So you want to draw MIDI like a pro, and speed up your workflow when creating chord progressions?
In this article we're going to cover how to draw MIDI chords, from their basic triad form, to adding extensions, chord inversions, and more!
Basic Triad MIDI Chords
When you're trying to make something quick, you need to know the basics off by heart. And when creating chord melody, there are a few basic formulas that will get you 99% of the way there.
Here are all the triad MIDI chord formulas:
- Major – R, +4, +3
- Minor – R, +3, +4
- Diminished – R, +3, +3
- Augmented – R, +4 +5
- Sus 4 – R, +5, +2
- Sus 2 – R, +2, +5
To understand how to use these formulas, you're going to have to know what the R, and the +3 actually mean, but don't worry, they're really easy to grasp.
- R= root note of the chord you're trying to build
- +3 = 3 semitones from the current note
- +4 = 4 semitones from the current note
And so on…
What's A Semitone?
A semitone is literally just a single note jump, in the sequence of the 12 chromatic notes on the piano keyboard.
So for example, a jump between E, and F would be a semitone jump. Another example of a semitone jump, would be between C, & C# (the black note above C).
Building A Major Triad Using MIDI
So let's take an example of a C major triad, and let's build it together.
If we want to build a Cmaj (C, E, G), we'd take the root note (C), and plug the major formula in:
R, +4, +3
As you can see fro the left hand diagram, you're taking your root note (C), then counting up 4 notes in a sequence to find your first note (which is the major 3rd – E).
Then from the E, you'll reset the counter, and count up another 3 notes to get your G (the 5th), and your full C major triad – it really is that simple.
Building A Minor Triad Using MIDI
Now let's take a C minor triad and build it together:
For this we'll use our minor triad formula, and plug it into the chord we want to make.
R, +3, +4
As you can see from the diagram on the right, we take the root note of our chord (C), and we count up 3 semitones to get a D# (which is our minor 3rd).
Then, to get the next note, we reset the counter, and count up a further 4 semitones from the D#, getting our final note – the G (a 5th).
Extension Chords Using MIDI
Now, when you draw basic triads into your DAW software, you'll realise that they don't sound too professional, and chord progressions using these kinds of chords will sound very Pop-like, basic, and pretty uninspiring.
To further develop our chords, we can add something called extensions.
There are a lot of extensions chords, but we're only going to go over the extensions that are going to make you sound the best. Once you have the idea of the core concept you will be able to make any extension chord easily, by yourself.
Here are the extension chord formulas:
- Major 7 – R, +4, +3, +4
- Minor 7 – R, +3, +4, +3
- Dominant 7 – R, +4, +3, +3 (as you can see we're using the minor 7 here)
- Diminished 7 – R, +3, +3, +3
- Major 9 – R, +4, +3, +7
- Minor 9 – R, +4, +3, +7
- Major 7/9 – R, +4, +3, +4, +3
- Minor 7/9 – R, +3, +4, +3, +4
- Major 11 – R, +4, +3, +10 (you may want to invert this)
- Minor 11 – R, +3, +4, +10 (you may want to invert this)
If you take a close look at the sequence of MIDI chord formulas, as they get bigger and bigger, you'll notice they tend to repeat a pattern, unless you're just going for a straight 9th or 11th chord. If you go for slash chords, they repeat.
With Minor, you're repeating the +3, +4 – With Major you're repeating the +4, +3.
Using the exact same process as demonstrated above, with the Major and Minor chords, you can plug these formulas in to create any extension chord you like, very quickly.
You can also mix and match extensions, and combine them together to create even more colourful sounding chords.
Building Combined Extension Chords
The Cmin7/9 chord sounds extremely awesome, so let's make that together:
As you can see from the diagram on the left, we are simply plugging in the formula that is listed above, for the minor 7/9 chord.
R, +3, +4, +3, +4
You take the root note that we want to build from (which is C in this case), then you count up 3 semitones for your minor 3rd.
Then, from the minor 3rd, you count up an additional 4 semitones to get your 5th.
From your 5th, count up an additional 3 semitones to get your 7th.
Then, finally, from the 7th, you count up another 4 semitones to get the 9th.
For a Major 7/9 chord, you'd plug in the formula from above to get your
What you'll notice is that this chord is pretty spread apart, and when it's spread apart, it might sound a bit too weird for your melody. This is where inverting your chords comes into play.
Inverting MIDI Chords
As you start to build bigger extension chords, or if you want to change the tone of your chords, you'll want to start inverting them to different positions, to change the tone and vibe of the same chord.
You can actually use the same chord multiple times in a progression, and using inversions and extensions, you can make it sound different, while still retaining the same key quality.
There is a really easy way to do this, and when drawing MIDI it's considerably easier than playing the piano:
- Root position (basic, natural position triad)
- 1st inversion (root note on top)
- 2nd inversion (root note in middle)
All you're going to do here is take your notes and push them up or down an octave. You can do this using shift & the arrow keys in Ableton.
Building A 1st Inversion MIDI Chord
So how do you build a 1st inversion MIDI chord? Let's start with a C minor triad first, then go from there.
Use your minor triad formula to build your chord:
R, +3, +4
Then from there you want to invert it to the 1st inversion position.
As you can see from above, your 1st inversion is the root note on top of your chord.
So all you need to do to, is select your C, and move it up one whole octave.
Now you have a C minor triad, in the 1st inversion position.
To do this with a major chord, or any other chord, you follow the exact same process. Build your base chord first, then take the root note of your chord and put it up a whole octave.
Building A 2nd Inversion MIDI Chord
Building a 2nd inversion chord is a little different, but you're still going to change the octave of a note.
As you'll have seen above, to get your 2nd inversion, we need the root note of your chord in the middle of the surrounding notes.
So how do we do that?
Take the 5th of your triad (the top note), select it, and move it an octave down.
Now you have your root note, surrounded by the other notes and, as a result, a 2nd inversion chord.
Inverting Extension Chords
Now, when you start to get large extension chords, things might sound a bit too spread apart, or it might sound too high register for the sound you're going for.
More often than not, you have the right chord within your progression, it's just the tone of it that doesn't fit with the stuff that comes before it.
It's here where you'll use inversions to sort that out.
With extension chords, it's really, really easy to invert them.
You follow the exact process above, but instead of getting your triad to 1st, 2nd or 3rd inversion, you're going to take your extension note and move it up and down octaves until you find something you like.
The best way to write chords is by placing the notes as close together as possible, without introducing dissonance (unless that's what you want). So play around with your notes, try a 2nd inversion and put the 7th down an octave. Maybe try a 1st inversion with a 9th down the octave.
The MIDI chord world is now your oyster.
Building chords through MIDI and learning the exact formulas is a sure-fire way to start getting really good at building chord progressions easily, and quickly.
If you want to take your chord progressions to the next level, we'd recommend checking out our Piano Progressions Poster, it includes all the keys and chord scales you need to be able to write awesome sounding melodies, as well as a 21 page PDF guide and over-the-shoulder video guide.
With over 8 years of hands-on experience in the music industry, Harry has run successful raves, played alongside industry heavyweights such as Max Chapman, DJ EZ, DJ Zinc and more (pictured below), had music played on national radio, DJ'd on live radio, produced until he hated every song, mixed until his ears bled, created sample packs from scratch using just a Zoom H1n and some sound design skills… and pretty much anything related to music production – he's done it, tested it, tried it.