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30 Books That Will Help You Produce Better Music
Electronic music production is an incredibly diverse art form. It captures a range of concepts such as sound design, arrangement, music theory, compositional techniques, and mixing and mastering among many others.
It isn’t necessary to master all of these individual disciplines that electronic music production requires. One can get by without having sound design experience by using presets or overcome the theoretical composition roadblocks by collaborating or partnering with someone who’s strengths lie in that area.
However, it’s important that you diversify yourself as a producer. The essence of learning is connection. That’s what your brain is doing as you learn a new concept or technique, it’s making a connection. The more you learn about acoustics, the more you can apply your knowledge to mixing and mastering.
Acquiring a diverse set of skills and knowledge requires two things: study and practice. Study - to understand techniques, learn why they exist, and what they do. Practice - to see techniques and concepts in action, and to bring the technique down to a more intuitive sub-conscious level (EQing by ear rather than taking an analytical theoretical approach).
This post is aimed for those of you who want to study. Whether your goal is to become better at mixing your tracks, composing them, or simply coming up with ideas in the first place – the list of books below will help you.
It must be noted that some of the books mentioned in this post are not for the faint-hearted, and they’re certainly not a necessary read for producers. For example, the books in the psychology section do not directly correlate to developing your skills as a producer, but rather give you a better understanding of how the brain responds to music (hopefully giving you some ideas).
What You Should Read Before Anything
There’s something you should read before even looking at the books listed below. It’s also completely free.
What is it?
Your DAW’s manual.
That’s right. Your manual contains almost everything you need to know about your DAW – keyboard shortcuts, weird-looking options and parameters, native plugins – you name it. Even if you’ve been using the same DAW for years, I still encourage you to read through the manual, you’ll likely learn something new.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can take a look at the real books.
Music Theory and Composition
1. Music Theory for Computer Musicians
I figured this would be a great book to start the list with. A practical, in-depth look at music theory from the perspective of a computer musician.
What this means is that you’ll be shown examples using a piano roll, rather than pure musical notation. Michael does make a point in the book about musical notation, and it is taught, but for the most part you’ll find this book easy to follow along due to the visual explanations in piano roll form.
Like Michael’s other books (two others are mentioned under this section), Music Theory for Computer Musicians does take quite a bit of time to work through, mainly due to the exercises at the end of each chapter. The plus side to this is that you’ll be doing a lot of practice applying the knowledge you’ve gained.
2. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition
If you have trouble with starting a track, whether it’s creating fundamental ideas, adding a melody to your chord progression and vice versa, or you’re simply wanting to get insight into how music has been traditionally composed – then The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition is perfect for you.
Like the Michael Hewitt books, it features exercises at the end of each chapter with solutions at the back of the book. If you’re looking for a basic understanding of how to write songs, then you’ll find incredible value in this book.
Note: The author, Michael Miller, has also published two other books in the same series:
3. Harmony for Computer Musicians
If you’ve read through Michael Hewitt’s book on music theory, then it’s a good idea to purchase his more advanced book Harmony for Computer Musicians, which is essentially a sequel.
Harmony for computer musicians is a little redundant in the sense that it covers quite a bit that Music Theory for Computer Musicians covered, but for many, this is a nice refresher and it doesn’t hurt. Aside from that, the book digs deep into topics such as arrangement, melody, harmony, modulation, part writing, and much more.
4. Chord Progressions for Songwriters
Sure, it’s not the most interesting title, but it makes sense, because that’s exactly what the book contains.
Chord Progressions for Songwriters takes you on a journey through 21 of the most popular chord progressions that every songwriter should know. Everything from basic chord progressions to more advanced jazz and blues progressions. Yes, I know you’re making electronic music, but having a guide like this at the ready is invaluable when it comes to music production, especially the early stages of a track.
In addition to the lessons, this book also talks about chord substitution and variation, as well as displacement. The exercises are also included as expected which encourage the reader to practice and apply the knowledge put forth.
5. Composition for Computer Musicians
The final in Michael Hewitt’s triad of books is on composition. It’s aimed at those who’ve read the first two books and understand a bit of theory as well as harmony and melody.
It’s more of a production-orientated book, covering techniques and processes like drum programming, basslines, how to use FX and samples, as well as mixing and mastering. The reason I’ve included it in this section is because it covers structure and arrangement, which is fundamental to composition and production.
Mixing and Mastering
6. Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio
One of the first books I ever purchased as a music producer was Mike Senior’s Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio. While not aimed specifically at electronic music producers, the book is regarded as a must-read mainly because of the incredibly simple explanations of relatively hard to understand concepts surrounding mixing and mastering.
Mike gives personal and professional insight into the fundamentals that every mix engineer and producer should know about: what monitors you should buy, why you should use monitors, how to arrange and edit audio for a mixdown, dynamics processing, EQ, and much more.
What I loved most about Mike’s book was the way it was arranged. If you read through it while taking a track through the mixdown process following his advice, you’ll learn more than you ever thought you could.
Available for Kindle
7. Mastering Audio: The Art and Science
Mastering is considered an unnecessary inconvenience in today’s day and age of bedroom producers. After all, the labels do it, right?
It’s true that mastering is the "icing on the cake” so to speak. It’s not going to fix your track, and in general it’s something that should be left to a professional. With that said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to learn about mastering, especially if you want to release your own music independently or do mastering work and build a client base.
Mastering Audio by Bob Katz is the bible when it comes to mastering. It’s relevant as ever, and covers everything from the Katz’ philosophy on mastering to the actual processes of monitoring, dithering and decibels, acoustics, and much more. It’s also a great book to read even if you’re not planning on doing any mastering at all, as some of the techniques can be applied to mixing. The book also covers mixing as it relates to mastering, which is valuable if you’re sending your tracks off to be mastered.
8. The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook
The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook is regarded as one of the best guides for new producers and hobbyists to read. Written by Bobby Owsinski, popular producer/engineer, author, and teacher – the book covers the fundamentals of mixing, arrangement, dynamics processing, layering, and much more.
In addition to a being a well thought out guide, the book also includes interviews with some of the world’s leading audio engineers such as David Pensado, Chris Lord Alge, Ken Scott, and many others.
It’s a great book that will work nicely with Mike Senior’s Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, even if most of the information presented in the two books is similar.
9. Modern Recording Techniques
It’s a given that a book like Modern Recording Techniques will be beyond the scope and interest of most electronic music producers. It leans heavily towards audio engineering students who are in the business of recording live instruments, running a fully-fledged recording session, and learning the ins and outs of room acoustics.
With that being said, it can be a valuable read, especially if you’ve got the money to spare. David Miles Huber and Robert E. Runstein, the authors, have an immense amount of knowledge that shines through in some of the gems hidden in this book. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if your goal is to go above and beyond what’s necessary to know when it comes to music production, then it’s perfect.
Available for Kindle
10. Zen and the Art of Mixing
Most of the books mentioned so far have been heavy educational books, providing a lot of information, but often being a chore to read.
Zen and the Art of Mixing is the perfect book if you’re in the mood to be entertained, enlightened, and inspired. Written by someone who goes under the alias of Mixerman, the book gives a personal approach to recording and mixing music. It touches on the frustrations that many engineers experience, as well as business aspects of the industry.
A great read if you’re interested in the field of audio engineering, or if you simply want to hear another person’s point of view that’s been welcomed by so many.
Available for Kindle
11. Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques
If there’s one book you absolutely must read as an electronic music producer, it’s Rick Snowman’s Dance Music Manual.
This book is idolized. It’s been the response to thousands of questions and problems posed on internet forums, it’s been recommended on various websites around the web, and here I am telling you that it’s the number one book out there when it comes to learning about the art of music production.
Dance Music Manual literally covers everything, including: sound design, mixing and mastering, creative effect use, tension and energy, as well as business and promotion advice that will be of value down the track if you’re a new producer.
It may be a little too basic for those of you who have been producing for a number of years, but if you’re just getting started, there’s no better resource out there.
Available for Kindle
12. The Secrets of House Music Production
While certainly not as in-depth as Rick Snowman’s Dance Music Manual or Mike Senior’s book, The Secrets of House Music Production is still a highly valuable book that contains a goldmine of creative tips and tricks that can be applied to your productions.
For the most part, it’s going to benefit producers who make house, as the title implies. That includes genres like electro and progressive house, as well as tech house and jackin’ – almost all sub-genres.
It’s expensive for what it is, but you also get a 500+ MB CD containing exclusive samples that you can use right away. Even if you’re an experienced producer you’ll find something of value here if you’re prepared to drop some money on it.
13. The Computer Music Tutorial (Technology)
Let me start off by saying that this book is old, like back when trance was trance and house was house kind of old.
It’s written in 1996, and as we all know, things have changed a lot since then. But what’s remained the same is the professional concepts, ideas, and advice put forth in this book. You’ll find a comprehensive explanation of tough areas like digital audio, synthesis techniques, algorithmic composition, synthesizer architecture, system interconnection, and psychoacoustics.
It’s not an easy read by any means, but reading it will give you bragging rights and most likely help you make better music.
14. Behind the Glass
Another old book, but not quite as old is the rather popular Behind the Glass – Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits.
It’s not a technical book, nor is it a philosophy-driven book like Zen and the Art of Mixing; instead, it’s a collection of interviews with the world’s top record producers.
With 37 interviews, you’ll learn how hits were made along with a ton of creative secrets that you won’t find elsewhere. Oh, and once you’re finished, you can read volume 2.
15. How Music Works
Written for music creators and enthusiasts alike, David Byrne’s How Music Works is a true masterpiece that’s given immense insight to the history of music and the impact it’s had over the years. He gives careful attention to the psychological and sociological aspects of music, as well as its evolution.
As a producer, you’ll gain more of an understanding of how music came to be and how it affects people. The only reason I didn’t put this under the Psychology section is because of the range of ideas it covers.
Available for Kindle
Creativity and Learning
16. The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life
The Creative Habit is one of those books you either love, or you don’t. It’s very opinionated, but there is some great advice in it.
Tywla Tharp, the author, uses dancing and choreography as a vehicle for explaining creativity. She writes about how to get out of ruts, how to overcome the fear of starting a project, how to get in your creative zone and more importantly how to stay in it, and a lot more.
I’ve read this book 3 times over, and for good reason. It gives practical advice that will encourage you to take action. However, if you read it with a cynical point of view it will have little effect. The information must be taken with a grain of salt as it is coming from one person’s perspective (and we all know that creativity is different for everyone).
Available for Kindle
Unlike The Creative Habit, Robert Greene’s highly acclaimed book Mastery is not so much about creativity as it is about learning and skill development, put more succinctly, mastery.
It’s a book that takes you on a journey - a journey through the lives of people who once were, masters of the arts and sciences that have shaped our world. It gives you a roadmap for mastering your craft, covering the three phases of learning, finding a mentor, how to read people, and a lot more.
Motivational is an understatement when it comes to this book. You’ll read it, and be dead set on spending the night producing music until your ears bleed. A must read for anyone passionate about what they do.
Available for Kindle
18. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
"Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Steve Jobs, 1996.
We’ve all heard the quote before. It’s controversial in some aspects, but hard to argue with. Artists have been "stealing” things for years, whether it’s an idea, part of a melody, or a technique. There’s really nothing new under the sun, which Kirby Ferguson’s popular documentary Everything is a Remixpoints out so clearly.
Steal Like an Artist capitalizes on Job’s quote and does a damn good job of it. The author writes a message that all of us need to hear – nothing is original, so embrace influence, collect ideas, remix and re-imagine, and ultimately discover your own path. Stealing will not make you unoriginal, but rather more creative.
It’s also quite a small book, small enough so that you can read it in a day and still have time for a creative production session after being so heavily inspired.
Available for Kindle
19. The War of Art
Initially I wasn’t a huge fan of The War of Art. Everyone would rant and rave about it, talking about how it changed their view on creativity and even life as a whole. I started reading it and quickly became confused, mostly due to Steven’s imagination-driven style of writing.
However, I soon found that he was right on the money. When talking about the "resistance”, I immediately felt at home. This guy knows what he’s talking about, he’s been through the same creative struggles as we all have, and he knows how to get past them!
The War of Art will have huge impact on certain people, but very little on others. Some will find nuggets of information and advice that will stay with them for years, and others will find they’ve wasted an hour reading the book. Is it for you? Well, there’s only one way to find out.
Available for Kindle
20. Purple Cow
Purple Cow is a business book written for business people. However, it’s got a clear message that all creative people need to grasp – purple cows stand out.
Seth Godin uses the analogy of a purple cow. If you see a normal cow, it’s nothing new; in fact cows are quite boring. However, if you were driving down the road and saw a purple cow, you’d stop for a second. You’d get out of your car, and take a photo, you’d tell everyone.
Applied to music, this means you’re making purple cow music - music that compels people to share it, music that’s different.
Available for Kindle
Sound Design and Acoustics
It’s time to get into the deep, dark depths of music and audio. What better way to start than with Musimathics, the comprehensive book from MIT that combines audio concepts with their mathematical counterparts?
There are two volumes of Musimathics, the first is on musical elements: music and sound, scales, the various basis of sound, acoustics, and algorithmic composition. The second looks at musical signals: digital signals and sampling, musical signals, synthesis and spectral analysis, convolution, filtering, and much more.
As you can tell simply from the chapter titles, it’s not a book for everyone. It’s not a book you should read if you’re brand new to music, and if you’re not a fan of technical books then you should avoid it at all costs. However, it will give you a far beyond average understanding of music and audio, a knowledge that will ultimately help you create better sounding music.
22. Acoustics and Psychoacoustics
Moving on, we’ve got another textbook, don’t you just love ‘em? Acoustics and Psychoacoustics is a comprehensive analysis of the science of sound. You’ll learn about the acoustics of specific musical instruments, how we hear certain musical sounds, and a range of other complex concepts that most people never scratch the surface of.
Despite it’s size and topic, the book is written very well in the sense that it’s enjoyable to read. Yes, there are complicated topics that need to be explained, but behind all of that you’ve got two competent, passionate authors that do well to keep you entertained while learning.
Available for Kindle
23. Master Handbook of Acoustics
I purchased the Master Handbook of Acoustics on a whim after browsing Amazon endlessly for around 2 hours. I can’t remember exactly why I chose the book, but it was something to do with the fact that it would make me look intelligent when someone came around to my house and saw it sitting on the shelf.
Eventually I decided to read it as I paid quite a bit of money for it (shipping to New Zealand is ludicrous), and I’m supposed to learn about that kind of stuff and be interested in it, as I’m a music producer.
I haven’t regretted my purchase yet. It’s an all encompassing guide to acoustics, one that covers the perception of sound while explaining the mathematical formulas behind sound pressure levels, how decibels work, and much more. It’s difficult to get into at first, especially if you haven’t touched complex mathematics since high school, but it’s well worth the effort and time it takes to read.
24. How to Make a Noise (Free)
You thought these were all going to be books that cost money, didn’t you? 29 of them do cost, but I thought I’d include a free one, as I know there are some students reading this.
In all seriousness though, I included How to Make a Noise because it’s important that you read it. If you’re new to sound design and synthesis then it’s an absolute must (after your DAW’s manual of course). Simon Cann, the author, takes you through the various different types of synthesis: subtractive, frequency modulation, additive, wave-sequencing, and sample-based synthesis. It’s comprehensive, it’s practical, and it’s free!
25. Welsh’s Synthesizer Cookbook
If you’re not satisfied after reading Simon Cann’s book, or you simply want to go a step further, then Welsh’s Synthesizer Cookbook should be on the menu for your next course.
It can be used as both an educational book and reference document with its 102 synthesis diagrams for various different sounds. The real bread and butter of the book lies in its explanation of analog synthesizer and their different parameters. Don’t have an analog synth? No problem, the book comes packed with a CD containing the SCB VSTi softsynth as well as an electronica album if you still like that kind of music.
There’s also a second volume which might be worth picking up if you like the first one.
26. Electronic Music and Sound Design – Theory and Practice with Max and MSP
For you uber-nerds out there, we have Electronic Music and Sound Design a book written for those using Max and MSP.
The book covers a wide range of topics such as sound synthesis and processing, envelopes, additive and vector synthesis, impulses and resonant bodies, control signals, and most importantly Max/MSP programming techniques.
It’s beyond the scope of what most producers need to know, but is well worth picking up if you’re in to Max/MSP programming or if you’re thinking about getting into it.
27. The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music
The perfect book to bash someone with if they criticize electronic music, stating that it takes no talent and that it’s simply a matter of pushing buttons. That’s right, not only is The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music an elegant title, it’s also an extremely well written book.
It’s theory-based, but does a great job of helping you work through sound design and synthesis problems and techniques in a holistic manner (that is, using both sampling and sound design to explain similar techniques). It can be a bit complex for newcomers, but overall it’s an easy to understand textbook that provides a basis for understanding synthesis and sampling.
28. This is Your Brain on Music
I first came across This is Your Brain on Music while shopping for a birthday present for someone. It caught my eye, obviously, but I didn’t know what to expect.
Since then, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I selfishly purchased that book instead of the birthday present. It’s a comprehensive book on the psychology and perception of music that’s somehow been compiled into one, easy-to-read, popular book.
You’ll learn everything from how certain frequencies are perceived, why music has had such an impact, and ultimately why we’re so obsessed with it. Daniel Levitin manages to provide immense value in a book that can be read within a few days. It’s not going to make you a better producer, but it will make you appreciate music a lot more.
Available for Kindle
29. Sonic Warfare
Sonic Warfare is all about, well… sonic warfare. Steve Goodman writes about how sound can be used to produce discomfort and threaten people, and how it’s been used effectively as a weapon over the years.
It’s an interesting book, even if you don’t take interest in war and weaponry, mainly because of how it places sound under a different lens that we normally see it through. The book focuses heavily on different frequencies and how they affect people, along with the concept of unsound (sounds cool, right?)
Available for Kindle
30. The Psychology of Music
I left this last as it’s one of the biggest books on the list. Coming in at 786 pages, The Psychology of Music is one of those books that you really have to ponder, "is it worth my time and money?”
For most people it won’t be. It’s not going to directly make you a better producer, it may make you more appreciative of music, but it may not, and it’s going to take a hell of a long time to read.
What it will do for you, however, is give you a deeper understanding of music than you could ever imagine possible. You’ll learn how the brain perceives, remembers, and creates music; you’ll also learn about sound characteristics such as loudness, pitch and timbre, followed by the computational modeling of music.
If you’re interested in psychology as well as music, it’s an absolute no brainer.
Available for Kindle
A Final Word
So, there we have it - 30 books that will help you become a better producer, some directly and others indirectly.
Before finishing this post, I must reiterate the two things that I mentioned at the start: study and practice. You can read all of these books and you may improve a bit, but the only true way to become a better producer is to put in the hours and actually practice. Use books for knowledge that can then be applied, use books to get a deeper understanding of complex concepts, use books for inspiration, but don’t use books as a replacement for practice.
Finally, take action! Buy a book from this list today and start reading it. The more you study, the more passionate you’ll become.
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