Many of our students like to brush up on their compositional knowledge, so we thought we’d provide a helpful guide to the basic ideas that underpin music theory on chord progression. You can get a more in depth understanding of any of these concepts on our Online Songwriting Course or Electronic Music Composition Course.
Chord Progressions: What’s a Chord?
When we speak of a chord, we mean two or more notes sounded simultaneously. The chords in a song are the harmonic support for the melody, and songs are made of chord sequences. The classification of chords and their relation to each other forms part of the study of harmony.
There are a lot of different chord types, we will start today with the simplest and most common type of chord, the triad. As the name implies a triad is composed of 3 notes. Typically a triad is made of the root note, the third and the fifth of the corresponding scale. The name of the chord is based upon the root note. If the root note is D, the chord will be a D. The other 2 notes will define which type of triad it is.
They are several types of triads, i.e. Major – Minor – Diminished – Augmented and so on. Major and Minor chords are the two most important types: popular Western music is based upon them. It is possible to play most popular tunes using major and minor chords only.
Here, if you play the keys represented by the dots you’ll hear the chord of C Major. The first note C is known as the fundamental or root note, the middle note E is known as the third, as it is the third note in the scale of C major, and the last note G is called the fifth because it is the fifth note in the scale counting upwards from the note C. When you play these notes together, you’ll hear that they sound harmonious together, happy and complete. Every Major chord has this sound. The formula for a major triad is:
Root note – third note in the scale – fifth note in the scale
So you see why it comes in handy to know your scales. But if you haven’t learn them yet, don’t panic! You can work out how to build a major chord by using a simple formula. This formula relies on Semitones. A Semitone is the smallest possible distance on a keyboard, counting black and white notes. The chord formula to build a major chord using semi-tones is:
Root note – 4 semitones up – 3 semitones up
So now applying this formula, let’s deduce how to make the chord G Major. The note G is the fundamental or root note – going up 4 semitones is the note B, this is the third, and up 3 semitones is the note D, this is the fifth.
Try playing on your keyboard a C Major chord followed by G Major to compare how they sound. If you’ve played them both correctly, you should find that they sound similar but not identical. They compliment each other nicely though, and once again have a sense of completeness when played in this order: C Major/ G Major/ C Major
Now try playing this chord, F Major and then playing these three chords in this order: C Major / F Major / G Major / F Major. Congratulations you’ve played a chord sequence! In fact it’s the same chord sequence as the beginning of the song ‘Summer Nights’ from Grease. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there’s another type of basic chord we must consider.
So far so good, but you can go out of your mind if you only play major chords! Minor chords are very similar, but sound more sad, reflective or dramatic. Below is the chord A Minor. Try playing it.
As you can hear, it has an instant sense of power and purpose, almost classical sounding and certainly not jolly at all. We can define a minor chord in much the same way as a major chord, in that the middle note of the chord is the third note of the scale. But the difference between the two is that there are only three semitones between the fundamental and the third in a minor chord, just as in a minor scale. Like with major chords you can also apply a simple formula counting semi-tones:
Root note – 3 semitones up – 4 semitones up
So now applying this formula, let’s deduce how to make the chord C Minor. The note C is the fundamental – going up 3 semitones is the note E flat, and going up 4 semitones is the note G.
Basically once you know your major chords, you’ll be able to deduce the minor chords very easily. Simply play a major chord and then bring the middle note ONE semitone lower. You have the minor version of the chord. Easy really. Go ahead and try the exercise below. Nex week we’ll continue with chord inversions and more.
Chord Progression Exercise
Finally, try playing the four chords that you know in this order: C Major / A Minor / F Major / G Major. This is the most common chord sequence of all, which underpins songs such as ‘Blue Moon’ and many others from the 1950s and is still in use today (including Pink’s ‘Just Like a Pill’).