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Chord Progression Hacks: A Music Theory Crash Course

Introduction

It’s kinda funny…All of us at Producer Confidential have acquired bags of music theory knowledge in the decades we have spent in the music business…However, what we’ve learned as beginners proved to be the meat and potatoes of all of our #1 hit singles. All the bells and whistles and harmonic embellishments proved to be a great way to spice up our songs, but are not that often an integral part of a chart-topping song.

After all, people love familiar things and that’s exactly what hit songs offer. It is very important for your song to have some immediacy and instant appeal. You may be thinking – “That’s so superficial” – but our years of experience have taught us that the depth and the substance do not exclude immediacy and the instant appeal. Most of our hardest-hitting songs have been a successful marriage of deep emotional content and surface hooks.

One of the easiest ways to grab the attention of the listener is to have a chord progression that is familiar enough to sound appealing, but arranged enough differently so no one can really say where they have heard it before.

On the other hand, it is very important to have the ability to step outside the box harmonically, when the song asks for it. Whether it’s the small embellishments or an odd song that requires some exotic sounds as the main part, it is our side quest at PC to equip you with the know-how so you can progress as a producer. Who knows, we may be even influencing a new generation of PC maestros…

We will split this post into two parts. This one will deal with the basic chord stuff, while the next one will be dealing with the advanced harmonic tips and tricks. No matter if you consider yourself a newbie or a pro, you will probably find some useful stuff in both of these posts, since we’ll even cover some conceptual ideas that may ignite your creative spark!

Let us make haste!

Building a Chord

If you don’t know what a chord is, let’s just get the utmost basicness out the way first…

So, a chord is when you have multiple notes ringing at the same time. 

Basic major and minor chords are built from three notes that can appear in multiple octaves (or pitches, if you will). The formula for the basic chord built is the root note, the third, and the fifth.

The best way to understand the process of creation of these babies is to think of them…Well…As literal babies.

Just as every baby has a name, the same can be said about chords. The name of the chord is defined by the root note of the chord. So, if you have a C chord, you already know that C is the root note of this chord.

The third and the fifth intervals get their name by the degree to which they are away from the root note. The third is three notes away from the root note of the given scale.

Now that we have thought of a name for a baby (C in this case), we now want to see if it is a boy or a girl! The equivalent of a boy/girl categorization in the world of chords is the two main chord polarities – minor/major.

What defines a chord as a minor or major is the third interval. For all of us EDM producers, the easiest way to calculate the third is to count the semitones from our root note. If we want a C major chord and we know our C major scale, the third would be the 3rd note away from the root. However, if you don’t know your scales, you just count 4 semitones up from the root, and there you have it!

In the case of minor chords, the same applies in regards to you knowing your scale. In other words, we take the root note C and we play the 3rd note away from the root, but this time in the framework of the C minor scale. However, if you do not know your scale, you just count up 5 semitones from the root and there is your minor third!

Ok, now that our baby has a gender and a name, it needs to develop some muscle as it grows, right? Yeah, well that’s where the fifth interval comes in! Once you add it you’ll definitely hear how it beef’s up the sound, but to find it first, you just need to count up 7 semitones from the root note, and voila! The best thing about it is that it’s the same in both boy and girl scenarios. In other words, the fifth of the C chords is a G note in both C major and C minor chords.

Scale/Chord Connection

So, for the sake of simplicity, we will use the C major scale, or A minor, since they feature the same notes, and therefore the same chords. How is that possible, you may wonder? Well, let us explain.

The 8 notes of the C major scale are:

C D E F G A B C

To get the A minor scale, you use the same notes, just list them from A to A.

A B C D E F G A

Each and every one of these notes has a chord attached to them. To figure them out, use the chord forming formula (see the “Building Chords” paragraph for more detail) for each note in these two parallel (meaning they are different gender (minor/major) but they consist of the same notes) scales. 

For example, let’s say we want to figure out the D chord in the C major scale. Well, the D is our root note. To find out the third interval, we just count three notes up and get the F note. The last note we need is the fifth, and for that one, we count 5 scale notes up from the root and we get the A note. 

Now, if you want to find out if it is major or minor, you just use the “semitone counting formula”. If the third is 4 semitones up from the root, you have yourself a nice major chord! Well, since in this case, the third is 5 semitones up from the root, we have a D minor chord, which is often notated as Dm (if you see just “D”, it’s referring to D major).

As you continue to write out all the chords, you will maybe notice that to form all the chords you pick a third and the fifth note in the scale, up from the root, but you will see that in that scenario some of the chords do not feature “fifths” that are 7 semitones up from the root. Well, in that case, that chord is neither major nor minor. To find out the names of these chords, be sure to check in to the grand finale, e.g. the 2nd installment of our Music Theory Hacks series!

Now we know how to build all of the chords in these scales!

You may want to do this with some other keys? For example, G major…Google whatever other scale (remember, this only applies to the natural minor or major scales) you want and you can use all the principles we have talked about here, and you are ready to go!

Building Chord Progressions

Imposing rules on any type of art is like a cardinal sin. Not only that, but us music nerds, we really don’t like being told what to do, right?

Having said all of that, the goal of this paragraph is just to make some usual patterns more conscious and clear. In no way should you use this one as a dogmatic tyrannical set of rules that will do nothing but stifle creativity. Make sure to go out and experiment yourself, and know that PC will always have your back and you can always come among these pages and refer to anything you want.

You can use all of this we have talked about here and do whatever you like within a certain scale, but we just want to outline some omnipresent chord progressions that you will most certainly need. Hopefully, you will also gain some meta-knowledge from this as well.

Let’s just get the lingo in order first, k? Namely, you have noticed that a scale has 8 notes? Since for every note in a scale we have a chord, we can call them by the number of the chord’s root note within a certain scale. So like, the C chord in an A major scale is a III chord, the Dm chord in a C major chord is a II chord, etc…

If you are wondering, is there any utility in this, or is this just some nerdy music theory stuff, well, turns out it comes quite handy…For example, we can have a minor scale I, VI, III, VII chord progression. It is a very common progression, and if we want to move it to any other key, it is good to know the scale degrees (or notes) that we need to build chords around, so we can play the same progression in a different tonality.

Lastly, let’s explore some common major and minor chord progressions.

Usual minor scale chord progressions:

  • I, VI, III, VII (in the case of A minor – Am, F, C, G)
  • I, VI, VII (in the case of A minor – Am, F, G)
  • I, III, VII, VI (in the case of A minor – Am, C, G, F)

Usual major scale chord progressions:

  • I, V, VI, IV (in the C major scenario – C, G, Am, F)
  • I, IV, V (in the C major scenario – C, F, G)
  • I, VI, IV, V (in the C major scenario – C, Am, F, G)

Again, be sure to use these only as something to inspire you and get your creative juices flowing. After all, the most fun part is figuring out your own chord progressions. This was just an intro, and if you want to know more about chords, chord progressions, and music theory – be sure to tune in for part two!

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