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MUSIC THEORY: PART 5 - CHORD SPELLING, INTERVALS AND CREATING CHORD PROGRESSIONS
midichords // over 2 years ago //

By Patricia Lomako

In our previous post we’ve learned about chord pattern for the Minor key, which can actually be applied to any Minor key. We also learned what 7th chords are and how to construct them. Finally, I introduced “chord spelling”.  Today we are going to look at chords from another angle and continue to learn more about them. Also, we will learn how to compose cool chord progressions for your own tracks.  Let’s start shall we?

We’ll first have another look at “chord spelling”.  In the previous post, I have already mentioned that the method for constructing the 1st chord of the scale (using the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of the scale) has to be used for any other chord as well. For example, if you want to construct the 1st chord from the scale (not a triad but a 7th chord), you will use the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th note of the scale. These numbers 1,3,5,7 are called “chord spelling”.  Let’s take a step back for a moment and refresh our knowledge regarding “scale spelling”. You should remember that the spelling for a Major scale differs from the spelling of a Minor scale.  Well, the same rule applies to chords. To prove how easy this can be checked, let’s take a look at a Major and Minor scale and the construction of the 1st chords.

Let's take C Major first:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8(1)
C D E F G A B C

To create Cmaj7th (1st chord), we take:

1 3 5 7
C E G B

Now, let's do the same with A Minor:

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8(1)
A B C D E F G A

To create Am7th (1st chord), we take:

1 b3 5 b7
A C E G

According to the above you can see that the chord spelling for a Major chord and Minor chord is different.  The thing is that you don’t really have to learn the “chord spelling” for Major and Minor chords. If you already know the spelling for Major and Minor scales, you can just pick the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th number from it and you’re all set.

Ok, this should be clear, but you remember that we have some non-standard chords in the scale.  Chord number 5 of the Major scale – the Dominant 7th chord - and chord number 7 in the Major scale – Minor 7 Flat 5.  I am sure that even without having any clues, you would assume that the “chord spelling” should be different for these chords as well. And that is exactly the case.  If you read our previous post, you should remember that the Dominant 7th chord differs from the standard Major 7th chord by having fewer semitones in the interval between the 1st note of the chord and the 4th note of the chord (if you have no clue what I am talking about, I suggest you go over the previous post again).

With a bit of logical thinking you can conclude that number 7 has to be flattened (1-3-5-7, where number 7 in the chord spelling is the 4th note).  And indeed, the spelling for the Dominant 7th Chord is 1-3-5-b7.  There was another weird chord, with a name which reveals everything about itself: Minor 7th Flat 5.  You will be surprised by how much you actually can tell about the chord, relying just on its name or symbol. For example, from the name we can tell that the chord will be Minor. Also, you know that the standard spelling for Minor chords is 1-b3-5-b7. Now, the phrase “flat 5” says everything about itself. That means that the chord spelling for “Minor 7 Flat 5” will be 1-b3-b5-b7 (do you notice the flattened 5?).

Great, we are now done and have our chord spelling for every 7th chord. You may think “WTF? Why do I need this?” Well, the answer is simple. You need to know the “chord spelling” to be able to create any chord without actually creating a scale.

Imagine the following situation: You are collaborating with a musician who knows about music theory. You are in a studio and the other guy tells you: “Can you please try to change the chord in the arrangement. Please use Gmaj7 instead of Amaj7.” Now, if you did not know about chord spelling then the only possible way for you would be to create a scale first and then create chords from there.  But this isn’t necessary if you know “chord spelling” and you understand how to use it. Let’s investigate this a bit further.

The chord spelling - like 1-3-5-7 – represents the intervals the chord is based on. In other words, each number in the spelling represents a specific interval in terms of semitones (counting from the first or root note of the chord). Have a look at the following (important) interval table.

 Interval Name

Spelling/ Spelling in the chord

Semitones Quantity

Example

Minor 2nd

Flat2 /b2

1

C-Db

Major 2nd

2

2

C-D

Minor 3rd

Flat3 /b3

3

C-Eb

Major 3rd

3

4

C-E

Perfect 4th

4

5

C-F

Diminished 5th

Flat5/b5

6

C-Gb

Perfect 5th

5

7

C-G

Minor 6th

Flat6/b6

8

C-Ab

Major 6th

6

9

C-A

Minor 7th

Flat7/b7

10

C-Bb

Major 7th

7

11

C-B

Octave

8(1)

12

C-C

As you can see, the table contains intervals. Each interval has a name, a corresponding spelling as well as the number of semitones each interval represents. So how can this table with intervals help you constructing any chord without creating a scale first?

Well, if I ask you to create Bm7 (B minor 7th) then there are a couple of things you already know. First of all, based on your knowledge of chord spellings you know that the one you will need to use is 1-b3-5-b7 (standard spelling for minor chords). Great! You also know that the first note is B and that we need to find out which note will be the next one. You can of course guess that it has to be “D” (based on the method of skipping one note each time), but there is a slight issue with that. We don’t know whether it should be D or Db. This is where the spelling and the interval table shown above helps us. We know we need to find number “b3” (remember the spelling 1-b3-5-b7) and more importantly how many semitones there are between the 1st note and 2nd note of the chord. Try to find it in the table and you will see that the b3 interval (also called Minor 3rd) has 3 semitones. Ok cool, that means that if we look at the piano roll and go up 3 semitones (starting from B), we will get the second note of the chord - which will be “D”. What about the next note? Well, look up number “5” in the table (the so called “Perfect 5th” interval).  The “Perfect 5th“ interval has 7 semitones. That means that we need to go up 7 semitones (again, starting from B). If you do this correctly you will get F# or Gb.  Which one is correct? Well, remember that each note has its own number in the scale and in the chord. Have a look at the keyboard and count which letter will be the 5th one, starting from B. Let’s do it together: B (1), C (2), D (3), E(4), F (5). We see that “F” belongs to number 5 of the “chord spelling”. This means that the correct note name is F#.  Finally, to find the note for “b7” you need to go up 10 semitones (check the table and the Minor 7th Interval), starting from the 1st note of course.

So what about the guy in the studio who asked you to use Gmaj7 instead of Amaj7? Well, you should be able to find the notes yourself now. Here are a few hints:

  • Chord spelling: 1-3-5-7 (chord spelling of Major chord)
  • First note: G

I’m sure you get the picture, but let me help you. The second note has the spelling 3, which is 4 semitones above G (check the table). This is note “B”. Next note has spelling 5, which is 7 semitones above G. This is note “D”. Finally, the last note has spelling 7, which is 11 semitones above G. This is F# or Gb. Which of the two? Well, which letter belongs to the 7th note? Indeed, the letter “F” (G(1), A(2), B(3), C(4), D(5), E(6), F(7)). So we use note “F#”. This means our chord looks as follows: G-B-D-F#. If I add the interval names, you would get the following:

G (Root), B (Major Third), D (Fifth), F# (Major Seventh)

Wow, that’s a lot of theory isn’t it? And it is easy to get confused by all the terms and definitions, but it really comes down to remembering a few key rules/principles:

  • Major and Minor scales have a different spelling (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8(1) v. 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-8(1))
  • Scales have chords. They can be triads (consisting of 3 notes) or 7th chords (consisting of 4 notes)
  • Chords have qualities (like Major and Minor)
  • Like scales, chords have a spelling. The standard spelling for Major 7th chords is 1-3-5-7. The standard spelling for Minor 7th chords is 1-b3-5-b7 (but note that the Dominant 7th chord has a spelling of 1-3-5-b7 and the Minor 7th flat 5 chord a spelling of 1-b3-b5-b7).
  • The number of the spelling represents the interval (number of semitones) counted from the root note of the chord. How many semitones does each number in the spelling represent? Well, check the interval table :)

If you’re a bit confused I encourage you to go over post 1-4 again and then come back to this post once more. I am sure you will start seeing the bigger picture!

Ok, that’s enough theory for today. Let’s talk a bit about composing nice chord progressions using 7th chords. The most important rule for creating a chord progression is that you will always need to start on the 1st chord of the scale. If you start on any other chord, you will lose the sense of the scale that you have chosen for your composition.

There is another rule, which is exactly the same as for composing a melody: Do not go out of key, which means you should not mix chords from different scales (unless that’s what you want). If you want a result that will work 100% of the time, then just use chords from your scale. And there is another tip for beginners: If you want a really pleasant sound, avoid strange chords like “Minor 7th Flat 5” – as it has a “creepy” sound (but which works really good in music for “scary movies”). Also, avoid the Dominant 7th chord, unless you want to bring more attention to a special moment in your composition. I will teach you where the Dominant 7th chord can be used successfully, but for now let’s use only traditional Major and Minor chords. Have a listen to the chord progressions that I’ve created using the A Minor Scale. You can also download the midi file and import them in your favourite DAW.

MIDI progression 1 MIDI progression 2 MIDI progression 3

 

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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