Add a string section to any song in any genre, and it'll sound amazing! So learn how to write a four-part chord progression for strings, by using this hack (as heard in deadmau5 "mau5ville level 2").
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In deadmau5’s new track “Drama Free” (feat. Lights) that just dropped yesterday, the party pumps for just over a minute, before you’re suddenly whisked away to a beautiful land of strings. This lush detour lasts about 40 seconds, then you’re safely returned to the beat, perfectly highlighting how strings are totally at home in any genre. So, to create lush strings like deadmau5, you need to write a minor key chord progression (which includes the relative major key’s root chord), then add extensions for depth, anticipations for tension, and motifs for memorability. We’ll show you how, next.
Step 1 - Chords
Set up eight bars of 4/4, with your grid set to 1/4 notes, and your tempo set to 92 BPM. “Drama Free” is in the key of C♯ minor, so we’ll use it too. Right, first things first, you need a chord progression. So, choose a few chords from C♯ minor that you like the sound of, and play each chord for one bar. And if you wanna repeat chords, or play one chord over two bars, that’s all good, just be sure to play the root chord (C♯m) in your first bar, and the relative major key’s root chord (Emaj) in your fifth bar. Now, once you’ve chosen your chords, draw in their root notes at the bottom. This will form the bass melody for your string section. And while we’re on this topic, lush strings tend to be written in four parts, which create four melodic layers. So, as you’re writing your string section, pay attention to what each layer sounds like as a melody on its own. For example, this layer is the cello part, and you wanna make sure your cellists have a beautiful melody to play, so they’re just as happy as your violinists are up top!
Step 2 - Extensions
While you’re building up the remaining three parts on top of your bass melody, be sure to extend your chords beyond triads, like here, where we added a 2 to the Bmaj triad, creating the extended chord: Bmaj(add9).
Step 3 - Anticipations
An anticipation is when you anticipate a note from the next chord, by playing that note before the chord actually comes in. We’ve used a bunch of anticipations in this string section. For example, here we anticipate F♯ from the upcoming Bmaj(add9) chord. Anticipations are so easy yet so effective in creating a brief and beautiful tension, which resolves as soon as the chord changes. Speaking of tension. deadmau5 switches from natural minor to harmonic minor to create even more tension. So, if you wanna do the same, use B♯ somewhere (like we did here). And yes, it’s B♯ not C. If you wanna know why sometimes we use a different name for the same note, then read Hack 7 in our free book, which you can download at HackMusicTheory.com - it only takes about 30 minutes to read, and you’ll gain a super solid foundation in scales, triads, relative keys, and much more!
Step 4 - Motifs
A motif is a short musical idea, which you can reuse to give your music structure and make it more memorable. And by now, your string section will already have a few motifs, you just need to go hunting for ‘em! We found a good few motifs. For example, this descending line with anticipations (which we reused here), and this kinda quick semitone movement (which we reused right afterwards).
Hack Music Theory is the pioneering notation-free method for making great music that stands out, so you can get discovered! Taught by award-winning music lecturer Ray Harmony, and his protégé (and wife) Kate Harmony, from their studio in Vancouver BC, Canada. Ray is the author of critically-acclaimed book series "Hack Music Theory", and has made music with Serj Tankian (System of a Down), Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad), Ihsahn (Emperor), Kool Keith (Ultramagnetic MCs), Madchild (Swollen Members), and many more! Kate has the highest grade distinction in Popular Music Theory from the London College of Music, and is the only person on the planet who's been trained by Ray to teach his method. On that note, the "Hack Music Theory" YouTube channel teaches relevant and instantly-usable music theory for producers, DAW users, and all other music makers (songwriters, singers, guitarists, bassists, drummers, etc.) in all genres, from EDM to R&B, pop to hip-hop, reggae to rock, electronic to metal (and yes, we djefinitely djent!).
(c) 2018 Revolution Harmony
All music in video by Revolution Harmony
Revolution Harmony is Ray Harmony & Kate Harmony
Photo of deadmau5 courtesy of MasterClass.com