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Ambient chord progressions


2019/12/20

Twelve short tracks illustrating the progressions discussed in my Web log article on ambient chord progressions.

[track art]One chord (B)2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

One of the easiest chord progressions for ambient music is no chord progression at all: just hold a single chord, possibly with different voicings. This clip does that with B major. PDF sheet music.

[track art]One chord (Am)2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

One of the easiest chord progressions for ambient music is no chord progression at all: just hold a single chord, possibly with different voicings. This clip does that with A minor. PDF sheet music.

[track art]One chord (E+9)2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

One of the easiest chord progressions for ambient music is no chord progression at all: just hold a single chord, possibly with different voicings. This clip does that with E major add 9. The added ninth gives it a brighter, cheerier sound than would be expected with the plain major chord. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Circle of fifths2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

Each chord moves to its fifth, in an endless cycle of twelve chords. In this case I'm using plain minor chords, but in a real piece it might actually sound better with more complicated chords. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Circle of fourths2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

Usually when choosing chords for an ambient piece we'd want to avoid any strong "resolutions," so there should be no dominant-seventh chords moving to their fourths because that grabs the listener's attention. But in this clip I'm doing it on every single bar, with nothing but dominant-seventh chords going around the circle of fourths all the time. That makes the resolution sound less special, and it too fades into the background. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Fractional-octave cycle (tritone)2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

A tritone is half an octave, so cycling through chords separated by a tritone means just alternating between two chords, in this case C and F#. The contrast between the two is significant, so it may not be what we'd think of as ambient if it occurred just sometimes at random, but since here it's happening constantly, it becomes part of the texture and doesn't hold listener attention. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Fractional-octave cycle (major third)2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

This is a cycle of three major chords, going up by a major third (one third of an octave, though that's not where the name comes from) at every step. Each chord includes the root of the next, so it sounds reasonably natural despite the large jump in harmonic space. This clip illustrates the cycle E♭-G-B. Three other such cycles are possible: C-E-A♭, D-F#-B♭, and A-C#-F. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Fractional-octave cycle (minor third)2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

This progression is a cycle of four minor chords, going up by a minor third (one quarter of the octave) at every step. Each chord includes the root of the next, which helps with the voice leading. This clip illustrates the cycle A♭-B-D-F. Two other minor-third cycles are possible in the standard 12-note octave: B♭-C#-E-G, and C-E♭-F#-A. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Fractional-octave cycle (major seconds)2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

This is a cycle of six minor chords, going up by a major second (one sixth of an octave) at every step. Since the major second is equivalent to two fifths, while being a smallish melodic interval too, it doesn't sound too jarring as a shift in the harmony, and keeping up the cycle prevents the music from settling into any fixed key. The cycle in the clip is D-E-F#-A♭-B♭-C. The other six notes in the octave can be used for a similar cycle, A-B-C#-E♭-F-G. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Good old vi-IV-I-V2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

This very popular chord progression is associated with "heroic" moods in classical and film music, but it is also called the "sensitive female" chord progression, and a staple of the Lilith Fair type of singer-songwriter music. The great thing about it for ambient music is that it is endless: it just cycles around and around without ever resolving. It's also easy to voice chords in this progression to move either up or down in pitch according to the mood (demonstrated in my audio clip, and used to good effect in Melissa Etheridge's "Angels Would Fall" where the pitch moves mirror the lyrics). The chords in the clip are Gm-E♭-B♭-F, key of B flat major, but it works in any key. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Avoiding the key2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

This progression is meant to point strongly at a major key without ever actually hitting that chord. In this case it's D-Fsus2-C-Am, pointing at the key of G, more generally it's V-♭VIIsus2-IV-ii. Note that the flat-seventh chord root is out of key, but the added second in that chord actually is the key note, so this chord doesn't jump out as being chromatic. PDF sheet music.

[track art]Spooky chromatic2019/12/20MP3 FLAC

Shifting slowly up and down by a semitone creates an eerie or spooky ambient feeling. In this case the chords are E♭m6-Dm6-E♭m6-Em6. I'm using m6 chords (minor triad with major sixth added) to increase the tension and reduce any tendency for it to be forced into tonal expectations. PDF sheet music.