Five Ways to Spice up Your Chord Progressions

By Will Darling (EDMtips.com)

Will Darling runs EDMtips.com – a website and YouTube channel dedicated to helping Electronic Dance Music producers seriously improve their production skills. Will has written for EDMprod, ADSR, and has been featured in Future Music magazine. His popular “Music Theory for EDM Producers” course has helped thousands of producers get to grips with fun, simple techniques for writing better dance music.

Writing chord progressions is one of the biggest struggles for lot of new producers (and indeed, more experienced ones, too) BUT it’s one of the skills that has the biggest impact. I specialise in teaching people how to make electronic music, but I’ve been in bands too, and I can honestly say that regardless of genre, chord progressions are one of the most important elements of any song. When people ask me how to make electronic music, there are a few starting places such sound selection, mixing, and getting to know your Digital Audio Workstation but I always say that a solid working knowledge of music theory is still a force multiplier for all your other production skills. Learning music theory doesn’t have to be complicated…

Today we are going to look at five techniques you can use to spice up any chord progression. I’m going to give video examples of each technique using Captain Plugins, and then put them all together in a spicy chord bonanza. Yes, I did say “spicy chord bonanza”.

A Simple Progression

Let’s start off with a simple chord progression, and then we’re going to build on that, keeping our changes for each stage. We’ll work in the key of D Major, and start with a simple I – V – vi – IV progression.

In the key of D Major, a I – V – vi – IV progression uses these chords:

D Major (D, F#, A)

A Major (A, C#, E)

B minor (B, D, F#)

and

G Major (G, B, D)

This chord progression sounds like this:

Normal Chords

Note: Each of these chords uses notes ONLY from within the key of D Major, which makes them diatonic chords. Diatonic chords are chords that naturally occur within a key. I’ll show you how to jump outside the key a bit later 😉

Now we have our chords – time to spice things up a bit.

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  • Apply rhythms to your chords
  • Set your Key and Scale for the entire song
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  • One touch plays 3 notes of the chords
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Chord Rhythm

The first way to spice things up is to play with the rhythm of the chords.

What do I mean by that? Well, I simply mean where and how the chords are placed in relation to the other elements of the song.

Let’s begin with a standard chord progression in Captain Chords and spice it up using a few cool techniques. Here’s a standard four bar chord progression in Captain Chords.

Rather than having the chords play at the beginning of each of the four bars (standard), try the following four ideas (spicy)…

Syncopated Rhythms

Playing the chords 1/8th in front of the bar change will give the song a more urgent feel.

Chord Rhythm

Note: In Captain Chords, you’d do this by dragging the separator bar back…

Recording Custom Rhythms

Try hitting RECORD and tapping out a rhythm on one note.

You can then quantize it if your playing’s a bit off, and then copy and paste your chord notes to that pattern.

Captain Chords also has a whole bank of preset chord rhythms that you can try out.

Sus2 and Sus4 Chords

“Sus” simply stands for “suspended”, and these chords are usually used to create a bit of tension before resolving back to a normal chord.

Let’s have a quick look at them in turn, then have a listen in our chord progression…

A “Sus2” chord is where you move the third (middle) note of the chord down to the second interval in the scale, and a “Sus4” is where you move the third (middle) note of the chord up to the fourth interval.

Here’s what suspended chords sound like:

7th, 9th, 11th & 13th Chords

These are my favourite types of chords and super simple.

Once you have your standard triad with three notes; a 1st, a 3rd (either major or minor) and a 5th, just add another note at the 7th (or 9th, or 11th, or 13th) interval in the scale you are working in.

If you have a minor 3rd, you’ll want a minor 7th…if you have a major 3rd, you’ll want a major 7th.

You can either have major or minor 7ths, and they give chords a “lush” quality. These extensions can be added through the Flavor tab in Captain Chords.

Future Bass chords and Deep House chords both make heavy use of 7ths, 9th, 11ths, and 13ths.

Chord Inversions

Inversions are a quick way to create unique sounding chords that are full of character. They’re also a great way to add occasional variety to a song if you’re using the same chord progression for the entire duration of the song. An inverted chord that’s played once in a while can add tension and interest.

Inversions are created by changing the order of the notes in each chord. The lowest note, the bass note, determines the name of the inversion. When the lowest note is in the root of the chord, the triad is in the root position.

When the third note of the chord is in the root position, the triad is in the first inversion. When the fifth note of the chord is in the root position, the triad is in the second inversion.

Simply shift the most upper or lower notes of each chord by an octave up or down to bring them nearer all the other notes in the chord progression. In Captain Chords, you can use either Minimize Leap for smooth voice leading between chords, the Default Triad, or First or Second Inversion.

When you underpin this with a bassline hitting the original bass notes, it ties everything together nicely.

Conclusion

Now I’ve shown you how you can do this in your DAW, but this is just scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of interesting chord progressions. There’s a palette of composition techniques to choose from in Captain Chords but sometimes using simple chord progressions is the best way forward. Other times, its best to spice things up a bit and using a few of these techniques could elevate your track to the next level. If you are new to music theory or would like to expand your knowledge of music theory, Captain Plugins is a great learning tool.

If you want more tips on making electronic music, check out my website here, and my YouTube channel here.