There are no concrete rules for how a synthwave track should be arranged, or what chord patterns you should use. Some artists follow the classic pop song structure, while others have a less traditional arrangement style. That said, there are a few patterns that appear throughout synthwave time and time again. They do so because, when combined with neo-80s sound design, they’ll set you off on the right path. These patterns were common in 80s pop music, making them ideal for a synthwave arrangement.
Chord up in the 80s
A very typical chord pattern can be heard in College & Electric Youth’s A Real Hero ( bit.ly/CEYrealhero). The repeating pattern throughout the track is known as a I-vi-IV-V (or a 1-6-4-5), which are the chord numbers of the key you’re using (check out 234 for a more in-depth look at chords, scales and keys). In the key of C major, the chord pattern would be C-AmF-G major. It’s a classic pattern that instantly delivers a bit of dreamy pop. Also, try swapping the last two chords around to make the pattern C-Am-G-F (making it a I-vi-V-IV) for a slightly different feel.
Another typical pattern uses a minor key and moves between the I-VI-VII chords, as heard in FM-84’s Atlas ( bit.ly/FM84tears). In the key of A minor, this would make our chords A minor, G major and F major. If you’re looking for a trick that’ll get you a song structure laid out very quickly, these chords come in handy. You’ll often hear artists structuring their music in two main sections, almost like a verse and chorus. If we stick with the key of A minor, try using only the A minor chord for the verse. When you introduce the chorus, use F major as the first chord, then move to the G major, before finally coming back to the A minor.
Pedal to the metal
Arpeggiated patterns are staples of synthwave. If you want to kickstart a track, load in an arpeggiator with a suitable patch for an arpeggio (check out the Diva tutorial on the previous page) and play a chord pattern. As simple as this may sound, it’s a foundation of the genre, serving as both a rhythmic and melodic feature.
A popular technique is to use what’s known as a ‘pedal tone’ – put simply, a note which is held while the music changes around it. Try playing a note in the higher registers, then change the chords and bass beneath it. The trick is to find a note that sounds good across all your chords. You can also try the same thing with your bass – keep the same bass note, but change the chords over the top of it. The tonality of the pedal tone appears to alter as the music changes around it, giving a powerful and distinctly 80s feel.
For the dreamier side of synthwave, artists often employ suspended chords. These take the middle note of a major chord (called the third) and move it up or down one note of the major scale. So, instead of using the notes C-E-G in C major, try using C-F-G instead. This creates a suspended fourth – a chord that can be heard all over tracks like Timecop1983’s Faraway ( bit.ly/ TC83faraway). Combine these chords with a higher pedal tone, use a popular 80s pattern for your bass (like the previously mention I-vi-V-IV) and you’ll get a track started in no time!
“These patterns were common in 80s pop music”
Try suspended fourths, pedal tones and a few magic progressions to get a typical synthwave