Today, we’re taking a dive into music theory. The main foundation of most modern music is the chords of the song. Chords are the backbone of nearly every song made in the past century, and they often dictate how songs are created and structured. The chord progression is the most important and definable part of a song, and there’s no getting around that.
Despite the importance of chord progressions, there are technically only 24 chords in western music. These chords can have different extensions and add ons, but fundamentally speaking, almost every song is a combination of those 24. To simplify it even more, most songs stay within the bounds of a single key, which only contains seven different chords.
Writing chord progressions, while it may seem tricky from the outside, is actually pretty accessible, and it’s definitely learnable. Let’s talk about the basic theory behind writing chord progressions and learn how modern producers can use that skill.
To understand chords and chord progressions, you first have to understand harmony. Harmony is what happens when different musical voices come together and combine to create a sound that works. Sometimes, this is when instruments or singers sing notes that are different but work together beautifully. But often, harmony is also made by one instrument that can play multiple notes at the same time, like a guitar, piano, or synthesizer. This musical technique is known as polyphony, and it’s the foundation that chords are built on.
Polyphony is a part of another musical element known as texture. Generally speaking, sounds that are polyphonic or have more voices in them are much more dense and layered than sounds that only have one voice or are monophonic. Harmony goes hand in hand with polyphony because both musical concepts are built on using multiple notes at the same time to make things sound more put together.
Almost all harmony is built on the scale that a song is in. A scale is a set of notes that dictates the overall feeling and the notes that will be played. When these notes are played together, they produce pleasing chords and harmonies with a sense of unity within them. A scale ties the parts of the song together and keeps the song sounding stable and accessible.
So, how does a scale differ from the key? Generally speaking, scales and keys are defined by a root note and what organization of notes the key has built on top of those notes. For example, the C Major scale has the foundational note of C, and the other notes build off of that root note in a way that sounds major.
Every major scale is constructed with the same pattern of notes, organized into “whole steps” and “half steps.” A whole step is two notes that have one note in between them, and half steps are notes that are directly next to each other. Major scales are constructed with a universal pattern of whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half.
To make this a little more clear, imagine a piano. Whole steps have a black key in between two white keys, and half steps do not—it’s just the two white keys directly next to each other.
All chords have at least three notes. These notes are known as the root, the third, and the fifth. That’s because chords also have a root note which is also known as the “one” note. Then another chord is played two notes up, which is the third, or the “three” note. Finally, another note is played another two notes up, which is the fifth, or the “five” note. When all played together, these notes produce a chord.
The two most common chords are major and minor chords. A major chord is made when the third is two whole steps away from the root note. This creates a happier and more open sound and generally works as the foundation for most major scales. Minor scales are almost entirely the same, except their third is one half step lower than a major chord. This produces a darker, sometimes sadder sound.
When writing a chord progression, it is easiest to work within a major scale or key. This is the simplest scale, as well as the most commonly used. All major keys have seven chords, and those are based on the seven notes of the scale.
For example, a common chord progression is the 1-5-6-4 chord progression. Those chords are the backbone of a huge number of modern songs, such as Photograph by Ed Sheeran, Demons by Imagine Dragons, and Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. It’s an iconic chord progression used in all kinds of music and genres.
Out of those seven major scale chords, it is important to remember which ones are major and which ones are minor. The One, Four, and Five chords are major chords, while the Two, Three, and Six chords are minor and generally feel a bit more somber and add darkness and color to a song. The Seven chord is used pretty sparingly these days because it is a different kind of chord altogether. When used together, these chords can create a virtually endless number of songs.
Experiment with the different chords in major keys to find chord progressions that sound exciting and fresh. These guidelines are not hard and fast rules, and when it comes to music, the only thing that’s really important is if it sounds good, so feel to try out new things. At the end of the day, good music is good music, and experimenting with new sounds is critical to finding your personal voice.
MIDI is shorthand for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it’s a game-changing piece of music production technology that’s been around for a couple of decades. Basically, it allows your computer to work together with multiple instruments and other hardware to communicate and more easily create music. You connect it to your DAW to really get the most out of all your equipment.
Creating MIDI chord progressions allows you to easily change the notes and mess around with your chords until you’re totally happy with them. Most producers these days aren’t actually playing physical instruments every time they put together a track, and MIDI chord progressions are a huge part of that.
Here at Unison, we’ve been mastering the art of creating chord progressions for years. If creating your own MIDI chord progressions seems like too much work, check out the Unison MIDI Pack to instantly improve your chord progressions and cut down on the time you have to spend working on them. These are high-level chord progressions that can make any song sound masterfully composed in just seconds.
Then, check out our Serum Presets that are modeled after the biggest hits in each genre, or use a Vocal Pack to give your songs a fresh human element without having to spend the money on a singer. All of these packs can help any producer to create their next masterpiece as easily as possible. Your next hit is right around the corner, and Unison can help you get there in style.