Akkoorden ontdekken in Ableton Live - Gebruik deze tools!

Finding the right chords for a new tune is never easy. Thankfully, guest-blogger Hens Zimmerman is here to help ease the process with Ableton Live, but first, let’s look at a little music theory.

Intervals and Chords

The relationship between two notes is called an interval. Play two notes in a sequence and you get what’s called a melodic interval. Play two notes at the same time and you get what’s called a harmonic interval. Every interval can be played both melodically and harmonically. What’s interesting here is that even a simple two-note interval can be meaningful. Take the instantly recognisable theme of the famous shark movie, Jaws. It mainly alternates two notes, E and F, which are only a semitone apart. Also known as a minor second, a semitone interval can be perceived as gloomy or ominous.

The distance from C to E is four semitones. This interval is called a major third which typically sounds pleasant and joyful.

The distance from C to Eb spans three semitones. This interval is known as a minor third which typically evokes sadness.


What’s the use in knowing all of this, you ask? It’s simple: intervals are the building blocks for your chords. A three-semitone interval (minor third) will always have a bit of a sad ring to it, regardless of the notes you’re playing. Meanwhile, a four-semitone interval (major third) will always sound nice-and-chipper. Also, since chords are harmonious combinations of three or more notes, there are several intervals you can identify within any chord. When you play three-finger chords using only the white keys of your piano, you’re only playing three different kinds of chords in total.

Changing the distance between the notes in triads leads to more different chords, but you could also add an extra note or switch up the order. A D-F-A chord sounds similar to an A-D-F chord, which incorporates an A from a lower octave. They don’t sound exactly the same, they just sound similar. The trick to knowing which chord to play in which position within a harmony is a matter of trial-and-error, as well as a matter of listening closely to what other musicians have done or are doing.

Now, let’s look at a few tips and tools you can use to spark ‘happy accidents’ in Ableton Live.

Probability Arp

The Probability Arp is a Max for Live device that’s part of Sonic Faction’s Probability Pack, which comes with Live 11 Suite. If you don’t have access to it yet, you’ll find it on Ableton’s website. Basically, Probability Arp reacts to MIDI notes and sends out multiple MIDI notes per note, which means you’ll want to assign it to a MIDI track before an instrument. The cool thing about this device is that you can also run it in Chord mode, so without the arpeggiator. Here’s what the interface looks like.

Since this article is all about chords, we’re going to focus on the left-hand side of the interface. Here, you’re free to leave ‘Chord’ to ‘On’. The ‘Shape’, ‘Invert’ and ‘Strum’ parameters are the ones that pave the way for serious experimentation. You’re probably also going to want to save the MIDI notes generated by your experiments, but sticking an instrument plus the Probability Arp in a single track only lets you save the input – so the separate notes you’re adding. To see all of the generated chords in your MIDI track instead, all you have to do is set up two MIDI tracks. Assign the Probability Arp to the first track and link your instrument of choice to the second track. This is the instrument that will be playing the chords generated by the Probability Arp. As you can see in the image below, I’m going with the Operator, but you can obviously go with any other instrument here. The next step is to send the MIDI output of the first track to the second MIDI track, and set the second track to record. Here’s what that looks like:

The first track needs some input now. A handful of different MIDI notes in a session view slot will do, but you can also play a few notes on your keyboard or use your Ableton Push controller. As you can see in the image below, I’m going with a simple two-note pattern in the key of C major here.

Before you actually start experimenting, it’s worth knowing that you can make use of a music theory phenomenon that works in your favor (and which is actually used a lot in house music). As it turns out, we humans are naturally inclined to like different chords with the same shape (‘Shape’ in Probability Arp) when they’re played in sequence. Here’s an example:

B Maj7 – G Maj7 – A Maj7 – F Maj7

Have a listen:


Playing these four major 7 chords in this specific order results in a kind of Detroit House-style feel. Try the same thing using minor 7 or m7sus4 chords and see what you get.

Ok, time to run the two notes I picked earlier (C and G) through the Probability Arp and see what happens. Playing around with the Shape, Invert and Strum parameters yields the following result:


What you’re hearing here is the Probability Arp going to town on just two notes. The image below illustrates what’s going on and shows you how the green track up top is transformed into the orange track below. For even more surprising results, simply experiment using different shape, strum and inversion settings, or map any of these parameters to an LFO.

Once you end up with something you’re happy with, you can delete the Probability Arp track and continue working with the MIDI chords you’ve created. It won’t be long before you’re looking at chord alternations you never could’ve come up with yourself.

MIDI Monitor

On the other hand, it can also be pretty useful to know which chords you’re actually playing, even if it’s just to learn which chords make sense in different styles of music. In the MIDI Effects section on the left, Ableton Live hides an effect called MIDI Monitor. It’s another Max for Live device that can be inserted into a MIDI track. Instead of modifying the input, MIDI Monitor simply presents information about your MIDI notes, including chord names! Take a look at the image below and you’ll see that MIDI Monitor has identified a G7sus4 chord in one of my experiments. Best of all, it even recognises chords played with ‘Strum’ set to on.

MIDI Monitor is an awesome little tool for figuring out what’s going on behind the scenes. It can even help solve issues that you can get when working with an external synthesizer. Set it to Flow Mode and it’ll list every MIDI CC that pops up in the data:

Even though an Ableton Push controller can make picking the right chords really easy, unlike MIDI Minor, it can’t help you learn which exact chords you’re playing. In the image below, you can see how MIDI Monitor detects that I’m playing an A-minor 7 chord. Sadly though, it can’t recognise many chords just yet.

Ableton Live can also convert any existing audio track into MIDI chords. Right-click an audio clip of choice and select ‘Convert Harmony to new MIDI track’, or simply drag your audio file to a MIDI track and select ‘Harmony’ in the Convert Audio to MIDI’ windows that pops up. While it isn’t flawless, this functionality is a great way to see what’s happening as far as chords and chord changes within a given track are concerned. In most cases, the root note eventually becomes clear, even if it requires a bit of patience sometimes. By coupling ‘Scale’ with the root note, you can usually tell if you’re on the right track, and also see which notes are ‘non-native’ to the scale. Whatever you do, don’t get rid of these notes right away: some chords actually owe their rich-and-pleasant sound to them. The image below shows you how Ableton Live turns audio into MIDI notes. In this case, I knew the source material was played in D-minor so I selected the same scale setting, which gave me nothing but green notes (any off-scale notes would’ve appeared as grey bars).


While it can be pretty tricky to find your way through a mass of apps, plug-ins, MIDI files and devices, there’s one more tool I want to highlight here: ConChord by Max for Cats. Part of the Stray Cats Collection pack available via the Ableton website, ConChord combines a step sequencer with the option to enter chords into certain steps (see the image below). Besides chords, you can also have ConChord play bass or melody notes, making it ideal for experimentation and quick results. As a matter of fact, I rarely opt for half-dim chords, but in the context of my little experiment, I have to admit it doesn’t sound half-bad:

Want to Learn More?

Granted, whether you like a certain chord or not depends on taste and even the zeitgeist. Some, like the minor 6 and half-dim chords from the last example, would have definitely been dissidents back in mediaeval times. What’s more, they probably would’ve been outlawed by the church. These days, styles like EDM and trip-hop probably couldn’t do without them. Any chord that works for your project is a good chord really.

One of the most versatile software titles that can help you write music is Band-in-a-Box by PG Music. Available for Windows and MacOS, Band-in-a-Box comes with a mild learning curve but can prove amazingly useful, especially if you know a thing or two about music theory. For the purpose of this article, I fed it a handful of basic chords in D minor, then picked a style and tempo before letting Band-in-a-Box work its magic. Here’s the result:


What you’re hearing is the audio that Band-in-a-Box generated based on the chords and style I selected. The software can also export tracks as MIDI files for further processing in Ableton Live, giving you unrivalled potential when it comes to remixing tracks as long as you know the chords of the tune. Interestingly, Band-in-a-Box will even suggest alternative chords, render separate audio tracks, and come up with solos for you.

Want to dig even deeper into the theory behind songcrafting? Check out ‘How Music Really Works’ by Wayne Chase. Chase is a veteran musician-and-composer and it shows throughout the book.This highly recommended read takes you on a journey that not only teaches you about composing and arranging sosngs, but expands your knowledge by analysing various hit songs. Best of all, you don’t need any knowledge of music theory to enjoy it, and Chase has certainly peppered the book with humour. I actually use the Chase Charts in this book for every song I write.

I hope this article has given you the inspiration you need to come up with fresh productions. Good luck and don’t forget to have fun in the process!

See also

» Ableton Live
» MIDI Keyboards
» MIDI Studio Controllers

» Why Every (Beat) Producer Needs to Know Music Theory
» The Circle of Fifths: Every Musician’s Best Friend
» Understanding Chord Progressions: Intervals, Leading Notes & Tension
» Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale

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