Electronic Music Theory: How to Quickly Write Better Chord Progressions w/ Pat Cupo

A lot of students have asked me for tips and tricks to writing better chord progressions. By that time they had already learned about building Major and Minor chords, but when it came to a chord progression – a series of chords occurring in time – they were a bit stuck. If you’re ever in the same position, then feel free to use these simple guidelines to help you quickly write chord progressions. Follow them carefully and strictly at first and over time it’ll start to come naturally to you.

1) Use only Major or Minor chords.

Just keep things simple. The Major and Minor chords only have 3 notes in them. For example, C Major has the notes C E G. The chord C Minor has C Eb G. This limitation will help you quickly make decisions about what kind of chords to use. The trick is always to limit yourself to help you make decisions.

C Major

C Major Chord
[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/C_Major_Chord.mp3]
C Major Chord

C Minor

C Minor Chord

[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/C_Minor_Chord.mp3]
C Minor Chord

2) Begin and end with the same chord

The thing about music is that it’s like a game. You have to start in one place, go away from it for a while, and then figure out how to get back. In this case I’m going to start with the chord A Minor:

A Minor Chord

[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/A_Minor_Chord.mp3]
A Minor Chord

So what chord am I going to end with? A minor. Again, limitations are helpful.

3) Move freely among diatonic chords

The word Diatonic means “from the tonic”. Well, what’s this thing called a tonic? The tonic is the main pitch of the composition – it’s the note from which every other note is based. In this imaginary piece of music, the tonic I’ve selected is A. I’ve decided that I want the piece to be in a minor key – A Minor. From the tonic I construct the A Natural Minor Scale: A B C D E F G.

A Minor Scale

[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/A_Minor_Scale.mp3]
A Minor Scale

You can build seven (7) “diatonic chords” off of each note in the above scale meaning that you’ll only use notes from the A Minor Scale resulting in mostly Major and Minor chords. For example, if I was to build a diatonic chord in the key of A Minor from the note C, then I get a C Major chord, C E G. Here are all of the diatonic chords in the key of A Minor:

Diatonic Chords

[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Diatonic_Chords.mp3]
Diatonic Chords

Here’s the secret: You can move freely around these diatonic chords in any way you want. You just have to find the progression that works best for the track.

4) A chord of one type may move freely to any other chord of the same type.

Now to make things interesting. Let’s say you want to use a chord outside of the diatonic chords. Is that allowed? Yes. Will it sound good? Well, that’s up to you. Simply put, you can start from a diatonic Major chord and move to any other Major chord. For example, Let’s say that my chord progression starts like this:
A Minor | D Minor | F Major

Am Dm FM
[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Am_Dm_FM.mp3]
Am Dm FM

What’s my next chord? Can I go to Eb Major? Yes. How about Bb Major? Yes. Any Major chord will sound good. The trick is to end the series of Major chords on one of the three a diatonic Major chords:

A Minor | D Minor | F Major | Eb Major | Bb Major | C Major (diatonic) |

[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Am_Dm_FM_EbM_BbM_CM.mp3]

The same goes for Minor chords. Make sure to end on one of three diatonic Minor chords:

A Minor | F Major | D Minor | Bb Minor | Eb Minor | D Minor (diatonic) |

Am FM Dm Bbm Ebm Dm
[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Am_FM_Dm_Bbm_EbM_Dm.mp3]
Am FM Dm Bbm Ebm Dm

5) The root of the next to last chord must move by 2nd, Perfect 4th, or Perfect 5th to the last chord.

Remember that music is like a game and you’re trying to figure out how to get back home. We know that the last chord is the same as the first chord, but what about the next to last chord? That chord is very important because it helps the music lead into the last chord. The options you have for the penultimate chord have to be a 2nd above or below the tonic, or a Perfect 4th/5th above or below the tonic. Not sure what these numbers mean? That’s okay. We’re talking about intervals, or the distance between two notes. Here are all of the options for the key of A minor:

2nd Below: G Major > A Minor

[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/GM_Am.mp3]

Perfect 4th above / 5th below: D Minor > A Minor

Dm Am
[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Dm_Am.mp3]
Dm Am

Perfect 5th above / 4th below: E Minor > A Minor

Em Am
[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Em_Am.mp3]
Em Am

Why not a 2nd above? Because that would be B Diminished > A Minor and that would go against Guideline #1.

6) The roots of the chords must support the tonic and they must form a singable line.

After you finish your your progression, take the roots of all of the chords (A is the root of A Minor, C is the root of C Major, etc.) and play them in a row. Does it sound like a good, singable melody? If so, then you probably have a great chord progression on your hands. Some people, myself included, actually like to start with this step. Here’s my example of a chord progression following all 6 guidelines:

A Minor | E Minor D Minor | C Major | Eb Major G Major | D Minor G Minor | D Minor | E Minor | A Minor |
Chord Progression

[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Final.mp3]

And here’s the same chord progression in a musical context:
[audio: http://dubspot.com/video/chords/Context-LikeCorrectCorrect.mp3]
In context

Follow all of these guidelines and you’ll you’ll start to hear yourself writing great chord progressions which you can you as the main feature in song or as the underlying force for all of the other melodic tracks. Now you have some guidelines to follow. The next step is to learn how to bend them and that’s the fun part.

Written by Patrick Cupo, Director of Curriculum Development

Unravel electronic music’s origins, build your chops, learn the language and theory, and make and play music the way you want. Students will develop a deeper understanding of the roots and lineage of a variety of electronic and dance music, strengthen their keyboard skills, and learn valuable music theory skills, deepening their creative practice and facilitating effective collaborations with musical partners.

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After completing this program, you will leave with 4 completed tracks (EP), a remix entered in an active contest, a scored commercial to widen your scope, and the Dubspot Producer’s Certificate in Ableton Live.

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  • pascal
  • 11/8/2011

i still dont understand the ” in the scale of ” thing

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[...] We’ve previously looked at some basic music theory from the Ableton Cookbook – now Dubspot instructor Pat Cupo presents an excellent and approachable look at chord progressions. Whether you’re a pro looking for a refresher or you’ve never played a chord in your life, this tutorial reviews how to intelligently sequence chords in your music. Check out the full tutorial on the Dubspot Blog. [...]

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  • Auxin
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So awesome that you guys take the time to put up little tips all over the interwebs :)

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  • Andrew
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Wow… very very helpful tutorial, please keep em coming. I’ve always wanted to know an easy way to use outside from the scale chords :) now i know one! Tips like these are highly appreciated, thanks again.


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