If you build your tracks from loops or preset phrases, studying chords and relationships between notes might not seem so important but, as ever, if your music is to be unique, it'll need to rely on more than just musical extracts put together by someone else. Through this tutorial, we're going to find out that chords, notes and "music theory" need not be a dry subject but instead one which can bring your tracks on in leaps and bounds. By extending the harmonic possibilities of your track, you can open yourself up to a wider range of musical ideas.
Firstly, let's look at notes and how harmony is supported by science and, in fact, the very substance of synthesizers themselves. Harmony means "more than one note playing at once," which is exactly what chords are—two, three, four or more notes playing together. As you'll know, some notes when played together sound musically "right," whereas others can clash or jar as they reach your ear. The reason for this drills into the very fabric of sound and, to understand this, we can actually look at synthesizer oscillators.
need to rely on more than just musical
extracts put together by someone else."
These building blocks of a synth sound usually offer a number of wave-shapes and these, in turn, are different combinations of fundamental frequencies and harmonics. Harmonics are overtones or, if you prefer, extra notes which vibrate and sound whenever a fundamental frequency is sounded (on any instrument). The relationship between these notes is based on mathematics—so if you have a fundamental frequency at 100Hz, you'll hear overtones at 200Hz, 300Hz, 400Hz and so on. (For a more detailed explanation about fundamentals, harmonics and so on, read our Subtractive synths explained tutorial.)
So far, we seem to be talking maths but, let's turn this into a more musical explanation. Suppose that note at 100Hz is G (it isn't, but let's not worry about that for now!). The first harmonic comes at 200Hz and as you'll know from the synthesis tutorial, every time a frequency doubles, its octave rises, so this will also be a G. In case you're getting lost, don't worry—all this simply means is that if you play a G on any instrument, science dictates that the G, an octave above will also sound, producing "natural" harmony. However, this harmony won't be very interesting—play a G on your synth and then play the octave higher and while the sound will get louder it won't sound fat or rich yet.
The second harmonic, at 300Hz, would start to make the chord more interesting, as this gives us a D. This note is the "fifth," as it represents the fifth note in the scale, of which more shortly. The following harmonic also provides a G but harmonics four, five and six are the interesting ones, as they provide B, D and F. So, to summarise, every time you play a G, discounting the extra Gs, "science" dictates that D, B and F will also sound "naturally." Take the F out of this chord for a moment and you're left with G, B and D, which happens to be the chord of G major.
We can now see that major chords don't just make sense "musically"—the very fabric of the way sound is naturally produced means that these chords exist every time a sound is produced by any musical instrument you can think of. So, let's break a major chord down and have a look at how it's constructed.
Hold down any key on your keyboard and then count up four semi-tones (count "one" on the note immediately above the one you're holding rather than that note itself). That note is called the third of the scale. Holding down the original and the third, then count up three more semitones and hold that note down too. That's the fifth of the scale. Now hold down any other key and repeat that pattern, adding the third and fifth again—every time, a major chord will be formed if you add the fourth and seventh semitones above your starting note.
Generally, we refer to major scales as sounding "happy," while minor ones are "sad" and you can hear that very clearly as you play up and down these scales and play their chords—there's a brightness to major scales compared to the melancholy of minor ones. However, none of this yet answers why some chords next to each other sound so musically right and others sound wrong and "clashy."
Let's look at the previous example, when I asked you to play C major followed by A major. C major's notes are C, E and G, while A major's are A, C# (sharp) and E. Chords tend to work together when there is a common thread which links the two. The more links, the better. There is one note in common between these chords (the E) but the other two are different.
In that clip, you can see and hear that the C and E continue while the G of the first chord drops out to be replaced by an A for the second half. Also, look again at the list of notes present in the scale of C major—C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C again. In both the chords of C major and A minor, all of these notes are covered as the C chord features C, E and G and the A minor chord covers A, C, and E. In the original chord move—C major to A major—the second chord features a C#, which doesn't feature in the scale of C major, and explains why it sounds weird and out of place.
From this, we can draw some useful musical conclusions and connect some dots. Firstly, decide whether your track is going to be in a major or minor key and then, which particular key you want it to be in. Hypothetically, let's choose to make a track in C major. Which chords can I use which will make musical sense? Well, we now know that any chords which use notes directly taken from the C major scale will sound good, which means I can use: C major (C, E and G), D minor (D, F and A), E minor (E, G and B), F major (F, A and C), G major (G, B and D) and A minor (A, C and E).
If I decide I want my track to be in a minor key (like most dance music), let's first remind ourselves of our scale: C, D, E flat, F, G, A flat, B flat and then C again. My chords, using notes from that scale alone would be C minor (C, E flat, G), E flat major (E flat, G, B flat), F minor (F, A flat, C), G minor (G, B flat, D), A flat major (A flat, C, E flat) and B flat major (B flat, D, F). This time, I've programmed a progression of C minor to A flat major to F minor to B flat major.
If all of this is new, it might seem mind-bendingly complicated but there's no doubt that if you can unlock these chords and understand the relationships between them, the musical ideas in your tracks will improve. My advice would be to start with just playing chords. Look again at the relationship between the major and minor chords and the note gaps between them, before experimenting with trying a few out in sequence and seeing what sounds right.