How to Write a Chord Progression Using Chords Not in the Key
Knut from the electronic music hub of Tromsø in Norway, emailed us with this question: “I’ve spent some time analyzing an old track from The Prodigy called ‘Out of Space’. The first part of this track mainly consists of a chord progression and a synth riff. I’ve determined the chords used to be Fmaj/A → Dmaj/A → Emaj/B → Dm → Emaj. I think that the song is written in F major (Ionian). Now onto my question: The Dmaj and Emaj chords are outside of the scale, while the rest of the chords conform to it. I’m wondering if you have any tips for how you would approach breaking the ‘rules’ in this way?” Thank you Knut, this is an advanced and awesome question, and you’ve already made some wise observations, so we’re excited to connect these dots for you, starting with our one-sentence answer:
Your chord progression can safely venture out of its scale by adding a non-diatonic chord, which is a chord that contains one or more notes from outside that scale, as long as that non-diatonic chord still contains at least one note from that scale.
First, let’s just solidify the terms “diatonic” and “non-diatonic”. Simply put, diatonic refers to notes that are in the scale, and non-diatonic refers to notes that are not in the scale. So, all the notes of a diatonic chord are in the scale, but one or more notes of a non-diatonic chord are out of the scale. By the way, non-diatonic notes are also referred to as chromatic notes, because the chromatic scale contains all 12 notes.
Okay let’s get to the chord progression in your question now. We haven’t had time to listen to the song and double check your analysis, so we’ll just work with the information you’ve given us. Besides, using the exact chords in this example isn’t important, as the lesson here is about non-diatonic chords, which you can then apply to any chord progression. So, you said the chord progression is in the key of F major (AKA Ionian), which means the diatonic chords we can use are as follows: Fmaj, Gm, Am, B♭maj, Cmaj, Dm, Edim. Now, here’s the chord progression you gave us. We’ve just added the root note of each chord below as reference (these root notes are muted, and dark in the midi screenshot below), but these are not part of the chords.
Figure 1: Chord progression in F major (Ionian) from Knut's question
In this chord progression, Fmaj is the I, AKA the root triad, so that’s a diatonic chord. Dmaj is the VI, but it’s major instead of minor, so that’s a non-diatonic chord. It creates tension as the 3rd note in Dmaj is F♯, a non-diatonic note that clashes with our memory of F from the first chord, which is also the root note of the key. Emaj is the VII, but it’s major instead of diminished, so that’s also a non-diatonic chord. Whereas Dmaj only contained one non-diatonic note, Emaj contains two: G♯ instead of G, and B instead of B♭. So all in all, this chord progression makes use of three non-diatonic notes, which definitely blurs the lines of a secure home. It makes the chord progression sound a bit wild, which is thrilling when it’s done well.
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So, is this example done well? The short answer is: yes, and no. The best way to add non-diatonic chords to a chord progression is by using a common note from the diatonic chord into the non-diatonic chord, which smoothes an otherwise abrupt change. That’s what happens in the Fmaj → Dmaj, where the common note is A. Remember to always re-arrange the notes so your common note is in the same place within both chords, which is exactly what happened here to get the Fmaj/A → Dmaj/A, where A is the bass note in both chords. Unfortunately though, this is the only chord change in this progression that actually flows well, and you can hear how the rest of it doesn’t sound nearly as smooth as the first two chords. Remember, when you don’t have a common note, you can make one using a sus chord. For more on this, please watch our Chords video from song 1.
To conclude, we’ll simplify this into two different types of non-diatonic chords. The first type is built from a root note that’s in the scale, but one or more of the other notes in the chord are not in the scale. These non-diatonic chords tend to be sneakier to uncover, as at first glance they look like they’re in the key. An example of this type would be the Dmaj in this chord progression, as its root note D is in the scale, but its 3rd note, F♯, is not.
The second type is built from a non-diatonic root note, and these chords are more obvious to see and hear, as they immediately stick out from the scale. In F Ionian, a non-diatonic chord of this type would be A♭maj, which is instantly recognisable as a non-diatonic chord because its root note A♭ should be an A. Even with an obvious non-diatonic chord like this, we can still make it fit smoothly into a chord progression using a common note, like C between Fmaj and A♭maj.
Figure 2: Chord change from Fmaj to A♭maj/E♭ with a common note (C) to smooth the transition into a non-diatonic chord
Finally, here’s a little chord progression we made, inspired by this example, but where each chord shares a common note with the next chord. The chords are: Fmaj/A → Dmaj/A → Esus2/B resolving to Em/B → Csus2 resolving to Cmaj then Cmaj/G. The root notes are muted below each chord for reference. This chord progression is definitely in the key of F major, even though half the chords are non-diatonic, i.e. the Dmaj, Esus2 and Em. As always, we added a little synth, bass and drums for fun. You can listen at 8:01 in the video/podcast. Hope you enjoy!
Figure 3: Our chord progression in F major (Ionian), with the chords Fmaj/A → Dmaj/A → Esus2/B resolving to Em/B → Csus2 resolving to Cmaj then Cmaj/G
So that’s our answer! Thanks for reading, and if you’d like more advanced hacks like this, then please read our Songwriting & Producing PDF (click & scroll down). It contains all of Ray Harmony's best top-secret songwriting and producing hacks, and includes MIDI file examples. These 14 hacks make everything simple, even the oft-misunderstood modes. Other hacks include: how to write chord progressions, how to write bass lines, how to write synth/guitar riffs, how to write lead melodies, how to write counterpoint harmonies, how to modulate (i.e. change key), and even how to write lyrics!
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