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Chords, progressions, modulations... A Guide to Composing Music

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Perhaps the most important aspect of creating a well-developed composition is creating effective chord progressions that can be manipulated to create enough variance to captivate the listener.


For the time I've been here, I've been scouring through the fan music section of these forums, and noticed something that I feel is actually putting a damper on ponies's music: They are limiting themselves to too few chords in their progressions.


Let's get some math in here: specifically factorials. Now, if you limit yourself to two chords in your progression, you only have basically two possibilities to order them. Now, if you have three chords, this is when things get interesting




When you use three chords, you've got six ways you can order them. So basically, the theory states that the more chords you've got in your progression, the more ways you can order them.


Before we go on to progressions, let's talk about scale degrees.


We know that a scale is a group of 5 or more notes in an increasing or decreasing sequence.


Here's a basic C major scale:




Let's take a look at each individual note, starting with the note of C.


C is the I. The I is the first note of the scale. It is known as the root. The reason why the roman numeral is capitalized is because if a triad was constructed from this note, it would be Major, and Major chords are noted by capitals.


D is the ii. The ii is the second note of the scale. The ii is mostly used in the bridges of certain songs. It can also be used in the pre-chorus as well. A common progression you see with the ii is the ii-V-I. The reason why the ii is lower case is because it's minor.


E is the iii. The iii is the third note of the scale. It can be connected to the vi for a step progression that can lead to a ii-V-I. It is also the V of the vi.


F is the IV. The IV is known as the subdominant. It can be interchanged with the ii (which will be explained later).


G is the V. The V is the dominant, which is one of the most important chords. The V almost always resolves to the I, except in some special cases (which will be discussed later.)


A is the vi. The vi is the 6th note of the scale and is the relative minor to the root. The relative minor in this case is A. A has the same key signature as C, which is no sharps or flats.


B is the viio. The little degree sign you see on the vii, means that it is diminished. A diminished chord has all minor 3rd intervals. The V and the viio work hoof in hoof together because you can attach the viio to the V. Really, the viio is mostly used in music in minor keys, specifically in the harmonic minor.


Let's do the same thing for the minor scale. Let's take a minor, the relative minor of C Major.


The minor key is much different from the major key, as it has not one, not two but three different scale calibrations. Let's take a look at all three, starting with the most basic. We will then break them down into scale degrees and compare the three.



The scale shown above is the natural minor calibration. In the natural minor calibration, there are no changes to the scale. Let's take a look at the degrees for this calibration. Notice how they are exactly the same as major, tone and notewise.


a is the i. The i is the root.


b is the iio. Remember how the 7th note in C major scale was diminished?


c is the III. The III in the natural minor calibration is the relative major. C is the relative major to a minor.


d is the iv. Notice how the iv is minor. he natural minor scale is the only scale where the iv makes a minor triad.


e is the v. Notice now that the v is minor. The natural minor scale is the only scale where the v makes a minor triad.


f is the VI.


g is the VII. Note how the VII is Major in the natural minor, as it can act as a bridge to the relative major.


Now, let's take a look at the harmonic minor. This time, I will only go over the degrees that have changed.



The biggest difference between the natural and harmonic minor is that the 7th note, which is G, has been raised up a half-step, and is now G#. Thus the original VII has now become a viio, a diminished chord.


So...here are the degrees that have changed.


C, the III is now a III+. The plus sign on the III means that the C triad is now augmented. An augmented chord is a chord that has a 5th raised up a half-step.


E, the V is Major, in comparison to the natural minor, in which it was minor.


G, which is now G# (explained earlier)


This leaves us with one more calibration: The melodic minor scale



As you can see from the image above, the major changes are the raised 6th and 7th notes. Here are the rest of the changes. Some of the changes in the harmonic minor scale are also present to the melodic minor scale.


b, the ii is now a normal minor triad due to the raised vi


d, the iv is now a major IV because of the raised vi




Now that we've gone over degrees for all major and minor scales, it's now time to put these degrees to use...that's right...it's progression time! :D


So...before we go deep into progressions, we must learn two very important things


1. Interchangeable chords

2. Matching


Let's start with interchangeable chords.


Interchangable chords are a pair of chords that can be exchanged for one another.


Here's an example:


The ii and the IV in a major scale can be changed for one another. This is because the ii is actually the vi of the IV. Let's take a look at this:




As you can see from these two scales shown, D appears as the vi in F and the ii in C.


Here's an example of a progression played in two ways using the theory of interchangable chords:






The I and vi are also interchangeable chords because as stated before, the vi in a Major scale is the relative minor to the I.


In terms of minor, the i and III are interchangeable (only applies to natural minor) and the iv and VI are interchangeable (again only for natural minor).



Now that we know about interchangables, it's time to learn about matching. Matching is basically deciding what chord comes after the current chord you're at.


Let's take a look at the most basic progression.




It has been stated the the V always resolves to the I, but it can also resolve to the vi. This is known as a Deceptive Cadence. Remember, the vi in a Major scale is the relative minor.


Now, let's take it up a step:




This one's tricky, but you can actually stick a vi in here. Here's the solution




Try playing this progression in any key and see what happens.


Ok, now that we got those two terms down, it's time for the moment we've all been waiting for: application.


So, you're starting a new piece and you've got everything down...the title, the theme, and what it will be about. You've also got your genre down...but one thing...you don't know what chord to start with or what key to put it in...


So...if you're doing a song about Sombra's terrible reign over the Crystal Empire, a minor key will certainly do. Let's start with a minor.




Of course, we will start on the i. We have a lot of options here, but for now, let us move to the VII. The VII is the IV of the relative major. Now, a popular choice is to go back to the VII, but that limits options in your melody and lowers the potential of the piece.


Here's what we've got so far:




So...what we can do is go to the iv. In the natural minor mode, the VI and iv are interchangeable because the VI is the IV of the relative major and the iv is the ii of the relative major, and in terms of the specific key (which is F major), F is the I and D is the vi (the relative minor to F major)




Okay, now all that's left to do is to round the cadence, meaning to finish it so it can loop itself until the next section of the song. Alternatively, we can interject a ii in the progression that will only last a beat or two, depending on how long you've stretched out the progression. So, to round the cadence, we'll put the V, because that resolves to the i. So, let's see it all together, with the beats.




Here's the alternative




Okay, now that we've got the hook progression down, let's move to the middle and transitional progressions. Usually, they would start on the iv or III. Sometimes, they may even start on the VI.


Here are a couple of options for transitional/interlude cadences






Notice how these two progressions make use of interchangable chords coming one after the other. Interchangeable chords are your best friend when it comes to making progressions for pre-choruses, bridges and interludes.


Now that we've done something in a minor key, let's now do something in a Major key. This will be easier.


So...now we'll be using the key of F Major.



Notice that there's a flat on the fourth note, which is B.


So...let's begin.


So you want to make a piece about flying pegasai. F major is a good choice of a key. We'll need some bright cadences and progressions. You have many choices here.




We'll start with the I. There are many logical paths. But...for this situation, let's go to the vi...




And here's the point where most musicians will call out "Oh! It's the love progression!" Yeah...that's basically what's happening here. We're then faced with either going to the ii or the IV. Either is okay






And finally, the V






...and now you wanna mix it up. Well that's where the deceptive cadence comes in. Here's what I mean:




So...now...one of the only things we can do here is go to the IV. This is because, in a major chord progression, it is very illogical to put two minor chords together.




There, now we've got the full progression.


So, for the interlude, we can hit the relative minor (vi) or the IV.




...I know what you're thinking..."Where the hay did that major III come from! That's not part of the F Major scale!" But Alas! It is! Remember how the III is major in the d harmonic minor scale and that d is the relative minor of f?


So...here we go...




Alright. Seems like we've got everything now.

By now, you should have a clear understanding of what scale degrees contribute to chord progressions...which leaves us with one extra special thing that could really make your pieces soar (literally)...




Modu-what you ask?


Okay, let me put it in two simple words: Key changes


Basically, because music is so versatile, you can change keys at anytime.


Well...because this post is getting so long, you can head over to this link for a full basic guide on modulations I have posted on My Little Remix: http://mylittleremix.com/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=10188


If you have any questions...don't be afraid to post them. Be sure to mention me so I'll know that you asked a question.

Edited by C. Thunder Dash
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Well... um... I've been tought that in melodic scales there are different notes should be played while you go up the scale and down the scale, but you didn't mention it.

Am I wrong or in chord progressions that detail is not important?  :confused:

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Well... um... I've been tought that in melodic scales there are different notes should be played while you go up the scale and down the scale, but you didn't mention it.

Am I wrong or in chord progressions that detail is not important?  :confused:


If you're talking about minor scales, that applies. If you read over where I discuss how to apply the changes when you play different minor scales, that should clear things up. Melodic minor is very confusing. But here's something that can help:


You remember that melodic minor has a raised 6th and 7th going up, but they cancel on the way down. Now, think of a piece you'll compose in a minor key. If you're planning on using two or all three minor scale calibrations, I suggest when you compose your song, have the 6th, 7th and root note of the scale play over the V chord. Remember, in the harmonic and melodic minor scales, the V is always major. This is why many people prefer to play in the harmonic minor calibration. Sometimes, you can flat the 7th over the major V to give it sort of a dissonant sound. 


The point is, no matter what minor scale calibration you use, just be sure that isn't too much dissonance. I suggest you stick with the natural and harmonic calibrations. If I had to choose one however, I'd go with harmonic. 

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