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MUSIC THEORY: PART 8 – COMPOSING A CHORD PROGRESSION AROUND A MELODY
midichords // over 2 years ago //

By Patricia Lomako

In our previous posts, we talked a lot about scales and we learned about chords like triads, 7th chords, 6th chords and sus chords. I am assuming that you have read all our posts on this topic (if you didn’t then scroll down to the bottom of this posts where you will find links to everything we covered thus far). And I am pretty sure you by now understand how to create the Major and Minor scale and how to create any chord from those scales. Remember that you can create any chord by simply relying on “chord spelling” and intervals. And you know what the good things is? This knowledge is absolutely sufficient to compose really good sounding music. What we are going to do today is use this knowledge in real life.

Not by composing our own full track, but by composing a chord progression around a melody. This means that you will be given a melody and that you will need to pick appropriate chords that will accompany it. You may feel a bit intimidated and that it is still out of your league. Believe me, it is not, though it depends a bit on the complexity of the melody too of course.

So why would knowing about arrangement be a useful skill for you? Well, such a skill would be a huge advantage if you are working in collaboration with another producer, with a singer or simply any musician. Imagine, a singer comes up with a melody but has no idea how to actually produce music using software. This is exactly where you can help out! You can ask the singer/musician to record the melody in any piece of music notation software (possibly you need to assist here), save it as a midi file and send it to you. Once you opened it in your DAW, you are ready for chord progression arrangement. Let’s begin shall we?

Have a look at the image below, which represents a 4 bar melody.

I encourage you to download the midi file (click link below) and import it into your own DAW.

Midi Melody

Ok, so now you have the melody that you will be working on. The very first thing that you need to do, is to write down all the notes on a piece of paper or editor software (did anyone say Notedpad?). Let’s do this together. According to the picture, we have the following notes:

E, D, G, B, G, D, F#, A, F#, A, D, E, B, A, G, B, A, G, F,# D, F# and D.

After you wrote down all the notes of the melody, you will need to analyse what you are seeing. The easiest way to start your arrangement, is to figure out which scale/key the melody is in. One way of doing that is to simply ask the musician who provided you with this melody. The problem with this is that very often singers or electronic music producers simply have no idea which key it is in, for the simple reason that they composed it by ear. In that case you will need to figure it out by yourself. Let me show you how to do this:

  1. Look what your first note is. Most often the key will have the same letter as the first note. Most of the time a melody starts from the 1st note of the scale, sometimes from the 3rd and rarely from the 5th.
  2. After you figure out the letter of you scale (C or D, or E, or F#, etc.), you need to figure out the quality of the scale - is it Major or Minor.

Now, we can see that the first letter of the scale is E. What we will need to figure out now is whether it is E Major or E Minor. Let’s try to write down the scale from E to E (you know, E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E), using all the available notes from the melody. I color coded them so you can see what notes I’ve picked.
 

Do you get the point? Below is our scale created from the notes of the melody. Again, look at the colors. E=green, F(#)=yellow, etc.

Great, we almost built the entire scale. The only note that is missing is the 6th note - C. Regardless, we are still able to figure out whether it is Major or Minor key. All you need to do is just have a quick look at the form with “Relative Keys” which I gave you in tutorial 6. Just look up how many sharps the E Major scale and E Minor scale have. In our sample, we can see that there is only 1 sharpened note - F. And according to the key signatures in the form of tutorial 6, you can see that the E Minor scale has only 1 sharp - F#.

Ok, cool. This tells us that our scale is E Minor and we can now start analysing what chords can be used with this melody. The best point to start is to write down all the chords from the scale. In this case there will be the following:

1)    Em7 - E-G-B-D
2)    F#m7b5 - F#-A-C-E
3)    Gmaj7 -G-B-D-F#
4)    Am7 - A-C-E-G
5)    Bm7 - B-D-F#-A
6)    Cmaj7 - C-E-G-B
7)    D7 - D-F#-A-C

When you have the chords written down, go back to your melody and divide it into groups of 1 bar. Usually there is 1 chord per bar. Sometimes there are 2 chords in a bar or even more, also depending on the tempo of the song, the complexity, etc. But for now let’s take 1 chord per bar. If you have read the previous tutorials carefully you already know it is best to start from the 1st chord of the scale (the root chord) to emphasize the key. So let’s compare the notes from bar 1 (E-D-G-B-G) and compare them to the notes that we have in the Em7 chord (E-G-B-D). This is a 100% match. Do you see it? That means we can definitely use either Em or Em7 for our first bar.
 
Let’s move to the bar 2 (D-F#-A-F#-A-D). Try to find out what chord has these notes. It is the D7 chord. You don’t have to use the D Dominant 7th chord by the way, you can use just a triad if you wish. Remember that the dominant 7th chord has a very specific sound that you may want to avoid for the main progression.

Let’s move to the bar number 3 (E-B-A-G-B-A) shall we? For this bar there is no particular chord, as we have notes A and B that only appear together in the Bm7 chord. But there is no E note in this chord, which actually happens to be the longest note in the bar. So this is not quite good enough as we need to give higher priority to longer notes first compared to shorter ones.

In my opinion the best match is Em7 as it has notes E-G-B, or perhaps Cmaj7 as it also has E-G-B. Actually, it would be wiser to choose Cmaj7 in order to avoid repetitions. Remember you already have an Em7 chord for the first bar.

Bar number 4 consists of G-F#-D-F# and D. If you analyse all chords you will see that the best option is Gmaj7. Great, so now we have a chord progression for our melody: Em/Em7 -Dmaj/7 - Cmaj7 - Gmaj7.

Add these chords to your DAW and play the melody accompanied by those chords. If you chose the same progression you will hear the following:

Just one more tip for today guys and girls: If you decided to create your progression with triads and 7th chords, it is actually a really good idea to double the 1st note of the triad and place it one octave higher. For example, if you chose Em for the 1st chord, just arrange it this way: E-G-B-E. This will make your progression sound fuller.
 
So, do you still think that producing arrangements around the melody is only for real pros? No way right? With the things we’ve learned up to now, we can do it! IT IS EASY!
 

All posts in this series

Music Theory: Part 1 - Notes, Scales and Major Scale

Music Theory: Part 2 - Minor Scale, Scale Spelling and Composing Melodies

Music Theory: Part 3 - Chord Construction, Chord Symbols and Pattern in the Key

Music Theory: Part 4 - Pattern in the Key part 2 and 7th Chord Construction

Music Theory: Part 5 - Chord Spelling, Intervals and Creating Chord Progressions

Music Theory: Part 6 - Relative Keys and Contrasting Music Pieces

Music Theory: Part 7 - 6th Chords and Sus Chords

Music Theory: Part 8 - Composing a Chord Progression Around a Melody

Music Theory: Part 9 - Inverted Chords - Creating Smooth Chord Progressions

Music Theory: Part 10 - Discovering New Scales And How To Compose Blues

 

Patricia Lomako - also known as Patricia Blush - is a professional singer, composer, music producer and music tutor. She finished the BMus Degree in Contemporary Performance (Vocals) at the Academy of Contemporary Music (Guildford, UK) and holds a Higher Certificate in Contemporary Vocal Teaching. She composes and produces various styles of music for video's, blogs, websites, etc. She also produces electronic music (mainly pop, but influenced by and mixed with House, Deep House, Drum and Bass and Electro). Her tracks are used in playlists for retailers, restaurants, gyms around the globe. Some of her clients are: M&S, SportsDirect, KFC and Clas Ohlson. Visit her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/officialpatricialomako You can listen to some of her tracks on her soundcloud page:  www.soundcloud.com/patriciablush


 

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