Tips and Tricks: Chord Progressions

Music theory is one of the most helpful tools for music production, regardless of its seemingly classical and restrictive atmosphere. Music Theory shouldn’t be used to define if your music is good or bad, or to strictly delineate what types of notes and note combinations can be used. Rather, it’s helpful for guiding the creative process and can be instrumental in speeding up your workflow. Instead of trial and error, you can get a fairly quick idea of how a number of notes will sound when played together.

When happy and joyful is what you want, you’ll know how to get that. When you want dissonance and terror, that’s possible too! And sometimes knowing music theory makes it even easier to break out of the rules and do something unconventional. In this guide, I’m going to go over a few quick tips and tricks that can be used to enhance the flow of your chord progressions, or give them a bit of flair.

Voice Leading

Have you been left feeling that your chord progressions are jumpy, or don’t flow as well as they should? As someone who listened to (still listens to) a lot of Liquid Funk, I found myself frustrated that even after using “jazzy” chords nothing I wrote flowed as well as I thought it should. It seemed disjointed, and like it didn’t blend together. It did not feel at all like the genre I was trying to produce!

If you’ve felt like this, chances are you’re chords are in fact not flowing the way they should. This is easy to fix, however, and is what voice leading is about. Good voice leading is simple: minimize the amount of motion between chords in a progression. Commonly, we’ll do this by using inversions. This won’t change the tone of the note too much, but will make it feel much more “in place” and stop that jumpy feeling. Inversions are when we take the lowest note of a chord and raise it an octave. So, in the below image I’ve placed a Cmaj chord and the first inversion of that chord.

As you can see, this is really quite simple in practice! Its really just moving the notes within our chords to fit better with the rest of the progression. We can invert as many times as we like, technically, but you may notice that once we get to our 3rd inversion we just have our original chord raised an octave. Therefore, it is really just the 2nd and third inversions that we worry about. You may note that inversions do sound a bit different in tonality, and I feel they lack some of the power or glue of regular chords (Tchaikovsky also noted this). As such, it may be wise to leave chords at key points in your progression uninverted, if the inversion lessens the impact or power of said chords.

Applying inversions to your chords follows the classical rule of “if it sounds good, it is good”. Another small note is that common notes among two chords shouldn’t usually be inverted, as these already will segue into each other nicely. It tends to be the notes most outside of the range of the progression that will need inverting, in most cases. I often find myself pitching the whole chord down an octave, then inverting the first two notes in cases where a chord really jumps from the core of the progression.

Suspended Chords

Suspended chords are remarkably simple to construct, and come in two flavors: Sus4 and Sus2. This relates to how they affect the notes in the chord. Remember that a chord is 3 or more notes being played at once, and that it involves (conventionally) the notes of a chord two degrees apart. So, the root chord in a scale is numbered as 1.

The tonic chord is the chord starting at this root note, and includes the 3rd note in the scale (+2 from 1) and the 5th note in the scale (+2 from the 3rd). A Sus2 chord switches things up by making the second note in the chord the second degree, and the Sus4 chord makes the 2nd note be of the 4th degree. So if a Cmaj tonic chord is C-E-G, a Csus2 chord is C-D-G and a Csus4 chord is C-F-G. The 2nd/4th degree is really relative to each chord, so it’s easier to picture the sus2 chord as having us move the 2nd note of a chord down one note in the scale, and the sus4 chord having us just move this middle note up one note in the scale. These chords are a wonderful way to add more tension to a buildup, for example. Making more and more of repetitive chords suspended chords as you approach the drop is a subtle and clever way of amping up the tension (and increasing the eventual feeling of release).

In the above, I used the standard Cmaj root triad, then Csus4, then Csus2. As I near the point of “release” in my song, whatever that may be, I increase the tempo of these suspended chords and stop using the root chord. As this is Cmaj, it does sound a bit cheesy but I’d still give this a shot yourself so you can get an idea of the general “tone” of this structure, so to speak.

The Dominant 7th

You may or may not have heard of the 7th chord already, and may even have used the dominant 7th chord without realizing it. Remember that most chord progressions involve departing the tonic, heading for the dominant chord, and then returning to the tonic. This sounds like leaving a harmonic home or comfort zone, heading towards high tension sounds, and then returning home to resolve the progression. This is because the dominant chord (5th chord) leads to the tonic chord (1st chord), due to the relationships between the notes (covered very well by the courses here, and covered briefly in numerous articles elsewhere).

The Dominant 7th chord is our usual V chord, just with an added major 7th above the dominants’ root. So, if we use the dominant chord of the C major scale (G-B-D), adding the seventh means using the note F to create the chord G-B-D-F. Note that F is indeed only one half-step below G. This has an even stronger pull to the tonic than the regular dominant chord, and is a good way to really seal the ending of a chord progression or signal clearly that you’ve reached the peak of your harmonic journey. This is a very distinct chord, and is commonly used, but that does mean you should shy away from it! Rather, it is a sign of just how effective this structure can be.

Suspended notes between chords

This sounds very similar to the concept I discussed earlier, but is actually something entirely different. Instead of tweaking the structure of our chords wholesale this involves just sustaining a note from one chord, into the next chord. It helps to create a more fluid feeling, but can also add a touch of dissonance. Here’s what it might look like applied to a standard I-IV-V-I progression:

To me, the sound really reminds me of melodic dubstep. It sounds ponderous and contemplative, as far as I can hear. Suspended notes can also be modified substantially, and don’t have to follow a certain format. Above, I just suspended the middling note and tried to not move too much (also, note that I inverted the chords to get them to flow better).

As there is no generalized procedure for this, it’s best to experiment to find the combos that work the best harmonically. Generally, it can be wise to think about the notes in the chord you are moving to. If the note you are suspending into this chord is one of the triad notes, or is the 7th, 9th, or even 11th, then it will sound more harmonic and in-tune than if it is one of the off-chord degrees (which is okay, it just sounds quite different!). You can also try playing the suspended note again, as you transition into the new chord, which usually adds a nice touch of contrast to the transitions between chords.

Overall, I would say it is important to also not worry too much about making musically complex, “valid”, or unique chord progressions. These tips here can help you add some extra flair, or fix any glaring issues you may hear, but at the end of the day producing music under the umbrella of “EDM” means that 2-4 strong chords can form the basis for the whole song. We can add other chords to transition easily, certainly, but simplicity has its appeal. I spent a fair amount of time fretting that my progressions weren’t unique enough, and the time I spent trying to make stupendously overcomplicated progressions was time not making music. Make sure that above all else, you are doing what you enjoy and what sounds good!