Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Circle of Fifths Chord Resource in Ableton Live

If you've turned on the radio in the last 30 years or so, you've probably noticed that almost all pop music sounds the same: rigidly formulaic, predictable and yet, oddly pleasing and familiar. This is no accident. Our Western ears have been trained to like music built around the circle of fifths.

I'm not an authority on music theory, but I've hacked together (from various resources) an Ableton Live session that can be used as a reference and compositional aid in this style. Yes, now you too can sound like a pop music hack! (Well... to be fair, a lot of really great music fits into this description as well).

The session file is just a container for several midi clips organized around the circle of fifths. Every note's major and minor key are described by the I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII and VIII chords that are grouped under it's heading. The chords grouped under each heading all sound good in that track's key.

More exotic chord extensions are grouped under the track/note heading and can be used to substitute for any chord they're based on, in any chord progression or grouping.

The beauty of Ableton Live's session file format is that this container can be used to "inherit" from in your own session, by navigating to the session on disk, expanding individual tracks and dragging and dropping chord clips. The colors and names of the chord clips carry over into your composition. Excellent.

While Ableton Live comes with midi effect plug-ins, I find that having the chords and scales already printed and grouped into musically relevant banks suits a different work-flow.

If you use the session file and enjoy it, please consider making a donation to encourage me to make more of these types of things. Even $1 helps.

Download, unzip and enjoy!


  1. Thank you Sir.
    I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and hard work with us.

  2. wow, you are great. thanks a lot for this hard work! i love it!

  3. Dear sir,
    I strongly encourage you to place the donate button next to the zip file. It is not intrusive but natural.
    Thanks for your help and advice

  4. will do. thanks for the suggestions.

  5. I've donated. Love this. I have other apps that do it but having it as a drag and drop from Ableton menu is a god send. I will add it to my site and see if I can throw you some well deserved traffic.

  6. Am I missing something or are the chords for most of the minor keys wrong? ( I am a pretty big noob so I wouldn't doubt I am mis-interpreting here) For example, this site http://www.guitar-chords.org.uk/chords-key-b-minor.html and others state different chords for the key of B minor.

    Any ideas?

  7. Thanks a lot.
    I´ll use that for my next CD comin out.

  8. Nice work ! Thank you very much to share it :)

  9. Beautiful! Thanks a lot for the great work. Keep em coming!

  10. First off, yes. A tremendous amount of work...but I am wondering two things...
    1. Why are there 8 chords per key? Shouldn't there be seven based on the harmonized M/m scale? Also, why are they not ordered as such (chromatically?)
    2. Was there a decision just to put triads? IE no diminished or dominant 7s?


  11. Sick work...
    you really have created a monster!
    I'll share your page in forums.
    Donate! :)

  12. Tony,
    This is amazing. Do you have a version of this for the Reason platform?
    If not, where can I find something like this for Reason?

  13. Very cool effort. Can't wait to play with this.

  14. Very Cool and useful tool... thank you for taking the time to make it and then being selfless and sharing it with us...

  15. Thanks you very much for this great file ... it will help me a lot i am sure

    Thanks Man

  16. huge hugs and thanks, man! You are truly amazing and your work is appreciated!

  17. how can we open the file? Is there a specific software needed?

    1. the zip file? 7-zip, winrar, or built-in windows/osx decompression utilities should work. to use the ableton session, you'd need... ableton 7+. the included midi files can be opened in anything that reads midi.