EDM Chord Progression Deep Dive

You Only Need 4 Chords...

EDM chord progression choices should be informed by the knowledge that most EDM is constructed from only 4 chords.  This is also true of most popular music (rock, blues, pop).  In this article, I’ll show you some different examples, but every example is going to built using the same 4 chords.  We’ll see that you only need I, IV, V and vi to create awesome tracks in House, Dubstep and Trance.  But, you can mix these chords up in an order to create music in any EDM sub-genre, too.

Roman Numerals to Know:

  • I – the chord built off of the 1st scale degree in any key
  • IV – the chord built off of the 4th scale degree in any key
  • V – the chord built off of the 5th scale degree in any key
  • vi – the chord built off of the 6th scale degree in any key AND the most likely minor chord you’ll find in EDM

Using Roman numerals is really, really important.  You see, unlike common arabic numerals (1,2,3..) Roman numerals have an uppercase and lowercase.  In music we use that to indicate major chords (uppercase) and minor chords (lowercase) respectively.  This way, we can communicate the chords in use within our key, their quality (major or minor) and we also imply a key… because the “I” or “i” chord is assumed to be the root of the key.  So, get used to Roman numerals – they are your friend 🙂

Making Your Own Music

If you’re a performing musician (or you have access to record a live performer), then start by recording your chord progression.  Otherwise, it is simple to create your chord progressions in a variety of DAWs including:

  • GarageBand
  • Cubase
  • Logic
  • Reaper
  • FL Studio
  • Ableton
  • ProTools

After you create your chords (typically in a MIDI format), you can direct that MIDI into a virtual instrument (sampled piano, synth or other instrument).

Some Examples

Below, I’ve listed a few famous producers/tracks that you should study more closely.  These tracks are great examples of how chord progressions can be both familiar and original at the same time.

  • vi – I – V – IV: “Levels” by Aviccii
  • V – vi – IV – IV: “Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia
  • vi – V – I – IV: “Light It Up” by Major Lazer
Notable Exceptions

There are some famous tracks that use more unusual chord progressions.  Daft Punk is a great example, since they commonly use more ‘colorful’ chord choices.  For example, their massive hit “Get Lucky” (featuring Pharell) uses the chord progression: vi – I – iii – II (Bm – D – F#m – E).  In fact, their album Random Access Memories uses more ‘colorful’ chord choices quite often.  That’s probably what gives the album a flavor that separates it from typical EDM.

Another super-catchy exception is “Illmerica” by Wolfgang Gartner which uses this chord progression: vi – IV – I – III (Dm – Bb – F – A).  The use of the “3” chord is unusual and it is also unusual for the III chord to be major (because it would typically be a minor chord in this key).  However, this chord progression repeats and creates a rich harmonic landscape for the track to evolve and explore different melodic hooks, so it is definitely a winner!  A very similar chord progression is used by Armin Van Buuren in “This is What It Feels Like” – which is in the key of Ab or Fm.