Chords are the foundation of music as they’re the element that dictates the overall mood of any piece. The same melody can have very different feels based on the chords it’s layered upon.
Getting the chords right is crucial because it can make or break the track, but don’t worry because it’s not as scary as most people make it, at least for minimalistic genres like Hip Hop and modern Pop.
The very first thing you need to decide is the scale, which determines the notes that theoretically should sound the best together.
If you’re not sure about which key to writing in, at least decide the scale you want (with Major and Minor being the most popular ones).
Use the right instrument
When writing chords, make sure you’re using a polyphonic instrument because chords can be played only by synths that can play multiple voices at once.
Start as the bass
You can start writing your chord progression from the root notes (the lowest in a chord), which are generally the same you’d use for a Moog bass progression (the “bassy pad” sound that has increased in popularity thanks to OVO Sound).
Focus on the intervals from note to note and see how the tension builds up and releases over the course of the loop.
Going up creates tension, going down releases it, while the amount of tension built up or released is proportional to how big the interval is.
This way, you’ve set the so-called root notes.
Your skills might be limiting you, especially if you aren’t an experienced songwriter, but humming notes by heart will suggest the most natural solution you are looking for.
Once you get the right “hum”, try replicating it on the piano roll.
Also, try recording yourself and using a tuner to spot the notes you want.
Major Chords and Minor Chords
Starting from the root note, you want to start by adding the fifth (or dominant) which is 7 semitones above.
Then, what differentiates a major chord from a minor chord is the third, which can be major (+4 semitones) or minor (+3 semitones).
Keep in mind that not every chord in a major scale is a major chord, the same is true for minor scales.
When you fall on the seventh degree (in a major scale) or the second degree (in a minor scale), something weird happens as you can’t find a perfect fifth that fits the scale. In this case, you might ask yourself whether to go up or down a semitone and the answer is down. By doing so, you’re using the diminished fifth (+6).
If we want a smoother progression with smaller leaps from chord to chord, what we can do is fold voices as closest as possible by using inversions.
There are two types of inversion:
• 1st inversions are achieved by transposing the root note up an octave (so the lowest note is the third).
• 2nd inversions are achieved by transposing the fifth down an octave (so the fifth becomes the lowest note).
Remember that this is optional and you should always trust your gut.
Make your life easier
Writing something in F Minor, for example, can become challenging to some people because they always have to recall which notes are within the scale every time they’re adding or moving something.
An effective way to speed up your workflow is to stick to C Major or A Minor because both of them are made of nothing but white keys, and use MIDI effects that pitch up or down your MIDI signal to “preview” your music in other scales while easily laying them on white keys.
If you don’t have a MIDI effect in your DAW to do so, you can tune your instrument up or down until you find the scale you like.
Once you’re done, you’d better transpose the MIDI notes and set your instrument’s tuning back to 0.