Updated: Jun 16, 2020
by Reiss Armstrong
One thing that I find commonly arising amongst music producers is a gap in the understanding of music theory. Music theory is a deep and often complex art. Having the tools at your disposal to know how to make notes sound good together does speed up the process of making music. But without a deep knowledge of music theory, is it possible to take some of the basics and apply them in a productive and worthwhile way? In this article, I am going to prove to you that knowing the major scale will open up the opportunity to make plenty of different chord progressions that you can use in your productions. It will also give you the sufficient tools needed to write a melody to go along with your chords.
The 4 Chord Game
I want to put this to you. I can make a common chord progression by playing a game. That’s right, just a game. A game of chance, like rolling dice. Using this game of chance, it is possible to create common chord progressions. There will be progressions that you have heard before, but also new ones that may seem less familiar. Let’s play.
First, choose a letter between A and G. So let’s choose F.
Second, let’s choose sharp, flat or natural. So let’s go for sharp.
Third, select major or minor. Okay, minor.
We now have a key to work in for our music, F sharp minor.
Let’s think about the notes in that scale.
F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E. That is the F sharp minor scale.
Compare this to the A major scale. A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#.
These scales use exactly the same notes. However, because we start at a different note of the scale, it sounds different.
Let me make this clear. If you start a major scale on its 6th note and play the exact same notes, you have the relative minor to that major scale.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Okay, so the numbers we really want to focus on are 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 (We neglect chords 3 and 7 because they throw up some weird chords that don’t usually sit nicely. By all means, try it.) This will become apparent why shortly. Now using those notes in that scale, we can begin to construct chords around each note using the triad. That would be, the root note, the third, and the fifth related to that note in the scale. So:
Chord 1 would be A major, using A, C# and E.
Chord 2 would be B minor, using B, D and F#.
Chord 4 would be D major, using D, F# and A.
Chord 5 would be E major, using E, G# and B.
Finally, chord 6 would be F# minor, using F#, A and C#.
This can be done for any key signature. The main thing is to ensure you use the chords from the major scale. If you choose a minor scale from playing the game above, just change it to its relative major. So if you choose A minor, that would be C major scale. B minor would be D major. And so on.
But here comes the fun bit. Using those 5 chords, I want you to choose any four of them and put them in any order you want. Random. Do whatever you like. For example:
1, 4, 6, 5.
6, 4, 1, 5.
1, 5, 6, 4.
2, 4, 6, 5.
1, 6, 4, 5.
All of these chord sequences above work. In my opinion, the most common chord progression that is used throughout music is 1, 5, 6, 4. This has formed the basis for a plethora of recognisable songs. Imagine it being a four-bar phrase. You could even choose chords and hold one on for two bars. There are endless opportunities for creativity here. This game will increase your knowledge of chord progressions, allowing you to try out different styles of progressions.
Let’s finish the game.
I’ll choose 6, 4, 1, 5.
For the options I have chosen, that would be: F# minor, then D major, to A major, to E major. Okay.
Has this been used before? Well, unsurprisingly yes. Linkin Park - Numb. Iyaz - Replay.
Rock. Pop. To name only two examples, but there are plenty more out there.
Now, the idea is that you have this chord progression laid down. This may repeat throughout the track or may just be used in the breakdown section. But once you establish the key of your track, you now have all the tools to create a melody. You have all the notes in the scale right there waiting for you to create a melody from them. Laying down a chord or bass progression is the beginning, building the melody around it is next.
Now, I understand and appreciate that dance music doesn’t always revolve around four chords. Sometimes it doesn’t even revolve around any chords. But this gives you a basis for forming a structure for your song. Even choose two chords to bounce off of? Use it to choose a key that you don’t usually work in? There are plenty of different ways around it. Use it to your advantage to get the best out of your music.
The next article in this series will look into common scales used in dance music. This will ensure that you begin to expand your horizons when creating the melodies in your tracks. Be sure to keep an eye out for it on the page soon!