Although many electronic genres arguably don’t rely on complex progressions or a deep understanding of music theory, and there’s many a great producer out there who won’t necessarily be fluid when it comes to this subject, some basic theory knowledge can go a long way in improving your songwriting skills, so we’ve come up with a few tips to help you along the way.
1. Chord Inversions
You can experiment with your progressions by moving the root note or changing the order in which the notes of the chord are played. An obvious example would be to take the C major chord (C, E, G), and move the root note up one octave, so the order becomes E, G, C. This can give the chord a slightly difference feel and becomes more flexible when you play chords containing 4 or five notes, as more inversions become available. As long as the root isn’t the lowest note in your chord you’ll be creating an inversion, so experiment with taking the root and either the third or fifth up an octave to create simple but effective variations on your chord.
2. Resolving a Progression
When writing chord progressions we can create or build tension in the progression (and the music), but for that tension to be released we need to do what is known as resolving the progression, to bring it back home, so to speak.
If we were to play the sequence C, F, G, F in a loop and then stop after the final F it would, arguably, feel as though the sequence hasn’t completed, it’s left unresolved.
If you’re writing a progression that doesn’t loop back to the beginning well or the transition sounds awkward, try this technique of resolving the progression by using the same chord or key you started with.
3. Keeping It Simple
Repetitive synth stabs or simple one note bass hooks work brilliantly in electronic music, but there’s a couple of tips for keeping interest in such a sound to ensure the simplicity of the programming doesn’t lead to a lifeless or dull arrangement.
One being to contrast your drops with your breakdowns, go for something more melodic or uplifting in the breakdown, and then using something much more musically simple for your drops, so the drops are kept moody and heads down. Keeping the sound to one note, but use an interesting rhythm, for example adding a few syncopated notes or triplet timing.
Another option would be to occasionally variate the notes of your riff, at the end of each 2 bars play one or two notes a minor third or perfect fifth up from the root. This should add enough subtle variation to keep momentum, almost teasing in something more melodic into the arrangement.
Here’s an example of a simple synth hook:
And here we variate the occasional few notes, which can really keep a lot more interest and variation in the hook:
A nice way to add what seems like a variation to an arpeggiator (or busy melodic hook) is to harmonise with a sustained baas or lead, changing the sustained notes changes the relationship between melodies, creating powerful transitions.
Here we have an arp playing with a pad bass:
And in this next example, we shift the bass notes down a perfect fifth and then minor sixth for the second half of the sequence. Although both sections are harmonising, the simple change in bass note creates a much stronger transition than the simplicity of the change would suggest:
5. Broken Chords
A broken chord is a chord played one note at a time. Although an arpeggio is a type of broken chord, broken chords don’t need to necessarily keep running in the same order the way an arpeggiator would.
A great way to create broken chords is to take a progression you’re happy with and copy the MIDI parts over to another instrument channel, and load an arpeggiator on the new channel. But then on the arpeggiator, experiment with different order settings, so the notes don’t run upwards from the root of each chord, but could be in the order you play the chord or even at random, creating a less predictable arpeggio or series of broken chords.