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How to create a lush ambient chord progression

When creating a drone sound we often play a single note. This allows us to focus on the specifics of that evolving sound. Here we’re going to move away from the drone effect and introduce some harmonic interest whilst maintaining the ambient feel. 

We do this by some nifty use of extended chords and also by avoiding chords that want to resolve (a dominant 7th for example), thus creating a sense of continuity. We’ll start with just a couple of chords and then move onto a four-chord cycle, looking at how best to move from one chord to the next.

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(Image credit: Apple)

Step 1: Using just two chords, we can create some interest but also create a sense of continuation. Extended chords are great for this. In the key of A minor, we’ve programmed two extended chords, two bars each. Am9 followed by Fmaj9, and for each we’ve left out the 7th.

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(Image credit: Apple)

Step 2: The transition between chords is not smooth. To improve this, we want to move each note as little as possible – voice leading. If we shift the second chord down an octave you’ll now see the A and C notes move smoothly to the second chord.

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(Image credit: Apple)

Step 3: Finally, we can finesse the chord further by spreading the chord voicing. Start by shifting the root notes down an octave. Then for the second chord we can add another note on top. We quite like adding the E as it lifts the second chord.

logic

(Image credit: Apple)

Step 4: Let’s extend the two chords to four, for a more engaging cycle. For our third chord, let’s stick with the extended chords, and try an 11th on the 4th scale degree – Dm11. This is a six-note chord, but we can safely omit the 9th.

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(Image credit: Apple)

Step 5: Once again, to achieve a smooth transition from the previous chord, let’s change the voicing. Here we’ve moved the root D an octave lower and also moved the A and C from the chord down to create continuity from the previous chord. 

logic

(Image credit: Apple)

Step 6: Our final chord is a Gadd2. Just like G9 this includes an A but not as an extension above the octave. As before, we’ve moved the root down an octave. Finally, moving the fifth (D) up an octave creates a better fit with the previous chord.

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