Sometimes, all you need to kickstart your creativity is a good chord progression that you can then tweak and expand to your liking. But how do you come up with a good chord progression in the first place? Here’s one of my tricks to overcome a creative block…
Let’s look at the Circle of Fifths
No! Don’t run away just now! This is not intensive theory. Just an intro to set the scene for what follows. I promise.
First, here’s what the Circle of Fifths looks like:
And this is Wikipedia’s definition:
In music theory, the circle of fifths (or circle of fourths) is the relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys. More specifically, it is a geometrical representation of relationships among the 12 pitch classes of the chromatic scale in pitch class space.
It was created by Nikolay Diletsky and first appeared in Idea grammatiki musikiyskoy in 1679 and it looked like this:
Right… But how does that help?
Ok, you are in a hurry, music won’t write itself, I get it. Let’s move on. Aside from the Circle of Fifths (Google for it, you’ll get a ton of results on Google Image… or use Cubase, it’s built-in, that’s where the first screenshot above comes from), you will need chords. Or you know how to build each of them on your piano, or you use a plugin that will give them to you. Once again, Cubase has you covered as its Chord Track feature does just that (and more… it does inversions too), but let’s pretend that you are not one of the cool kids and that you are using another DAW. There are two plugins I particularly like for this:
- Obelisk, by FrozenPlain at $25 and available on FrozenPlain website.
- Scaler, by PluginBoutique at $36 and available here.
Reading the Circle of Fifths
Back to our Circle of Fifths. You may or may not know about Roman numerals numbering of chords in a scale. If you don’t, that’s not a problem. Look at the Circle of Fifth once again here and notice the Roman numerals next to certain chords:
Notice the I under C? That’s because we are in the key of C Major. All the other chords here with a Roman numeral are in the key of C Major and you can use any of these to build your progression: it will sound correct.
What if you want to use the key of D Major instead? Well, you rotate the circle until D is at the top and the chords in the scale of D Major will still be in the same position. Like this:
What about minor keys? Well, it’s basically the same, except that they will be in the inner circle and that the chords of the scale are in different places (but always the same for all minor keys). Here’s the key of A minor after rotating the circle until Am is at the inner top, for example:
All this rotating! Well, it’s called a Circle of Fifths, after all.
Let’s select a key. Whatever key, really. I will keep A minor for the example.
Building the progression
A plugin like Scaler lets you bypass the Circle of Fifths altogether because it lets you select a key and will give you all the chords in said key. Let’s pretend we don’t have it and that we build our chords by hand…
According to the Circle of Fifths, the chords we can use in A minor are:
- Am / Bdim / C / Dm / E / Em / F / G
I will randomly pick 3 and finish on Am as this is our chosen key and it will give a sense of resolution to our progression. Let’s go with Em / F / Dm / Am.
See, really easy.
How to build chords without using a plugin? It’s really, really easy… Let’s take the first one in our progression: Em. First, you need to write the root which is E. The root is always the note in the chord name:
Then, for a minor chord, you need to find the third by counting 3 semitones up from the root. This gives us G:
And lastly, you need to get the fifth, which is 7 semitones up from the root, so B:
Boom! You have your Em chord. See? No need for complicated theory or to spend money on a plugin!
Let’s do the same with the next chord, F. This is a major chord. The root note is F. That’s easy. For minor chords, you count 3 semitones up to find the third but for major chords, you count 4 semitones up. That gives us A. For finding the fifth, it’s the same as with minor chords, 7 semitones up, so C.
Let’s proceed with the 2 remaining chords and voilà:
Here is how our progression sounds so far:
This sounds correct. But we can do better. Much better. Ever heard about inversions? It’s super simple…
Let’s shift notes around a bit
In our example, I started at octave 2. The first chord, Em, is E2 / G2 / B2. We can flip these notes around and it will still be called an Em chord. For example, we could do B1 / E2 / G2. That is called an inversion. You can do absolutely whatever you want as long as it sounds good to you. But, there’s a rule that piano players tend to follow. I don’t know what it’s called in music theory but I call this “the path of less effort.” That is when you want your fingers to travel a minimum on the keyboard between chords. Try to find the minimum distance between the notes of two chords. Here is the version I came up with using our progression:
I didn’t touch the first two chords but I moved the D in the 3rd chord one octave higher and lowered A and E in the last chord by one octave. If you look at the piano roll, it’s much tighter now. For example, if you were to play this on a piano, to go from the 2nd to the 3rd chords, you would only need to move one finger. And it still sounds good:
Let’s finish by adding an octave
Another thing I like to do because it makes it easier to orchestrate using 4 voices later (Soprano / Alto / Tenor / Bass) is to double the root note of each chord one or two octaves lower. That’s what it looks like:
And this is how it sounds:
Now that you have a chord progression, the only limit is your imagination and I hope that at this point, you’ll have broken free of the creative block. If not, take this chord progression and read another article I wrote: How to quickly create a pattern from a chord progression.
And just for the fun of it, here’s what I did in less than 5 minutes using the progression from this example. That’s a good start for adding a melody on top and build a whole track:
If you are interested to learn more about building an orchestral template that will boost your productivity and creativity by turning your computer into a ready to play instrument, rather than a tool you have to configure endlessly each time inspiration strikes, have a look at my course Building & Balancing a Modern Orchestral Template at www.pragsound.com.