Harmony for Dummies: A Quick Guide to Adding Chords, Melodies, and Basslines in Key

If you want to make your tracks more musical without knowing much about scales and harmony, then this tutorial is for you. This combination of tools and hacks will enable you to add chords, melodies, and basslines to your productions, in the right key and without much effort.

Step 1: Find the Key of Your Audio

If you already know the key of a sample or a song you want to remix, or, say, you build your melodies from scratch, you can skip this step. For the former, it’s possible that the key is noted in your sample’s file name (something like “C” or “Am”), or if, for example, you bought the track on Beatport, the key may be written into the track’s metadata.

But if don’t know your audio’s key, and still want to add more sounds to it, you should find it out to keep your song’s harmonies in check. There are a number of programs out there to help you, including Mixed in Key, which is a pretty popular add-on that analyzes the harmonies and melodies of your music so that you can mix key-compatible tracks. In this guide, I will use a little freeware program called Keyfinder.

HfD_Screenshot1_Keyfinder

It’s simple: Just open Keyfinder, drag and drop any amount of audio files into the window, and hit Run Batch Analysis. The key will appear on the right-hand side in a red box.

So let’s say we choose a guitar sample in G-flat minor (Gbm). That’s all you need to know to go on to the next step.

Step 2: Choose the Right Notes

Now it’s time to choose the notes we want to use. Relax: No detailed knowledge of scales is needed, since we have Wikipedia. Seriously? Yep. All you need to do is download these images right here and here.

One is for major scales, the other for minor scales. If your audio is in a minor key, it has a lowercase “m” at the end of its name, like in “Gbm” (aka G-flat minor). If there is just a letter (like “A” or “D”) and maybe an accidental (the sharp or flat symbols, # or b), it’s a major one. Of course, there are more kinds of keys, but for most electronic music, these two will be all you need.

HfD_Screenshot2_Minor Scales_F#m

Basically, every key consists of seven notes that you can play that will sound in-key. What you see in the left-hand column is the key (all of which are minor scales in this case, denoted by the lowercase “m”), and the rows show us each key’s corresponding notes, presented in a keyboard style. On top are, naturally, the names of the different notes. So basically, this graphic tells us which notes will work in a certain key. The notes with the numbers on them are the ones we want to use.

If you start from scratch, and want to compose a lead synth, for example, you could just randomly pick one of these keys and play around with its corresponding notes. Or do it the other way around and play something first, then find out its key. If you don’t work with a MIDI keyboard, you can also open the piano roll in the DAW of your choice, draw in the right notes, and vary them.

If we remember our guitar sample from step one, we can’t find “Gbm” anywhere in the graphic for minor scales. That’s not a problem, though: If you look at the note G-flat (Gb), you will see that it is the same as F-sharp (F#). That means for us Gbm = F#m. So what we want to do now is look at the row for the key F#m instead (again, in the red box). It works like this for all other flat (b) notes.

We know we can play the notes C#, D, E, F#, G#, A, and B with our guitar sample to stay in key, in any octave. Now just play around and create some awesome melodies! You’re safe—everything is in key. And if what you’re doing is creating a bassline, you’re done here, as basslines normally just use one note at a time.

Step 3: Time for Chords

Well, that was fun, but to really sound musical, you probably want to play more than one note at the same time—which is where chords come in. Try playing any combination of notes in a key from our graphics in step two, which will work in key—no dissonances (or off-key sounds) will occur.

But we want more: Some combinations sound better than others, so it makes sense to play the “normal” chords for a start. But how? There are a couple of websites that are incredibly useful here.

HfD_Screenshot3_keychord.com

The first one, Keychord, just gives you chords according to a given key. Choose the key in the list on the left and get the basic chord.

That’s cool, but normally you need a couple of chords to create a song (aka a chord progression). For that we have a second website, Autochords.

HfD_Screenshot4_autochords.com

Just tell Autochords what you want and it will give you the right progression of four chords, and even some fitting alternatives. Four chords are enough for most modern songs.

First, choose a style (cliche, sad, etc.). Feel free to experiment here. Then choose an instrument. In most electronic music, piano might work best, but just play with it. Next, name your key, an accidental, and select major or minor. Boom—you have a chord progression in your key.

Now simply draw these chords into your piano roll or play them out on your keyboard and manipulate them to your taste. You can do this by either hovering the cursor above the chord’s name, which will give you the notes it consists of, or by switching back to Keychord and choosing the chord.

You can also go back and forth between both websites: Find the right chords on Autochords and then choose the same ones on Keychord with more notes to make it deeper or more complex. Find out what works best for you. With all these theoretical problems out of the way, nothing can stop you from creating great and harmonic tracks.

Any other tips for simple harmonies that we haven’t thought of?

  • Anne Wagner

    Thank you for this great overview. For C Major it would be A, G major it would be E dorian. Try
    playing A B C D E F G and you have the A natural minor scale, C Major’s
    relative minor. You can flip it too. Every 3rd note of a natural minor
    scale it its relative major, E natural minor’s relative major is G. On the other hand is to try for music theory newbs is to take a major scale,
    like C Major, and start on another note in the scale while still
    maintaining the original notes for the C Major scale. For instance, C
    Major’s notes are all the white keys on a keyboard. Instead of playing
    the scale C D E F G A B, start on let’s say D. Now the scale would be D E
    F G A B C. You can do this with any major or minor scale, and whatever
    note you decide to use as the tonic (first note in scale) will determine
    what mode it is in.

    Thanks Anne.

  • I think a good method to find out chords, would be to listen to the melody and try out to whistle an arpeggio to accompany it. For that you need no theory knowledge. Then you listen the same arpeggios alone and figure out what notes make them up on the guitar and if you wish you can play them together. This way you discover chords. Same goes for bass notes, you can even try to imitate bass brasses with your voice. It’s funny and you do not need neither theory nor computers. It’s just a creative process. Some musicians who do like this? Please share your thoughts here. Any other suggestion is welcome, since I am a total beginner, but very confused by all this theory, which I believe is useless in the end.

  • What if my melody is not in any standard key, yet it sounds good? BTW dissonances are not to be always avoided in my humble opinion. They represent instable sounds and have the meaning of expressing apprehension. Music is like feelings… everything is a chord. Given that, do you have a method forchoosing chords amongst the many many available without excluding anyone? I think we should start from melody notes and add more.

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  • Thorsten Hindermann

    Very useful infos for me as a beginner in EDM! Thanx for this informations.

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  • Anoop

    This is a helpful article for those who are standing right at the dividing line between combining chords and notes … thank you!

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  • DND

    Another thing to try for music theory newbs is to take a major scale, like C Major, and start on another note in the scale while still maintaining the original notes for the C Major scale. For instance, C Major’s notes are all the white keys on a keyboard. Instead of playing the scale C D E F G A B, start on let’s say D. Now the scale would be D E F G A B C. You can do this with any major or minor scale, and whatever note you decide to use as the tonic (first note in scale) will determine what mode it is in. If you use the example aforementioned and use D as the tonic it would be called the dorian mode (don’t get confused by thinking the note D has anything to do with the naming of the mode. The dorian mode in a G Major scale uses A as the tonic note (Some people will argue that if using modes, the scale degree used is in fact not a tonic, but only serves the same purpose as a tonic). In fact, the 6th note in any major scale is the beginning of its relative minor (Aeolian Mode). So for C Major it would be A, G major it would be E dorian. Try playing A B C D E F G and you have the A natural minor scale, C Major’s relative minor. You can flip it too. Every 3rd note of a natural minor scale it its relative major, E natural minor’s relative major is G. Try experimenting by changing from a major key to its relative minor or using different modes. For further explanation either ask or google Tonal Modes and there is a HUGE amount of information, or go get some lessons. Better yet, go back to school!!

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  • RazR

    http://www.musictheory.net

    Great site to actually learn music theory instead of cheating

    • Fuyu

      What’s your fcking problem? Live and let live!! Go yourself and learn and leave us alone!

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  • CUSP

    I think this is a great article for anyone getting out of their comfort zone and into doing new things. Sure, it’s just a primer, but it’s something. There is a (translated from Chinese) proverb that goes something like this “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. – Lao Tzu” I applaud anyone encouraging others on the path to self-betterment.

  • DJ CERLA

    Very useful article.
    For the “study before producing” crew: I started making music in 1993, had 4 singles in the Euro top 10 chart plus various other regional hits, without even a basic knowledge of theory.
    Critically, most proper musicians used to tell me that no trained musician would ever come up with the music solutions I reached just by “ignorance”.
    Now I am a trained musician but I can honestly say that studying did not improve my creativity, just the opposite. Maybe the help of some quick “trick” or harmony software strikes the right balance.

    • Suntropology

      Floooooorfiiiillllaaaa in da house 😀 😀

  • Andre Leite

    Music theory could be hard for some people like me, so this helps a lot. At same time, I always defend the concept “educate yourself”, so this helps again.
    There are many ways to learn and you can’t cheat yourself.
    Thanks you DJTT, this thing is helping and I’m sure many others.

    • RazR

      Music theory is a very complex thing, I’ll give you that. However, as you study it more and more, you find out just how many patterns there are within scales, chords, progressions, etc.

      For example, every major scale consists of the same stepping pattern:
      Whole step, whole step, half step, whole whole, whole, half.

      This holds true for every major scale, and shows how music is based on patterns. It’s quite interesting to learn music theory and makes producing a lot more fun because you understand what makes a good melody and allows you to, in my opinion, make better music.

  • mikefunk

    So, I am the only one that actually liked this article and think is great? Reading comments I can see a lot of Master Haters here. I wonder why people always do this. If you don’t like it go elsewhere. I found this article very helpful for uneducated ass like me and it’s a great starting point with some shortcuts. If I’d need more I will read more elsewhere but for now this is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks DJTT!

  • Marco Hooghuis

    http://www.musictheory.net/

    Go and read some actual material before building a track, please.

  • I like http://www.hooktheory.com and use HookPad. I believe they’re going to add a “HookPad Plus” soon, but this “basic” one is still free. I like it. Also, once you’ve gotten something pretty sweet, you can use Liquid Notes to alter existing MIDI to build tension and transpose existing chords: http://www.re-compose.com/liquid-notes-music-software.html After that, I like EZKeys with my digital piano to get an idea of what I want to work with, and the built-in Circle of Fifths to see what better options might be. http://www.toontrack.com/product/ezkeys-grand-piano/

  • minimalmac

    harmony does not hurt

  • Toontown

    One of my favorite DJs at the moment is Trevor Nygaard–his 3dektek mixes have been really inspirational. He routes Ableton into Deck D of Traktor and controls it with Push. Aside from the obvious clip launching and drum sequencing, he occasionally adds an arp or lead overtop of the mix, which adds some nice subtle depth. Push makes it pretty easy to play in harmony as long as you set it to the right key.

    • wacom

      I use maschine and a novation synth, but it’s the same concept. Having both handy helps fill in when a track goes quiet in the middle, and lets you bring chord progressions back in 2 or 3 songs later. It’s *magic*

      • CUSP

        I totally agree. I use Maschine and a Novation keyboard in my (Serato or Traktor) sets as well. No one would rightfully ever accuse me of having a boring set, but it’s very hands-on, so I might get accused of having “computer face.”

        I gotta’ talk shop with both you guys. 🙂

  • Are we serious?

    Why don’t you go and study some actual music theory? Wikipedia? Seriously? It’s like trying to speak another language with google translate.

    • Stephen Rudolph

      Agree on so many levels! “Guides” like this perpetuate bad habits and laziness, and is a big reason why so many DJs/Producers come off sounding so damn stale. Not to mention, most of these guides and tutorials are flat-out wrong or leave out important information.

      Take this quote from the Chord section above: “Try playing any combination of notes in a key from our graphics in step
      two, which will work in key—no dissonances (or off-key sounds) will
      occur.”

      Wrong. Dissonance is not the same as being out of key. There are dissonant sounds within the key of G# minor. Go ahead and play a C#, D, G#, and A together, tell me that’s not dissonant, despite those notes being diatonic to the key of G# minor.

      Another example of misinformation and wrongness is Ean’s “Advanced” Key Mixing video where he introduces an equation that lets you mix a major key into a minor key, perfectly, every time. The problem is that it won’t work every time, because mixing the two keys the equation gives you will only work in certain conditions. It sounded great in Ean’s video because he met the conditions. The minor track he mixed in had no qualities of being minor, it was a syncopated rhythm playing the root, with the occasional jump to another note that’s diatonic to major key he’s mixing out of. It’s not until he drops the third loop that there’s anything being played that lets us know we’re in a minor key now. F Major and F Minor (7B and 4A respectively) are not harmonically compatible as is.

      Go buy a harmony book, and each time you feel the need to surf Youtube for videos on how to mix harmonically, read a few pages out of that book. A lot of them come with audio examples now so you can hear exactly what’s happening and train your ear to do the things on the fly that these tutorials try to teach you.

      • DND

        A good explanation of parallel and relative keys would have made that article on advanced key mixing actually make sense. Then proper modulations could be used and mode mixture could happen properly too. Although a lot of any genre of EDM is so ambiguous in the sense of a tonal center, even going as far as being atonal, a lot of tonal theories rules would not make sense in most situations anyway.

    • BrainOfSweden

      I’m pretty sure Wikipedia is a decent source for basic music theory, it’s not exactly rocket science. Google translate also works surprisingly well in simple situations, say when you want to order food or something, the mobile app even has a specific feature for such occasions. Remember that just like no one would use Google to learn speaking a language fluently, this article is aimed at beginners, and while some prefer reading a lot of theory when learning stuff, others, like me, prefer the practical way of actually doing stuff, often by trial and error. But some tips like these can come in handy, it’s not very plausible to create a decent tune by randomly clicking buttons AND not having studied music, but it’s also not impossible to create something without studying music for years first. Now I’m not saying anyone should expect to produce the next banger after they read this article, but again, that’s not really the purpose. I should also note that while I currently don’t have a lot of musical knowledge under my belt, I want to learn, and I learn a lot by doing, but I don’t want to look up charts on Wiki for the rest of my life, but I would assume this will get stuck in my head after a while, making it easier to move on and gain deeper knowledge.

      TL;DR Some people prefer messing around with stuff rather than reading about it, but everyone needs a little help in the beginning.

  • MikeLT

    I personally use Sundog Scale Studio. All those things in one single 30 bucks program. Nice and smooth 😉

  • PAnpan
    • Guest

      Thanks for the tip. Speaking from experience, even being a trained keyboardists plugs like this are super super awesome at getting you out of niches. Most of the keyboardists (with classical theory) are terrible producers because they are always too wrapped up in their heads on playing the harmony and can’t hold a groove or “pocket” since the brain only can focus on one thing at once. Plug ins like this eliminate that problem and let you focus on rhythm, timing and groove.

      • CUSP

        If you’re saying certain preferred techniques are reinforced over less-preferred, which results in “go to” solutions over “experimental”, I totally agree.

  • just the image alone reminds me of my old Casio sk1