Knowing how to make great chord progressions is essential to songwriting and beat making. Chords set the mood and energy that everything else rests on. If you’re a beginner in music theory, the process can seem confusing at first, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. Let’s break it all down in an easy way.
If you’re just not ready to get theoretical or you just want to get some inspiration – we have a collection of over 200 MIDI chord progressions that you can drag and drop from the library in Soundation.
Now let’s get started.
To get a set of chords that sound good together, we need to first establish a key. Major and minor keys have 7 note scales, and all notes form the foundation of a chord each. For example, in the key of C major, we have the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (all the white notes.)
You can build simple triad chords (three notes) by playing the 1st, the 3rd, and the 5th of the scale from the root note, leaving out every other scale note. If you do this with every scale note, you automatically get all the chords of the key.
The chords in C major would be C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim for short.) Major sounds happy, minor sounds sad, and diminished sounds scary.
The difference between major and minor chords is the 3rd. Major chords have three notes in-between the 1st and the 3rd, minor chords only have two notes in-between. A diminished chord is a lot like a minor chord, but with a flat 5th, meaning it’s one note down.
Normal major and minor triads are all you really need, but if you add one more note the same way to every chord, you get 7th chords. If you add even more, you get various extended chords. 7th and extended chords are common in jazz and have a complex sound with varying moods.
If you take a major chord and raise the 3rd by one note you get a suspended 4th chord. And if you take a minor chord and lower the 3rd by one note, you get a suspended 2nd chord. Suspended chords add tension with an open, dreamy quality.
Inversions and Transposing
It doesn’t matter what octave or order the chord notes are in, it will still be the same chord, just in a different inversion. Spread out the notes for a clear sound, and keep them clustered together for a dense sound. Play them high for a bright sound and play them low for a dark sound. Try moving the notes around to different octaves by selecting them, hold shift, and press the up/down arrow keys.
Transposing means changing the key, by lowering or raising the pitch. You might have to do this to make the chords fit together with other elements. To transpose a chord progression to a different key, all you have to do is check the distance between the current and the desired key, select all the notes and press the up/down arrow keys to get there. Let’s say you have a progression in C major and want it to be in G major. You would then have to move all the notes up 7 chromatic notes (both white and black keys) or down 5.
To refer to the function of the chords without specifying the key, the chords have a number assigned to them in roman numerals. Major chords are written in upper cases and minor chords are written in lower cases. The function of the chords stays the same when you transpose to a different key. For example, in the C major key, I=C, ii=Dm, iii=Em, IV=F, V=G, vi=Am, and vii°=Bdim.
Every major key has a relative minor key, which uses the same notes and chords but has a different “home” note and chord. The 6th chord of the major key is the first chord of the relative minor key. For example, A minor is the relative minor key to C major and i=Am, ii°=Bdim, III=C, iv=Dm, v=Em, VI=F, and VII=G.
To put together a chord progression, all you have to do is place a few of these chords one after another. You don’t have to use all of the chords of the key. In fact, a lot of songs only use 2-4 chords. The most common progressions all use the chords I, IV, V, and vi. Experiment with the order you put them in to get different vibes.
The most popular chord progression is probably I-V-vi-IV, (C-G-Am-F in C major.) This chord progression is used in countless songs but one example is “Forever Young” by Alphaville.
You can easily change up the same sequence by starting from a different chord, for example, vi-IV-I-V. This can be heard in “Faded” by Alan Walker. You could argue that this would be in the relative minor key, which would then be written i-VI-III-VII.
Tempo and Rhythm
Once you’ve got a chord sequence you like, you can start thinking about the tempo and rhythm of the progression. Having one chord per bar is common but you can double or halve that tempo with the stretch tool, depending on the energy you want.
The chords don’t have to all be the same length either. Experiment with leaving some of the chords long and others short. This can give a nice contrast between the chords and make it more rhythmically interesting.
Repeat the chords in syncopated patterns or break them apart into flowing arpeggios to bring it up another notch.
Now that we’ve demystified the theory behind chord progressions, nothing stands in the way of creating your own. You can also use one of the 200+ chord progressions in the Soundation sound library as a starting point and customize them with the abovementioned tips and tricks.