How to Write Chillout Chord Progressions
In this tutorial you'll learn how to write chord progressions for the Covid-19 era (and beyond), using our 6-step success formula. But first… Tea!
Hello revolutionary music makers, we are Kate and Ray Harmony (AKA Revolution Harmony), and welcome to Hack Music Theory, where we help you make great music that stands out! And if you’re new to theory, or if you just want a refresher, then read our free book “12 Music Theory Hacks to Learn Scales & Chords”. It’ll give you a super solid theory foundation in just 30 minutes.
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Right, let’s talk about success. First things first, though. We measure “success” in terms of how helpful your work is to the world. Measuring success in terms of fame and fortune is so last millenium! And seeing as you’re here, we know that you’re a forward-thinker, so here’s how you can succeed in this Covid-19 era, and beyond.
Listening to music is arguably the easiest and quickest way for someone to transform their psychological state, which in turn transforms their physiological state. So, in these stressful times we’re all living in, it’s vital that us songwriters and producers write and release music that can calm anxious minds and relax tense bodies. This is a very real way that we can all help, because when people calm down, they trigger their parasympathetic nervous system, which then upregulates their immune system. So, a calmer world is literally a healthier world! And in stressful times, people intuitively listen to music that calms them, which is like self-medicating, except there are no side-effects! And this explains why streams in the classical genre have gone up during the Covid-19 era, while streams in almost every other genre have gone down.
Now, in order to write calming music, you need to choose a calming scale. We chose D Dorian, which is all the white notes from D to D. We used the Dorian mode because it conveys a sad-but-hopeful emotion, and sharing hope in these sad times is life-changing. And by the way, if you wanna learn everything you need to know about the modes, their emotions, and how to use them, then download our Songwriting & Producing PDF. It also contains all our other essential music making hacks.
Alright, now that you’ve chosen your scale/mode, it’s time to choose your chords. There are no rules here, you can play any chords in your key, but remember this: When you’re writing music to help people chill out, you need to think differently. For once, you actually don’t wanna make music that stands out, as that would stimulate the listener’s mind, instead of relaxing it. Having said that though, if you write something that totally blends into the background, then you’ll lose the listener’s attention and their mind will wander back into a place of fear and anxiety. Also, you don’t wanna lose your artistic voice, just cos you’re making musical medicine. So, the magic happens on the middle path between “background music” and “art music”!
We created this balance by doing the following. On the “background” side of things, we started by choosing four chords, which is the most common number of chords in a progression. That familiarity is very calming for listeners. Our chords are: Dm→Cmaj→Fmaj→Gmaj. Next, we reinforced that familiarity by using a predictable harmonic rhythm. Harmonic rhythm is simply where each chord begins and ends. We play each chord for exactly two bars. And that brings us to the most important element of writing calming music: Pace. Most songwriters and producers think of a song’s pace as its tempo, but the BPM is only half the story. Lots of songwriters and producers use slow BPMs and think they’re making chillout music, but then they change chords every couple beats, and that faster-paced harmonic rhythm prevents their music (and their listeners) from relaxing. So remember, chillout music needs a slow BPM and a slow harmonic rhythm!
MIDI Screenshot: Calming chord progression written using our 6-step success formula (see below)
Okay, so now that you’ve ensured your song is gonna sound calming and comforting to your listeners, you need to prevent it from blending into the background. So, on the “art” side of things, we did the following. We started by using the odd time signature 3/4. This time signature is probably the most common of the odd times, so that makes it feel a little different but without being weird. Also, it’s worth noting here that our chord progression already sounded a bit different because it’s in the Dorian mode, not the usual major or minor scale.
Next, we created even more interest by playing our chords in a slightly unusual way. Instead of playing them as regular block chords (where the notes are played together), or arpeggios (where the notes are played one at a time), we used a combination of these two techniques. We play our root note first, then follow it with two higher notes that are played together. This allows for lots of space (i.e. rests), which makes the progression sound even more chill. We actually used this way of playing the chord as a motif, by playing the rest of the chords this way too. And if you’re new to motifs, they’re short ideas you repeat to give your music structure and make it more memorable.
Lastly, to make our progression extra calming, we started it with a dreamy add9 chord, which we then used as a motif as well. And if you’re new to add9 chords, you can make them by simply adding the 2 to a triad. For example, our first chord is Dm(add9), which is the Dm triad (D, F, A) plus the 2 (E). Now, add9 chords are obviously four-note chords, which create a thicker texture. And while that’s great in some songs, we wanted to keep our texture thin and spacious here, so we left out the 5 of our Dm(add9) chord. When you use chords with four or more notes, leaving out the 5 is a great way of keeping your texture thin. Because, and no disrespect to the 5 here, it doesn’t bring anything special to the chord, it merely fills it out.
So, to summarise everything, here’s our success formula for chord progressions in the Covid-19 era:
- Choose a consonant scale (i.e. avoid Phrygian, Locrian, etc.)
- Write a somewhat predictable chord progression
- Use a slow and predictable harmonic rhythm
- Incorporate at least two elements that are slightly unusual
- Create a motif, and repeat it regularly
- Optional extras: rests, add9 chords
Alright, now it’s your turn to step up! So, we’ve got a chillout challenge for you: Write a calming chord progression using this formula, then stay tuned for next time, when you’ll learn how to add a relaxing melody. For now though, let’s have a listen to our calming chords that upregulate the immune system. And that is true success! Just before the playthrough though, we’d love to share one more thing with you.
Regarding the current situation around the world. As music teachers, we can’t offer much help through this difficult time. However, as most people are now stuck at home, what we can offer, is a meaningful and productive timeout from the difficulties. It’s with that intention in our hearts that we offer you 50% OFF our online course Apprenticeship #1. It contains 17 hours of video that teach every step of the writing process, from blank screen to finished song. You will literally learn everything you need to know in order to write great songs, and finish them! We know that most people are sadly on unpaid leave right now, so we hope this half-price offer helps alleviate some suffering, and we truly hope you and your families are all safe and healthy. Lastly, please remember that music is magic, so keep pumping those uplifting tunes! Thanks for being here, and until next time, happy songwriting and producing.
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