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103 - Chord Building in A minor

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In this lesson, we are going to pick apart the system you can use to quickly write and analyze chord progressions. We will be using the piano roll in FL Studio. The piano roll is similar to the channel rack in the sense that you input your notes (MIDI) here, but you’ll notice that while we still have a similar grid time-wise horizontally, we also have pitch on the piano vertically.

Within FL Studio, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with all the different plugins (VSTs) we have available. There are too many to cover here, but it’s important to experiment with them and find the ones you like that work for your music.

Adding a synthesizer

You can add a plugin by clicking the ‘+’ at the very bottom of the Channel Rack. You can also use the ‘Add’ dropdown menu at the very top of FL Studio. In this lesson, I would recommend using FL Keys, which is their piano synthesizer. Piano will make it easy to hear the chord progression that you are creating for educational purposes, but it may be important to go back and replace the piano later with something that more fits your style/genre.

First, open up the FL Keys plugin through the methods we just talked about. Once it’s in your Channel Rack, right click the ‘FL Keys’ plugin in the Channel Rack and click ‘Piano Roll’. Now we will begin creating our chord progression!

Establishing a key

The first step is establishing a key for us to use in this example. 

Let's start with an easy key - A Minor.

While looking at a piano, A Minor is easy because it uses all white keys. No sharps or flats are used in this scale, so you can play the white keys in order from A up to G, and there is your minor scale.

A - B - C - D - E - F - G 

Establishing the scale is important, because simple chord building revolves around combining notes from this particular scale.

Basic Triads

A chord is a group of notes being played at the same time. The simplest form of a chord is a triad, which is exactly three notes being played together.

Especially when writing modern music, many pop songs can be fairly accurately represented using basic triads. Every note in the scale can have a triad built from it by taking the note, (which we can call 1 or the root) and stacking the 3 and the 5 (relative to the root) on top of it. For example, if we are using A as our root, the triad would be A - C - E. If we were to use F as our root, the triad would be F - A - C. Notice that 1 - 3 - 5 formula; to craft a fundamental triad from any note, you find the root, skip a note, add the next, skip another, add the next (remember to only count the notes in your scale).

If I draw out the whole minor scale in triad form in the piano roll below, it would look like this:

Now, you are probably wondering what the roman numerals under each triad are. Every minor key has a structure of chords that will never change. Whether it's A minor, G# minor, F minor - they will always have those same roman numeral chords. And THAT is how to simplify your analysis and creation of chord progressions - by using this roman numeral system. This way, no matter what key you are in, you have a way to communicate chord progressions to others (or your future self).

Because of this relative, universal system, doesn't it sound (and look) much easier to portray a progression to you in model A format than model B?

Why do we use the roman numeral system?

The reason for this is because, most musicians with fairly well-trained ears still think and hear relatively (using 'muscle memory' and relationships/intervals to anchor themselves in a song). As one of them, I can easily hear the progression of model A in my head (even though I may not be able to get it in the right key, it is still relatively the same progression that I can easily transpose), whereas in Model B, I cannot hear this progression in my head without first analyzing the intervals of notes and spending some time hearing the relationships between them. With that said, more often than not, model A is a much more efficient way to communicate a chord progression to another, or myself (from my own head to an instrument or vice versa). Even though the roman numeral system does not offer much information regarding notes, all of the notes are implied by our key, and most experienced musicians will be able to decipher this without much thought.

Most pop songs can be easily translated this way. Journey's 'Don't Stop Believing' I can quickly analyze in my head without using any help or chord charts (in the relative minor, even though this song is arguably in a major key) as 'III - VII - i - VI'. The Weeknd's 'Can't Feel My Face' I can quickly analyze as 'VII - VI - i - i'. Again, this system is powerful because it utilizes relativity - I may not be able to tell you EXACTLY which notes are being used in each song, but it's a great starting point for me to begin to work backwards.

When an awesome idea pops into your head, the hourglass flips and sometimes you have very limited time to get it down in some kind of writing before you lose it, which is a huge frustration to new writers. Practicing recognizing this system of chord numbers and familiarizing yourself with it is a great tool for analyzing songs quickly and efficiently. Really, the only difference between original songwriting and analysis with this system is whether the chord progression is playing in your head or from the radio.

Changing your key

Let's talk about the composition process for a minute. The key itself is important to obtain a structure for your chord progression, however WHICH key, is not. Once established, because of this awesome system we're using, the chord progression can be easily transposed to another key (we will be going over transposition in a future lesson). Remember: Because the chord number formula never changes among keys with similar qualities (A# minor, G minor, Eb minor, all minor keys, you get it), the notes will change, but the structure will not. Sometimes when you want a key that is unfamiliar, it can make life easier to write in a key that you are familiar with [like A minor], and then transpose it to the desired key. This way, you can build in a comfortable place, and then see how your progression looks in the new key and draw familiarities from what you already know.

Why is it important to be able to build chord progressions this way?

Sometimes having this more mathematical approach to analysis and writing can really help in uninspired moments. Although inspiration is ideal for writing music, sometimes you need to push forward (for example, if you're getting paid to score a film by a certain deadline), and being able to build strong chord progressions visually without hearing them can be very beneficial. It can shift the workload from your ears to your brain in times that your ears are tired or dull.

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