Essential Music Theory: Beginners Guide to write unlimited Chord Progressions
Why are chords important?
Music chords are the harmonic framework found within music, understanding them is essential for any producer who wants to compose music. They are key for developing the structure of a beat, and to help define different sections of a song.
What is a Chord in Music?
They are made when 2 or more notes are played simultaneously. An example of a common chord is a Triad (defined below).
A chord progression is simply a series of chords played in a sequence, one after another. They are used to create a sense of “movement” with in a piece of music, to describe a journey you might say.
On the other hand, a melody is a linear sequence of musical notes, playing individually and sequentially (one after another).
When using a production software to programme chords, its often important to note which instruments are capable of playing chords in real life. Be aware that it is very unusual to play chords on Monophonic (one sound) instruments, such as woodwinds.
Triad Definition in Music
In basic terms, a triad is a chord built with three notes.
Chords are built from a root note (or starting note). This is the basis for a chord, and is generally the note with the lowest pitch (although not always! – more later). The rest of the notes are determined by the type of chord that is being played.
Heres some examples of different chord types:
- Major Seventh
- Minor Seventh
- Dominant Seventh
Intervals in Chords
In order to learn how to construct these different chords, whether on a piano or in your production software, you will first need to learn what music intervals are. Understanding the basics of intervals will allow you to build whatever chord you want in you DAW.
Intervals (the distance between two notes) can be heard in any melody or harmony, and similar to the chords listed above, each interval possesses distinct sound qualities of their own, depending on which of the following groups they belong to:
But in order to relate these intervals to chords, and specifically to learn how to build chords from intervals, you first need to learn about Scales.
Music Scales and how they are constructed
In music, a scale is a specific sequence of notes that are arranged by order of pitch. Scales use half notes (semitones), whole notes (tones) or a combination of both. In your DAW or on a piano a:
- Half note is the distance between any adjacent
- Whole note is the distance of two half notes
The most common and fundamental scale is the MAJOR SCALE, made up of 7 notes which repeats over several Octaves – (this is why you see the same letters appearing on the left of your piano roll in your DAW, or spot a repeating pattern when you look at a piano keyboard)
An OCTAVE is a specific Interval (distance) between a root note and another note which is either half or double the vibrational frequency of the root note. The other notes sit between the Root and the Octave. As mentioned earlier, they each have a specific interval (distance) from the root:
- Major 2nd: +2 half notes
- Major 3rd: +4 half notes
- Perfect 4th: +5 half notes
- Perfect 5th: +7 half notes
- Major 6th: +9 half notes
- Major 7th: +11 half notes
- Octave: +12 half notes
The best Chords to learn first:
There are many different types of chords, it can often seem quite daunting at first! Each chord type has a particular sound from the basic triad to the complex major thirteenth.
I recommend focusing on the following 4 chords,
As they are relatively straightforward, and will help you construct chord progressions with different sounds.
A major chord is one that is built from the first degree of the major scale. The term degree (or scale degree) refers to the position of a particular note on a scale relative to the Tonic (Root). (The tonic is the First Degree of a scale)
In simple words, a scale degree is a number given to each step of a scale. The degrees of a scale are useful for indicating the type of interval and which chords belong to a given scale.
Major TRIAD chords are built from a root note, a major third and a perfect 5th. (You can use the bullet points above to work out how to construct this in half notes from ANY root). These chords are happy and uplifting in sound, so use these in your chord progression when you want to convey this feeling.
A minor chord is one that is built from the first degree of the minor scale. HOWEVER! Minor chords can also be built by lowering the pitch of the major third interval in a major triad by one half note. Simple!
A minor TRIAD chord is therefore built from a root note, a minor third, and a perfect 5th. Minor triads are characterised by a sad sound, and they are often used in modern Trap style music.
Don’t let the fancy name fool you! This chord is super simple.
Augmented simply means raised – an augmented chord is then one that is built by raising the pitch of the perfect fifth interval in a major triad by one half note.
All augmented TRIAD chords are therefore built from a root note, a major third and an augmented fifth (raise the 5th +1 half note or count +8 half notes from the root). All augmented triads are characterised by an anxious and suspenseful sound (think old school horror movie soundtrack)
Ok – we are going to move up a difficulty level (but not by much). The other chords above only alter one note from the major triad. Now we will alter two notes. A Diminished chord is one that is built by lowering the pitch of both the Major Third and Perfect 5th intervals by one half note (you may notice that this is identical to a minor triad but with a lowered (diminished!) 5th.
A diminished TRIAD is built from any root note, a minor third and a diminished 5th.
These chords give a feeling of tension and also an unpleasant quality of sound.
Chords Within Scales
One final point I would like to highlight, is that within any specific scale, you will find many Different chord types. For example in C Major, you would not Just find Major Triad Chords.
If we built a triad off of each note in the C Major scale, only permitting notes from the scale to be used, we would build the following triad on each note:
- Major (C)
- Minor (D)
- Minor (E)
- Major (F)
- Major (G)
- Minor (A)
- Diminished (B)
So say we wanted to build a chord progression that started happy, but then turned Sad, and eventually finished with a feeling of tension or unpleasantness, we would chose to journey from 1 – 5 – 6 – 7. But if we wanted a chord progression that started Sad, then turned Tense, but resolved into a Happy ending, we would probably journey from 6 – 7 – 5 – 1.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about chord progressions in this blog! I wish you the best of luck in your journey into the ream of Music Theory!