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.

The Meaning of a Chord Progression

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

Chord progressions come in many forms, and there is way too much information about this topic. However, it is good to know that most of such progressions are in a major key or a minor key, and in EDM are the minor ones the most common.

Playing a chord on a keyboard

Making a Triad Chord

This section explains how we can make a triad chord, which is the most basic chord form and the most commonly used form. Furthermore, every triad chord consists of three notes.

The first step by which we can make a chord is to choose one of the seven notes from a key. In this case, we use this note as the root note of our chord. Most of the time, the root note is the bottom note of the chord, but not always since the chord can be inverted.

For example, from the key G minor (G, A, B♭, C, D, E♭, and F), we can pick B♭ as the root.

The second step is to pick the second note for our chord, which we call the third. From the same key as we have chosen our root, we pick the note that is two notes higher as our chosen root in that key. So, the third in a chord is always three or four semitones above the root.

For example, from the key G minor, we have B♭ as the root and D as the third.

The third step is to pick the third note for our chord, which we call the fifth (does not have to be a perfect fifth). From the same key as we have chosen our root and third, we pick the note that is two notes higher as our chosen third in that key. With our added fifth, our chord is complete.

For example, from the key G minor, we have B♭ as the root, D as the third, and F as the fifth.

Major or Minor Chord

The triad chord we can make with the previous three steps can be a major or a minor chord. Knowing if a chord is a minor or major chord is useful in the next section, “Chords in Roman Numeral Notation.”

If our chord the third is three semitones above the root, then we call the chord a minor chord. Alternatively, if our chord the third is four semitones above the root, then we call the chord a major chord.

Above the Seventh Note of a Key

When we are making a chord, the third or the fifth that we may want to pick can be higher than the seventh note of the key. We may want to pick the note eight or higher from a key, which we can’t since there are only seven notes in a key.

When we use a musical key, then we use this key in multiple octaves. Since we can use every note from a key in multiple octaves, the missing eighth note is the same as the first note, but then an octave above. The missing ninth note is the same as the second note, but then an octave above, and so on.

For example, from the key G minor, if our 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, which is G.

Chords in Roman Numeral Notation

This section is about the notation of chords, which we can help us when we talk/write about chords.

We can write chords in a roman numeral, and the root of a chord determines which numeral it gets. This numeral is the same as the position the root has in our chosen key.

There is a difference in notation when your chord is a major or a minor chord. When we have a major chord, then we notate the roman numeral in an uppercase. Also, when we have a minor chord, then we notate the roman numeral in a lowercase.

Roman numeral notations can also show that a chord is diminished or augmented. However, we don’t care about augmented chords in this post, since most of the time, they don’t sound right in EDM in the opinion of many people. Furthermore, we notate a diminished chord by adding a small circle in superscript after 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
Example chord III and iv in the key C minor infographic

Making a Simple Chord Progression

The best chord progressions are, most of the time, the most simple ones. Therefore, we can make satisfying chord progressions without much theory. We can always make such progressions longer and more complicated, but that does not mean it will make them sound better.

Something to keep in mind is that it is probably impossible to create a unique good sounding chord progression. It is impossible because from the past centuries to now, many people have created many chord progressions. However, we do not need unique chord progressions, but we do need good sounding progressions, which the artist determines.

The following two subsections explain how we can make a simple chord progression with a major key or a minor key. However, those explanations are not the only methods by which we can make chord progressions.

Making a Simple Major Key Chord Progression in Three Steps

We can make a simple major key chord progression in three steps or less, which are:

  1. First, we make the chord I, which is our starting chord. A chord progression can be only one chord long. If we want a progression with only one chord, then we can skip the next steps.
  2. Secondly, if we want that our chord progression is two chords long, then we should pick ii, IV, V, or vii0 as our second chord, and we can skip the next step. Alternatively, if we want a progression of at least three chords long, then we should pick iii or vi as our second chord.
  3. Thirdly, we can add as many chords to our chord progression as we want from these chords: ii, iii, IV, V, vi, or vii0. However, we should not take a chord we already have in our progression, and we should end our progression on an ii, IV, V, or vii0 chord.

An example of a chord progression that we can make with these three steps is I-IV-vi-V.

How to make a simple major chord progression infographic

Making a Simple Minor Key Chord Progression in Three Steps

We can make a simple minor key chord progression in three steps or less, which have many similarities with the major key version. These three steps are:

  1. First, we make the chord “i”, which is our starting chord. A chord progression can be only one chord long. If we want a progression with only one chord, then we can skip the next steps.
  2. Secondly, if we want that our chord progression is two chords long, then we should pick iio, iv, or V as our second chord, and we can skip the next step. Alternatively, if we want a progression of at least three chords long, then we should pick III, VI, or VII as our second chord.
  3. Thirdly, we can add as many chords to our chord progression as we want from these chords: iio, III, iv, V, VI, or VII. However, we should not take a chord we already have in our progression, and we should end our progression on an iio, iv, or V chord.

An example of a chord progression that we can make with these three steps is i-III-iv-V.

How to make a simple minor chord progression infographic

A Chords Rhythm

Our brains follow the rhythms of basslines easier than those of other higher-pitched instruments, such as those playing chords. Therefore it is, most of the time, a good idea to give the rhythm of chords some extra attention. However, this does not mean that we should make it more complicated.

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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