Chord progression tutorial: Give your tracks harmony

A chord progression can be the foundation for a full EDM song. It can also be a guideline for one or more musical parts like a bass, melody, pad, vocals, or something else. You can even play such a progression with an instrument.

You will learn how to make great sounding chord progressions in this tutorial. There is way too much theory about chords, but here you learn how to make them practically.

A good thing to know is that you do not need these chord progressions to make a great song. You can make top songs without them. In some genres, like trance, it is common to use chord progressions. In others like techno, chord progressions are less common.

What is a chord progression?

A chord progression is a succession of musical chords. Each of these chords consists of three or more notes, and you will hear these notes typically simultaneously played together.

Most tracks consist of the notes of one musical key, like c minor (C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭). Chord progressions come in many forms, and there is way too much information about this topic. However, it is good to know that the most are in a major key or a minor key, and in EDM are progressions are the minor ones the most common.

Playing a chord on a keyboard

Make a safe to use chord

This section explains how to make a chord in a form which is the easiest to make, the most common in general, and the safest to use in your music. Every triad (basic) chord consists of three notes, and all major and minor keys have seven of them.

The first step to make a chord is to choose one of the seven notes from a key. This one is called the root and is the lowest one of the three notes. For example in the key G minor (G, A, B♭, C, D, E♭, and F), I picked B♭ as the root.

The second step is to pick the second note which is called the third. To do this, choose the note which is two notes higher than the root, these two notes are within the key. So, the third is always three or four semitones above the root. For example in the key G minor, I have B♭ as the root and D as the third.

If the third is three semitones above the root, then the chord is called a minor chord. However, if the third is four semitones above the root, then the chord is called a major chord. This info becomes (more) useful in the next section which is about notations.

The third step is to pick the second note which is called the fifth (does not have to be a perfect fifth). Pick the note which is two notes (within the key) higher than the third, and your chord is complete. For example in the key G minor, I have B♭ as the root, D as the third, and F as the fifth.

Above the seventh note of a key

Sometimes the third or the fifth is higher than the seventh note of the key, like when you want to pick the eighth note. The counting starts on one again after the seventh note. So, this means that the eighth note is just like the first note, but then an octave higher.

For example in the key G minor, if the root is the sixth note E♭, then the third should become the eight note. This eighth note is the same as the first note, but an octave higher. So in this example, the eight/first note is G.

Roman numeral notation

This section is only about the notation. Your chords and progressions, of course, will not sound better with it. You can see it as a communication method for talking/writing about chords.

The root of a chord determines which roman numeral it gets. This numeral is the same as the position the root has in a chosen key. The notation of a major chord is the roman numeral in uppercase, and the notation of a minor version is the numeral in lowercase. The notations can also show if a chord is being diminished or augmented, which make it a bit more complicated.

Now to make it simpler, we do not use augmented chords here. Also, we do not care here about diminished chords theory. They sound different, in a way a bit spicy, just use them when you like. Diminished chords stand out in their notation by a small circle in superscript behind the roman numeral, for example, ‘ⅱo.’

example chord in G majorroman numeral
G, B, D
A, C, E
B, D, F♯
C, E, G
D, F♯, A
E, G, B
F♯, A, Co

Example chord iii and V in the key C major infographic

example chord in G minorroman numeral
G, B♭, D
A, C, E♭o
B♭, D, F
C, E♭, G
D, F, A
E♭, G, B♭
F, A, C
F♯, A, Co. This chord is the same as the major version and is harder to use.

Example chord III and iv in the key C minor infographic

Make a simple chord progression

The best chord progressions are most of the time the most simple ones. However, this is a good thing since this makes it possible to make satisfying progressions without much theory. You can make progressions longer and more complicated, but that does not mean it will make them sound better.

A good thing to keep in mind is that it is probably impossible to create a unique good sounding chord progression. The main reason for this is that many people make chord progressions for ages. Since we do not need unique progressions this is not a problem; they only have to sound good.

The following two sections explain how to make a simple chord progression in a major key or a minor key. The goal of these sections is to provide a simple way of making a good sounding progression. However, this is of course not the only way to make them.

Make a simple major key chord progression in three steps

The first step is to start on chord Ⅰ. A chord progression can be only one chord long, which means you can skip the next steps.

The second step, if you want your progression only two chords long, pick ⅱ, Ⅳ, Ⅴ, or ⅶo as your second chord. Else you can also choose ⅲ or ⅵ as your second chord.

The third step is, choose as many chords as you want from ⅱ, ⅲ, Ⅳ, Ⅴ, ⅵ, or ⅶo. However, do not take a chord you already have in your progression and end your progression on ⅱ, Ⅳ, Ⅴ, or ⅶo.

An example chord progression from the steps above is ‘Ⅰ-Ⅳ-ⅵ-Ⅴ.’

How to make a simple major chord progression infographic

Make a simple minor key chord progression in three steps

The three steps in this section have many similarities with the major key version. My goal was in this section to keep information shorter since it is a bit a duplicate.

Start with the chord ⅰ. A chord progression can be only one chord long, which means you can stop now. If you want your progression only two chords long, pick ⅱo, ⅳ, or Ⅴ as your second chord. Else you can also choose Ⅲ, Ⅵ, or Ⅶ as your second chord.

If you want your progression only three chords or longer, choose as many chords as you want from iio, Ⅲ, ⅳ, Ⅴ, Ⅵ, or Ⅶ. Do not take a chord you already have in your progression, and end your progression on ⅱo, ⅳ, or Ⅴ.

An example chord progression from the steps above is ‘ⅰ-Ⅲ-ⅳ-Ⅴ.’

An extra way to end a minor key chord progression

You can use an extra chord to end a minor chord progression. This chord can be harder to use, and it is of course not needed. The chord is different because the fifth (third note) is not part of the minor key.

The chord is ⅶo, and this is almost the same as Ⅶ, but then it is the major key version. For example in G minor is the chord Ⅶ made of the notes F, A, and C, and in G major is the chord ⅶo made of the notes F♯, A, and C.

You can use the chord ⅶo with the explanation in the previous section. If you do not use this chord as your first chord, then you will be fine.

How to make a simple minor chord progression infographic

Make a chord rhythm

The rhythm of a chord can be a powerful thing; it can make or break a track. Rhythms in chords are most of the time very simple. I think the reason for this is, is that they are easier to follow and to remember. To play chords in a rhythm, you have to play them in a pattern or regularity.

The most common chord rhythm is probably a chord switch at every bar (4 beats), with the chords being a whole bar long. A simple rhythm like this can be perfect for your song. I still give you three simple ways to make a more complex rhythm, and you can use them also in a combination.

Three ways to modify a chord rhythm, that switch a chord at every bar

The first way is by splitting a bar (or bars) into multiple chords. An example chord progression with rhythm ‘ⅰ (full bar)-Ⅲ (full bar)-ⅳ (full bar)-Ⅵ (half bar)-Ⅴ (half bar).’

The second way is by starting a chord a half beat sooner. For example, this progression ‘ⅰ (three and a half beat)-Ⅵ (three and a half beat)-Ⅴ (four and a half beat)-ⅳ (four and a half beat).’

The third way is to split a single chord into multiple parts, with or without a ‘rest.’ For example, this progression ‘ⅰ (three and a half beat)-Ⅲ (four and a half beat)-Ⅵ (three and a half beat)-ⅳ (two and a half beat)-Ⅴ (two beats).’ I split each chord into parts like this:

  • ‘ⅰ’ becomes the parts 3/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 3/4 beat, 2/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 3/4 beat, and 1/4 beat rest.
  • ‘Ⅲ’ becomes the parts 3/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 3/4 beat, 2/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 2/4 beat, 2/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, and 3/4 beat.
  • ‘Ⅵ’ becomes the parts 3/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 3/4 beat, 2/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 3/4 beat, and 1/4 beat rest.
  • ‘ⅳ’ becomes the parts 3/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 2/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 2/4 beat, and 1/4 beat rest.
  • ‘Ⅴ’ becomes the parts 3/4 beat, 1/4 beat rest, 2/4 beat, and 2/4 beat rest.

Complex chord progression rhythm in a piano roll

Simple ways to modify a chord

The notes in a chord can be modified. You want to do this, just for changing the sound. Also, when you are using your chords as a guideline, new possibilities will arise. However, you do not have to modify it; it is a choice.

There many ways possible to modify a chord. However, in my experience, many of those ways makes the chord too complicated. I give you three ways which are in my opinion always good and save choices to use:

  • If you think a chord is too present, then you can fix this by removing the third (the center note).
  • When you want to make a chord broader, then you also can remove the third. After this, you can copy the root note and place the copy an octave above the root note, so it is the same note but an octave higher.
  • To give a chord more presence, you can add a fourth note. This fourth note is two notes above the fifth.

Three examples for the chord ⅳ in the key G minor. The chord ⅳ has the notes C, D♯, G.

remove the thirdcopied root noteadded a fourth note
C, GC, G, CC, D♯, G, A♯

Conclusion

I hope you have learned something about chord progressions. Maybe and hopefully, you can use them now as a guideline or as something which an instrument plays.

There is much information in this tutorial, maybe even too much to read it a second time. Therefore it might be good to know that when you come back next time, the section ‘Make a simple chord progression’ can be all that you need. In my opinion, this section is the most valuable one in this tutorial, since I use it a lot as a cheat sheet.

Good luck and have fun making chord progressions. If you need some help or you only want to say something, then you can always leave a comment below.

I–V–vi–IV chord progression popular music joke meme

Good to know

There are some things which can be helpful to know but are in my opinion not part of the tutorial. However, I still mention them here:

  • A song has multiple sections (for example, intro, break, build, drop, and outro), and each of these can have an own chord progression.
  • The safest choices in my opinion when choosing a key are the major and minor keys A, C, E, and G.
  • Most common chord progression length is eight bars, but other lengths are of course also possible. Also, most chord progressions consist of an even amount number of bars.
  • It is a safe choice to keep the most notes of the chord progression between C3 and C4 in piano key frequencies.

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