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Writing EDM Chords with Armin van Buuren, Musician Behind “This Is What It Feels Like”

Written by MasterClass

Oct 24, 2018 • 2 min read

Written by MasterClass

Oct 24, 2018 • 2 min read

Armin van Buuren has created some of the most recognizable electronic dance music of the past decade. He’s a trance and progressive house DJ, sound designer, record producer, remixer, and label owner from the Netherlands who has won 12 DJ Awards, 27 International Dance Music Awards, and has been named the number one DJ by DJ Mag five times, four times in a row. Armin became the fourth trance artist to receive a Grammy nomination for his 2014 single “This Is What It Feels Like” featuring Trevor Guthrie.

Armin’s electronic dance chords and trance chords stay with us long after we first hear them, and that’s no accident—it’s art. Armin has a clear process for creating the trance chords, deep house, and progressive house chords that listeners love so much. Below, he shares seven tips for constructing EDM chords so you can get started writing your own original songs.


1. Learn the Difference Between Notes and Chords

Music is composed of two basic elements: notes and chords. Notes are one sound (think one piano key), while chords are the layering of two or more notes, played at the same time (think three piano keys played simultaneously). Chords can be described by their root note as well as their “quality,” which is expressed as either the key they’re played in or the way they’re played (which can range from short pricks to long, sustained sounds).

In Western music, chords are usually composed of three notes: the root and then third and fifth intervals above the root note. Consult chord charts or chord diagrams, which are readily available online, to discover different intervals and combinations.

2. Experiment With Major and Minor Chords

The chords used in EDM vary depending on the type of music. Certain styles—like deep house or dubstep—use minor chords, which gives them a moody feel. They’re also great for building tension in music, which is an important part of EDM. On the other hand, happier styles of EDM—like house or trance—tend to utilize major chords.

But there are no hard-and-fast rules: You’ll find all types of chords in all types of EDM.

3. Pull the Basics From a Song You Love

Take a song you love, break it down, and find new uses for this song’s basic parts. Armin demonstrates how a portion of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” can be broken down into two simple chords. These chords can be played different ways and can inspire new chord progressions and melodies.

“Some of these cords that were invented hundreds of years ago are still so fresh and so new,” Armin says. “That can really touch my soul.”

4. Don’t Be Afraid of Technically Incorrect Chords

While Armin believes it is helpful to have a basic understanding of music theory, he suggests you experiment with chords that are musically incorrect. Something about unconventional sounds could inspire you. Play with wrong-sounding chords—record them, reverse them, add effects—until you find something that sounds right to you, even if it’s not technically right.

5. Add to A Cappella Tracks

Inspiration for great EDM chords doesn’t just have to come from the classics, of course. Armin suggests grabbing an exciting a cappella track and trying to write new chords, melodies, and rhythm tracks that fit around it. What’s different about the chords when you do them this way? Which process speaks to you more?

6. Utilize Your DAW

Another source of inspiration can be found right in your digital audio workstation (DAW). Almost all electronic dance music producers use DAWS to experiment with sounds and create music; common DAWs include Ableton Live and Pro Logic. Scroll through your DAW’s library of loops and presets and try out different sonic combinations until something strikes your ear as interesting.

7. Don’t Give Up

Inspiration for EDM chords can come from many different sources, but sometimes you can’t escape writer’s block. Don’t be discouraged. Remember: It took Armin 22 years to get his first Grammy nomination. Great art takes time, so be persistent and be patient. You’ll get there.

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