and national education conferences in the areas of music technology, secondary general music, composition, technology integration, and personalized learning. Finally, Mike is an instructional technology specialist, serving on various pilot and training teams for his school district.

Website: www.michaeldhayden.com

Twitter @Hayden__Michael

Email: michayden@gmail.com

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