EDM Chord Progression Deep Dive

PLAY, don't program!

What do you want to express?

What makes a “great” chord progression?  That depends on what the chord progression is trying express… are you creating excitement or a more chilled-out vibe?  Are you trying to inspire an ecstatic emotional state?  Music is so personal, but there are some really helpful tips that I’ll offer in this article to help you express just about anything with chords.

This article explains:

  • How to think about chords and progressions in the most musical way (Roman numerals)
  • Common chord progressions, including well-known examples
You Only Need 4 Chords...

Most EDM is constructed from only 4 chords.  This is also true of most popular music.  In this article, let’s look at some different examples… We’ll see that you only need I, IV, V and vi to create awesome tracks in House, Dubstep and Trance, Techno or whatever you’re producing (mixing these chords up in any order works for sub-genres, too).

Do you know what I, IV, V and vi means?  It is super simple.  By the end of this paragraph, you’ll understand exactly what this means AND you’ll be a lot smarter than many other producers out there :). Here it is…  A C major scale contains 7 notes:

  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F
  • G
  • A
  • B

You can build 7 chords (one from each note in the scale) and get these chords:

  • C major (maj7)
  • D minor (m7)
  • E minor (m7)
  • F major (maj7)
  • G major (dominant 7)
  • A minor (m7)
  • B half-diminished (⌀ 7)

We can identify each of these 7 chords with a number that tells us which position in the scale it occupies (music majors call this scale degree).  Music majors also like to use Roman numerals… yes – the number system for Ancient Rome!  Why?  It’s a great idea because Roman numerals have lower and uppercase so, we can use lowercase to indicate minor chords and uppercase indicates major chords. For example, Since C is the first chord in our key (from the bullet points above), we’ll call it a ‘1’ chord… or in Roman numerals a ‘I’ chord.  At this point, you should be able to understand that the I, IV, V and vi chords in the key of C major are:

  • [I] C (maj7)
  • [IV] F (maj7)
  • [V] G (7)
  • [vi] Am (m7)

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 useful.  Unlike the numerals that we’re used to (1,2,3..) Roman numerals have an uppercase and lowercase.  Using that to indicate major chords (uppercase) and minor chords (lowercase) can make it easy to talk about a chord progression.

Plus, we can take about a chord progression in any key (or all keys at once).  For example I can tell you that “Wake Me Up” by Avicci uses a strumming guitar playing ii – IV – I.  Since the song is in the key of D major (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#), this means that the chords are Bm – G – D (ii – IV – I).  If I wanted to play this song in the key of C major (the scale I listed earlier in this article), the chord progression would stay the same (ii – IV – I), but the actual chords would change to Dm – F – C.

So, a ii – V – I chord progression tells us about itself in all keys, not just one.  You’ll start seeing patterns in your favorite music when you think about progressions as numerals instead of actual chords.  Additionally, the quality (major or minor) of a chord (a.k.a. is it upper or lower case) implies a key.  This is 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 🙂

Make and Analyze Music

One of the best ways to get good at thinking in terms of Roman numerals is to translate music into Roman numerals. If you’re a performing musician (or you have access to record a live performer), then start by recording your chord progressions.  Drawing/recording MIDI chords into most DAWs is pretty simple and then you can play around with them, listen to them, play them on different instruments.  There are a variety of DAWs including:

  • GarageBand
  • Cubase
  • Logic
  • Reaper
  • FL Studio
  • Ableton
  • ProTools
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
    • Originally in the key of E Major (C#m – E – B – A)
  • vi – I – vi – iii, IV – vi – IV – iii: “Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia
    • Originally in the key of D Major (Bm – D – Bm – F#m, G – Bm – G – F#m)
  • vi – vi – IV – I: “Don’t Look Down” (feat. Usher) by Martin Garrix
    • Originally in the key of C Major (Am – Am – F – C)
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 great progession!  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).

The Least You Should Know

Take the Next Step

What do you want to express?

Key Take-Aways
  1. Roman numerals are the best way to think about chords and chord progressions.
  2. Roman numerals tell us about a progression in any (and all) key(s).
  3. Uppercase and lowercase numerals indicate major and minor chord qualities.
  4. Roman numerals make transposing and finding harmonic patterns much easier.