Get up and running with chords: Part 1
I think it was around 2012 when I first noticed a trend—a general consensus that although music technology had become very sonically sophisticated, tools to help producers compose music (i.e., write chord progressions, melodies, harmonies, arrangement, etc.) were still fairly primitive. This is still the case today. The flip side of this coin is that there are plenty of producers out there that can make a song that sounds amazing from a technical standpoint, but is harmonically, rhythmically and otherwise artistically boring.
This makes sense, since studying music theory is much closer to studying math than playing X-Box (which one do you think a 15-year-old will choose?), and musical ideas tend to be pretty subjective and hard to pin down. Music that “grooves” or has “soul” to one person might be “chessy” or “old” to someone else. How to use a compressor, by comparison, is much more objective (granted, still not easy). Finally, software companies leverage very persuasive marketing that often implies “just buy this and you’ll be famous.”
The good news is that I’ve seen progressively more online course material aimed at educating today’s producers in music theory (this one isn’t free, but still very good) and general musicianship, and even some producers endorsing musical instrument education. There are also a growing number of good plug-ins that aid in chord, melody, and harmony creation (to be discussed in a future article). While this is indeed all great news, I’m also a realist, and I know that some people can’t afford the high price tag of music education and plug-ins, and lots of inspired folks are going to charge ahead producing tunes, music theory knowledge or not.
So I vote to make the best out of the latter situation: if you have limited-to-no music theory knowledge but you’re still determined to crank out some chords today, this article is for you. Let’s dive into how to do this in Ableton Live 10 and Logic Pro X.
Chords in Ableton Live 9
Begin with an instrument on a MIDI track that you dig, like a piano or synth capable of polyphony (more than one note at a time). Next, open the MIDI Effects folder in Live’s Browser (left side of screen), and drag/drop the Chord effect before your MIDI instrument.
By default the Chord effect does nothing; the fun begins when we start turning the “Shift” knobs. To start, I recommend dialing “Shift 1” to a value of +4, “Shift 2” to +7, and “Shift 3” to -12. If you hit the A key on your computer MIDI keyboard (activated with the M key in Live 10) you should hear a C Major chord.
That was easy right? Hit some other keys to hear other major chords.
To make the chords minor simply bring Shift 1’s value down to +3. Now jam away on some keys, like A, F and G, or use your MIDI keyboard of choice. Are you hearing that old school house music chord progression yet? This is essentially how you get that house chord progression vibe, so if that’s your musical goal you can stop here!
Most of you reading this will probably want to proceed further to make less avant garde (but still cool) chord progressions.
To do so, head back to the MIDI Effects folder in Live’s Browser, and drag/drop the Scale effect after the Chord.
Like with Chord, the Scale effect by default doesn’t do too much (actually it does nothing at all), so hit the hot-swap button (that’s the circle with arrows in the upper-right hand corner of the device) and double click one of the preset scales. There are a bunch to choose from, but for now grab “C major” since it’s the most standard scale.
Now as you play up and down your computer MIDI keyboard you’ll notice a variety of chords being triggered. Indeed, you should now be triggering/hearing minor and major chords. There’s even a diminished chord.
Without getting too pedantic, what’s happening is the Scale device is taking the chord shape generated by the Chord device and fitting those chord notes according to the notes of the C Major scale; when necessary notes are moved up or down in order to be correct.* Long story short, hit any note on your MIDI keyboard and the resulting chord is guaranteed to be in the key of C Major/A minor; you’re seconds away from making pretty legit chord progressions!
Simply hit record and jam away, or enter in MIDI notes with Ableton’s pencil tool. Here’s an example of what this might look like:
Obviously the above picture is just one of a million possibilities. Use your ear to find the right order of notes.
Once you have a clip similar to the one above, which you are happy with, I recommend rendering the MIDI to another track. This will allow you to change chord voicing and make the chord progression slightly more unique. You’ll also be able to see (and hopefully learn) the notes of your chords. This is a little more advanced so if you gotta bail at this point, I understand.
Create another MIDI track in Live, and open up the global In/Out section (Option + Command + I on Mac). Then, select your first MIDI track in the top MIDI From chooser.
Now record a new clip in this new MIDI track and it should receive the major, minor or diminished chords you programmed in your first track. The resulting clip should look something like this:
You could now bring this “rendered clip” back to your first track, turn off the Chord and Scale devices and call your progression done. Or, you could opt to alter your chords slightly in order to be more interesting; proceed to “Double Bonus Round” to learn more.
Double Bonus Round
Speaking of more interesting, here are some quick and dirty tips for massaging and finessing the chords you just created, making your progression much more professional.
- Avoid parallel motion: in general, good chord progressions avoid too much parallel motion. Parallel motion is when notes in a chord moves in the same direction, either up or down, to reach the next chord. It’s usually very difficult to create a chord progression with absolutely zero parallel motion, but the less the better. To avoid this common problem first try rearranging notes by octave—move select notes up or down in octaves by selecting the note and hitting Shift + Up/Down arrow. Or you can create “suspensions” by holding some notes over into the next chord space, which alleviates the undesired parallel motion effect. You then just need to “resolve” those notes by returning to a note that is naturally part of the next chord. The following shows both:
2. Another thing to try is repeating certain notes within the chord to create motifs. Experiment with rhythmic patterns—on notes that were there anyway—with the pencil tool. Something like this:
Chords in Logic X
Like with Ableton Live, begin with an instrument that you like on a MIDI track—just make sure it is a keyboard or synth capable of polyphony (more than one note at a time). Next, in an available MIDI Effect slot, select the Chord Trigger effect.
The “Factory Default” chord is actually a minor 7th chord. Hit some notes on your computer MIDI keyboard (Command + K) and you should be hearing some mellow, somewhat “jazzy” chords.
This is a cool vibe for sure, but let’s get more basic and choose major triads by navigating to the path below via the presets chooser:
Now let’s restrict these chords to a key, like we did in the previous example with Ableton Live. To do so, simply insert the Transposer effect after Chord Trigger, and select “Major” (the default is “Chromatic”).
Create a simple progression like this one, and you’re up and running making chord progressions in Logic that conform to a key.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I very much endorse the study of music theory, and developing musical skills outside of sitting in front of your computer. Whether it’s playing piano, guitar, drums, or a freakin’ tuba time spent learning how to organically make music will improve your music no matter what genre you produce, and make techniques like the ones described above fun things to do, rather than the only way to make music.
In part 2 of this article I’ll go into some more advanced ways of using technology to make chords in your DAW. But, until then, have fun with these, and shoot me any questions you can come up with.
*Footnote: Here’s an example of what’s happening: if F is hit on the computer MIDI keyboard, Chord generates the minor chord F, Ab, C and sends that MIDI data along to Scale. Scale (set to C major) will in turn send F, A natural and C along to the piano to be heard; since Ab does not exist in the C major scale, Scale forces Ab to resolve up to a note that IS part of the C Major scale, i.e., A natural.