Lush Beats & Productions by Big Bird

Chord Theory – But which ones?

If you read the previous chord theory post and now clicked this one you may be thinking, ‘Great now we learn the next step!’.

Sort of.

Understanding everything about chord theory would require a rather large textbook. There are also a mountain of other blogs that go into great detail of all music theory. Google away.

However my hope is that this blog will get some of you started on your theoretically assisted musical journeys.

My version of a ‘next step’ for this particular topic delves into what I think is useful for song writers, beat makers etc.

Building chord progressions

Much of what musicians are taught about constructing a chord progression is centred around harmonic tension and release. The ear likes to be pulled back and forward between states of rest and movement. The terminology we’ll often use is ‘resolve’, e.g. ‘the G7 resolves to the C Maj7’.

The most common resolutions are V – I ( 5 – 1 ) and IV – I ( 4 – 1 ).
G – C  (V – I)
F – C   (IV – I)

Why are these chord resolutions so common?
1. The movement of the root note is the strongest sounding: The resolution of the 5th to the tonic.

2. The movement of the 3rd and 5th between the two chords are close intervals.

To ‘resolve’ from one chord to another doesn’t necessarily imply the end of the progression repeating to the start. There definitely aren’t any rules on where chords can go, only which combinations work better, just as there is nothing stating you must start a progression with the tonic chord.

Try these common chord progressions:

vi – IV – I

I – V – vi – IV

ii – V – I

Now try this:

I – IV – iii – ii

If you like the sound of that then good, you’re an easy pleaser. However, notice that due to the lack of V – I or IV – I cadences, there isn’t that sense of harmonic grounding as with the other examples.

Granted if you only use chords within one key then no matter the chord combination the ear will be feeling pretty happy about life harmonically. The point is some combinations are stronger than others and knowing the ones that are is pretty useful.

Cadences help with direction and structure, but what else can we put in a progression?

One way of easily attaining more interesting colours from your chords and also create movement throughout the progression, is to move different bass notes under the same triad. E.g.

C/E – C triad with a E in the bass
C/A – C triad with a A in the bass

So in a progression you could use:

C Major – C Major/B – A minor – F Major – F Major/G

With this method we are actually implying a set of more complicated chords, with further notes outside of the 3 note triad. For now you can think of them as triads with a moving bass. This is a very popular pop-ballad technique, which depending on the note combination can create a ‘suspended’ type of chord sound. Suspended is a term for chords that don’t have the important 3rd (which implies whether the chord is major or minor) and typically has a 4th instead.

Chances are if you’re already writing music, then this will be old news. Though I think your take away could be more of an awareness of the intervalic relationship between the chords you are writing. Perhaps at least you’ll understand why that one chord just isn’t working..

Until next time.



Chord Theory – An Introduction

‘So what is in a chord?’ I ask my piano students.

‘Isn’t it like, a bunch of notes played together?’

You bet.

I went to an Ableton lecture once and a producer was running us through his workflow, including composition techniques. At one point he had to use a chord arpeggiator to find out what notes he could use for a bass line. I have nothing against using sequencers and the like to find initial chords and progressions (we all get writers block). However I was disappointed that he couldn’t at least come up with any ideas on the spot to either play or program in once he had basic chords laid down. In the time it took for him to set up the plugin and move all the midi notes around, I had already come up with five ideas in my head, and I knew more or less the notes I needed to try out.

Understanding a little bit of music theory is going to help anyone in their music making. It may help you in more ways than you can think of. Even if you spin vinyl most days and chop sweet beats, you will still benefit. (*Cough* bass lines..)

So, you ask, what do I need to learn?

Intervals! …and how to count them.

Assuming you can identify all the notes on a piano, let’s go! Sitting yourself at a piano or keyboard will help for this.

The distance between all notes on the piano are equal (called ‘equal temperament’ – harmonic distance, not mathematical) which means that we can play any one piece of music in all twelve keys and they would sound the same.

Great news for us! We only need to learn the concepts for one key, and then apply the same to the other 11!

Thus one of the most useful things to think about in music creation are the relationships between these notes called intervals – the distance from one to another. We give these intervals numbers.

Eg. From C to A is a 6th. (Counting from C to A)
From E to G is a 3rd. (Counting from E to G)

1  2  3 4  5  6 7  1

Let’s pick the first, third, and fifth note. Boom, we have a C Major chord. The distance between the first and third note is a major third (Count 1, 2, 3). The distance between the 3rd and fifth is a minor third (Count 3, 4, 5).


But what about the black notes? They are essential to us accurately counting the intervals between each note. A major third interval consists of two whole steps. A minor third is worth a whole step and one half step.

(A whole step skips one note. A half note moves to the next.)

Great, so D Major in that case is D, F, A right? Because 1, 3, 5 right? Good effort, but not quite, we didn’t apply the intervals. A major third from D is an F#.

To get a minor chord, all we have to do is flat the 3rd note of the chord. Eg. To get a C Minor, the E (3rd) drops down a half step to Eb. Turning the triad into C, Eb, G. Or D Major turns into D minor with an F instead of F#.

Ah, you realise, you can make different chords within the one key!

Yes, we can take these 3rd intervals and apply them to each note in C Major.
It’s also important to remember the intervals for each note in relation to the tonic key, being C.

C Major (C E G)         Root/Tonic of C
D minor (D F A)         2nd of C
E minor (E G B)         3rd ”
F Major (F A C)          4th ”
G Major (G B D)         5th ”
A minor (A C E)          6th ”
B flat 5 (B D F)            7th ”

If you are unsure why the chords are major and minor, notice how they all use the notes in C Major. So we worked backwards by figuring out whether the intervals are major or minor 3rds.



That’s about it for this week. Tune in soon for the next instalment.



Analysis – ‘Last Kiss’ by Overdoz.

This week in blog brainstorming; posts that people may find interesting and/or useful for their own music endeavours…plus a little music theory.

What is always fun is finding out what makes a song tick! For everyone that will be a different quality of the music, for me it’s usually the harmony. Adding one more note to a major/minor triad can add much to the feeling of a song, it can change how our ears hear melody.

Thus, this week we will be looking at a little number by rapping collective OverDoz. ‘Last Kiss’. Initially I heard this tune after stumbling on a youtube video of Pharrell Williams working on it with OverDoz. You can immediately hear the loud choir sample of the un-balanced mix in the control room. Be warned it maybe too groovy for you to handle.

By the time we hear the offical release mix, the choir sample has been shoved to the back, though the piano is loud enough for us to get a sense of the harmony.

Here I’ve added the notated the parts. The song is a 4 bar loop of this progression.

On the first chord, we have an Eb minor 9.

The second, is a straight C minor 7 flat 5 (also called a half diminished).

The third is an interesting one. A little unconventional as a D Major 7 sharp 5 (or Major 7 Augmented 5) however with an A flat in the bass. It works well here, as most of the notes already belong to the Eb minor 9, but with D instead of an F. With the Ab in the bass, this chord resolves nicely back into Eb minor 9. (Ab bass leading a IV – I cadence, and the D moves up chromatically to the Eb.) This is a great example of harmonic tension and release done in a subtle way.

I liked the drums in this song so much I also transcribed them. In what I think is a very Pharrell-esque style of drum production (see ‘Señorita’ – JT etc.) we have muted triangles and cowbell type rim shots in overlapping syncopation over the drums. The percussion in the beat is intricate and gives a part of how the beat grooves, it’s a shame that we don’t hear it that clearly in the final mix. If you compare the official release with video above, you get a great sense of how differently it grooves with the percussion turned up.

To see how I went, I reconstructed the beat in Logic. I think I captured the vibe well! Have a listen and leave a comment below.


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Thanks for joining in!

This is an exciting project to start. I’m excited to share my musical knowledge and experience so stay tuned for interesting articles, opinions, tutorials and more.

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