After many years of producing most of us will have, at some point, found ourselves feeling bored with the same old chords and melodies we write. It can start to get very demotivating to pull out the piano roll and begin writing a chord progression that sounds like the other 1000 chord progressions we’ve written before.
If this sounds like you, well then these music theory tips are here to help you write more interesting and unique chord progressions and melodies.
To get the most out of these tips you should already have a basic understanding of music theory. You should know at a very minimum 1 major and 1 minor scale and how to build major and minor chords. If not here is a really good comprehensive basic music theory guide to get you off the ground.
Let’s get started.
Inversions are first on the list as this is probably the fastest and most basic way you can add interest to your chord progressions.
Essentially all you need to do to create inversions is to take any note in your basic Major or Minor chord and shift it up or down an octave.
Let’s look at an Amin chord, this consists of the notes A, C, E. This is also known as the Root Position
Now, if we take the A and shift it up an octave we now play it as C, E, A. This is called the First Inversion.
If we move the C up an octave this is called the Second Inversion and is played as E, A, C.
Third Inversions only exist in chords that have four or more notes. For example Amin7 (A, C, E, G) if we want to do a Third Inversion we simply move the G down an octave so that it becomes the bass note of the chord (G, A, C, E).
Bonus Tip: Voicings
For the longest time, I was doing something I thought was an inversion, I was taking the 3rd and moving it up an octave. For example playing an Amin chord as A, E, C, instead of A, C, E.
I found out this is actually called a voicing as the root of the chord is still the A. I still wanted to include this under the inversions section because it’s still achieved by moving one of the notes up an octave.
I absolutely love the sound of this voicing. Because the notes are so far apart, I feel like each note can be heard more clearly and it fills out more of the frequency spectrum. Great for things like Supersaws.
2. SUSPENDED CHORDS
Suspended chords are created by taking the major or minor third and moving it either up to a perfect fourth to create Sus4 or down to a minor second to create Sus2.
Amin – usually played as A, C, E
Sus4 becomes A, D, E
Sus2 becomes A, B, E
This in effect creates tension and sets us up to create a really nice resolve when we follow a suspended chord with a standard chord.
3. MODE MIXING
The moment I learned about mode mixing I remember clearly thinking “this sounds like a Deadmau5 chord progression”. You can hear it in songs such as “I Deadmau5 & Kaskade – I Remember” and “Deadmau5 – Some Chords”.
It’s achieved by borrowing a chord from the parallel Major or Minor scale and using it in your progression. (I don’t know why they say borrow, because I doubt deadmau5 gave it back)
For example, if you are writing in Amin, you might want to use the Amaj chord in your progression. Doing something like starting on Amin and resolving to Amaj will create a sense of completion in a brighter and warmer way than simply resolving back to Amin. And inversely, while in Amaj, you might use Amin in your progression.
Let’s look at Some Chords
Here you can see it starts on G#min chord (G#, B, D#) and resolves to G#maj (G#, C, D#). Notice how the C in the G#Maj chord is not in the scale of G#min, which is why they say it is “borrowed”.
A quick and easy way to form complex chords. Polychords are created by layering standard Major or Minor chords together.
For example, we can layer Cmaj(C, E, G) with Gmaj (G, B, D) to form Cmaj9 (C, E, G, B, D).
5. DOMINANT 7TH
A dominant 7th chord is composed of a root, major third, perfect fifth and a minor 7th.
If we are in Cmaj the dominant chord is the 5th chord in the scale (Gmajor – G, B, D) we then add the 7th to make it (G, B, D, F).
The function of this chord is to resolve back to the tonic (Cmaj).
6. Diminished 7th
Diminished 7th chords have a similar function to dominant 7ths and that is to resolve to the tonic, this is because of the strong dissonance in a Dim7 chord.
They are created with a root, a minor third, a diminished 5th and a diminished 7th.
So Cmaj (C, E, G) would become C, Eb, Gb, A.
7. Harmonic Tension and Release
All major keys share their notes with what is called a relative minor. Likewise, all minor keys have a relative major. For example, C major (all the white notes) has all the same keys as A minor (all the white notes). The obvious difference is one starts on A and one on C. Therefore you can quite easily switch between these keys without it sounding dissonant or wrong.
A common practice that most beginners aren’t aware of is writing verses in minor keys and switching to the relative major for the chorus. The reason for this is minor keys are generally considered darker and more melancholic, whereas major keys are brighter and warmer. This creates a sort of tension and release, and just makes for a more interesting composition.
A Final Exercise
Using what we’ve just learned, let’s take a common chord progression and try spice it up.
Let’s start in the key of Amin and do a i, III, v, VII progression.
Pretty boring right?
After messing with it a bit I came up with this:
- In the first chord, I moved the C up an octave (remember Voicings?).
- The second chord I combined with the 3rd one (Polychord) to create a Cmaj7.
- The third chord I moved the 3rd and 5th up an octave (second inversion)
- And the final chord I moved the root note up an octave (first inversion)
Here is how they sound before and after:
Go ahead and try it yourself. Feel free to link to your version in the comments below!
Hope you found this useful and thanks for reading!