Hello and welcome to a lovely little tutorial on how to write chord progressions. We will focus our aim on electronic dance music, but of course these lessons can be applied to almost any genre of music. I will walk through the different types of chords, discussing both how they sound and how they feel. Then we’ll cover writing chord progressions and why certain chords work well together. Finally I’ll throw in some midi options and even some chord generators. By the end of this I hope you have grown musically and can make more informed chord choices in your productions.
What is a chord?
A chord is when two or more (typically three) musical notes are played at the same time. An example is a C Major chord which is made up of the notes C, E, and G, played simultaneously. A scale, for example the C Major scale, contains a series of notes. The notes in the C Major scale are all the white keys on the piano: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C again. The moral of the story is, when we play three of these notes together (C, E, and G) that is a chord!
Different types of chords
Most music theory books I’ve read go crazy on types of chords and immediately overwhelm me. Instead of going that route, let’s try to ease into it. The first two types of chords we want to understand are major and minor chords.
A major chord is made of the root note (the first note in the scale), the major third (up four semitones from the root), and the perfect fifth (up 7 semitones from the root). The first, third and fifth scale degrees. What the heck is a scale degree? Well let’s take our C Major scale and look.
1) C 2) D 3) E 4) F 5) G 6) A 7) B and 8) C
Simply lay out the scale in order and count. The first is C, third is E, and fifth is G.
Or, we can look at this in our DAW.
In your piano roll you see all the notes, not just the scale you are in. So, in your piano roll the first, third and fifth scale degree are found by doing the following: draw in your C note and count up 4 semitones (spots on the piano roll). Now draw the next note up 3 semitones from there, which is the same as seven semitones from the C.
How it sounds
A major chord is typically described as a “happy” sounding chord. This can be a bit misleading because very emotional and sad songs use major chords as well, but if you play a major chord on its own and compare it to a minor chord it sounds more pleasant and simple.
A minor chord is made up of the root note, the minor third (+3 semitones) and the perfect 5th (+7 semitones).
Or in our DAW.
It's created similarly, but the middle note is up three semitones instead of four.
How it sounds
A minor chord is usually described as dark and tense. The “sad” to the major chord’s “happy”. The contrast between major and minor chords create suspense and intrigue in your song.
Major or Minor 7th chord
If you take a major or minor chord and add another note up 11 semitones from the root (which would be the 7th scale degree) you have yourself a 7th chord.
The C Major 7 chord is C, E, G, and B.
The C Minor 7 chord is C, Eb, G, and Bb.
How it sounds
Seventh chords have more dissonance. Just play a C and B together and it sounds pretty bad. But playing all four notes together gives a more interesting sound than the C Major without the 7th. There’s more happening because you’ve thrown another note into the mix. Not saying one is better than the other, it is just a different sound. Major and minor sevenths are often used in jazz, but we don’t really care about jazz right now.
What’s a 9th chord?
Adding one more note on top of your 7th chord, three more semitones up (so 14 from the root and what would be the 9th scale degree). Now we’re getting a little crazy so let’s reel it back in.
What do we know so far
- C Major - C, E, G
- C Minor - C, Eb, G
- C Major 7 - C, E, G, B
- C Minor 7 - C, Eb, G, Bb
- C Major 9 - C, E, G, B, D
- C Minor 9 - C, Eb, G, Bb, D
But dude, these are just C! No, this is the formula. You can apply this to any root note or any chord in a major or minor scale. In fact, you can write your whole progression in C major (all the white keys) or A minor (also all the white keys) and transpose it to a different key once you are done writing it. Just select all the notes at the same time and drag it up or down. Madeon has famously claimed to do this, so you know it’s legit!
Pro tip: if you want to know what notes or chords are in a particular scale - google it!! Seriously, don’t have shame just googling stuff. It’s quick and helpful.
Other chord types
Now that we know the major and minor chord types we can study which progressions successful musicians have used. Are there other chord types? Yes. Are we going to cover them? Nah. You can do some external reading here if you’d like, but there’s a reason I’m not going too crazy with types.
Popular chord progressions
The reason being - these famous progressions! Look at these - they are made of major and minor chord types.
Remember scale degrees from earlier? They apply to chords as well as notes. For example, the perfect 5th note in a C Maj scale is a G and the perfect 5th chord in the scale is a G Major chord. We’re gonna pull in Hooktheory to look at some famous progressions.
I - V - vi - IV
In C Major, this would be Cmaj - Gmaj - Amin - Fmaj
Notable pop song: Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen
Notable dance song: Pair of Dice by Tiesto
vi - V - IV - V
In C Major, this would be Amin - Gmaj - Fmaj - Gmaj
Notable pop song: Rolling in the Deep by Adele
Notable dance song: Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites by Skrillex
I - vi - IV - V
In C Major, this would be Cmaj - Amin - Fmaj - Gmaj
Notable pop song: Blank Space by Taylor Swift
Notable dance song: This is What You Came For by Calvin Harris
Now, these are the only the beginning of the world's most popular and familiar progressions. There are many more to dig through on Hooktheory and I encourage you to do so!
As a quick note - chords have different intervals. All the chords I've mentioned so far are in "root position" meaning the chord starts with the root note.
So what is an interval? Well, you can write chords in different ways. You can write a C Major as C, E, G or as E, C, G or as G, C, E etc. etc. It is still a C Major chord because those three notes are playing at the same time.
A common technique is to write your chord progression in root positions and then invert so that the notes are closer together. Hooktheory automatically does this, so that's why you see chords written in different intervals.
Best chords for EDM
One thing to consider when writing an EDM chord progression is bass frequencies. If you are writing a bass heavy song for the clubs or festivals you want it to hit you right in the chest on a big system.
Notes have different frequencies on the sound spectrum. A lot of EDM tracks are written in F or G because of the sweet spot the bass notes will hit.
G1 on the piano hits 49 hZ on the frequency spectrum which sounds and feels great. I’m not going to dive into the math and science of it, just keep that as a feather in your cap (or read further).
A lower note, for example C1, hits 32.7 hZ and often the bass can’t be heard that low. The workaround is to play a higher octave (C2) but sometimes you want to use your subs all in the “1” range, and you achieve that by picking a key of E, F, or G usually. Again, this is a generalization and not an “always” thing.
Another aspect to consider is how “poppy” you want your song to be. Let’s look at an E minor progression from Calvin Harris’ How Deep is Your Love.
It is in the key of E minor with the progression: Emin - Cmaj - Amin or i - VI - iv.
Simple right? Yep! And a worldwide smash from one of the biggest names in music. This definitely isn’t Calvin’s most pop sounding song either despite a simplistic, radio-friendly progression.
All this being said, no scale is off limits. You can write an EDM song in C major, even though the bass doesn’t smack as hard as F minor. Complex chord types aren’t inherently better than simple chord types and vice versa. You have options.
In fact, my best suggestion for learning producers is to steal chord progressions! Obviously don’t make your song sound the same as someone else’s song, but chord progressions are not copyright-able. Try making a track with that Calvin Harris progression as the backbone of the track and see where it takes you. He sure wasn’t the first guy to use it.
Go to the Hooktheory famous progressions page. Study it, learn it and most importantly practice with some of those!
There are all sorts of pre-made midi chord progressions for sale out there. Is there anything wrong with using these? Nope. I personally enjoy writing chords of my own so I wouldn’t suggest solely relying on packs. I don’t know too many producers using them but why not take a chord from one of them and build from there? It may spark some inspiration.
Another option is this dope pack from Unison which is a little different than all the pre-made packs. This pack has individual chords that you plug and play as midi and piece together yourself. It’s an interesting option.
EDM chord generator
There’s even a “search by chord” feature on this page of Hooktheory that tells you which chord usually comes next in a progression based on historical data. Choose a chord, start a progression and see what dance tracks come up that you recognize. There are other chord generators out there on the webs such as this and this.
We covered quite a bit here, so I hope you can find some good bits of info that you can use in your productions. I hope this arms you with a bit more knowledge and some practical techniques to use! Go out there and create some art, folks.