Neo Soul or sometimes called Progressive Soul is a popular genre that incorporates elements from funk, jazz, RnB, hip hop, and even EDM. In this article, I will show you how you can build your own neo soul chord voicings and chord progressions from scratch. You can download all these chord progressions by subscribing to our newsletter!
First, let’s start with the basics so you can understand how to build the chord voicings. But what are chord voicings? There are several ways to play or arrange a certain chord, and this is what we call chord voicings. I see some videos in which people are playing these chords, but they are playing them in a very unprofessional way. Today, you will learn how to arrange the chords the pro way.
We will go into the basics of jazz music theory because neo soul chords are very jazzy chords. This might be a little bit too much information at first, but I promise that it will come naturally after some practice.
Neo Soul songs utilize extended chords. What are extended chords? They are the 9, 11, and 13 chords. These chords make songs sound jazzy. Let’s see how you can build extended chords from scratch. First, we have the triad. The root note, the third, and the fifth. We build chords by using every second note on a scale. So the next chord tone is the seventh. Everything above the seventh chord is an extended chord. So ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to use 13th chords all the time, these are just possibilities. Many musicians make the mistake of using too many chords tones all the time because they believe that it will make their music better. No, more chord tones don’t necessarily make music better. It’s a very rookie mistake to believe that. Use whatever sounds good for you in that situation. Sometimes it’s perfectly enough to play only seventh chords or ninth chords. The most important thing is to listen to how it sounds.
You can build any extended chord with this same method, adding every second note from the scale. But you have to know that the perfect eleventh note doesn’t sound good with major chords! So if the chord is a major seventh or a dominant seventh chord, we either omit the 11th note, or alter it to #11. Just play these chords, and listen to the first one. It really doesn’t sound good.
Now, this was the theory to build the chords. Not that hard, right? But in reality, no professional musician plays chords like this. So now you will learn how to play chords the professional way. First of all, in real life, we play these jazzy chords as shell chords. What are shell chords? It simply means that we don’t have to play all the chord tones!
No matter how many chord tones you have, there are only three essential chord tones in ANY chord. The root, the third, and the seventh. Any other chord tones are non-essential because these three notes determine the chord, especially the third and the seventh. For example, a major third and a minor seventh chord tone give us a dominant seventh chord. A minor third and a minor seventh chord tone give us a minor seventh chord.
The fifth chord tone doesn’t add any value, so we can omit that chord tone. (Except if it’s altered, but we will get to that later.) The 9th, 11th, 13th notes are only “decorations”, giving extra color to the chords, but they don’t change the base of the chord. The root note is usually played by the bass, so we can also omit that chord tone, or if you play the keyboard, you can play the root note with your left hand in the bass range.
Secondly, we play chord notes in clusters, which is just a fancy way of saying they are close to each other. What you see on the left side here is the amateur way of playing extended chords, and professional musicians are playing chords as you can see on the right.
But how did one become the other? Take a look at the picture below. You can see a chord, and you can see a scale. What’s the difference between the two?
Here is a secret: there is no difference. The chord and the scale are the same things. So you need to think about the scale as chord tones. The first note of the scale is the root, the second note is the 9th, etc. You need to memorize the scale as chord tones for each chord.
So if you play the notes of the scale at once, you are actually playing the chord. And we already know that we can omit the root note and the fifth.
Of course, this is just an example, and you can experiment with different voicings, and as I mentioned, you don’t necessarily need to use ALL the possible chord tones. Sometimes fewer chord tones sound better. It depends on the situation.
There is one more thing that makes your chords sound jazzy, altering some chord tones. I promise it’s not too complicated because there aren’t many opportunities for altering. Altering a chord tone means that we lift it up a half note (#) or bring it down a half note (b). We can only alter the 9th, the 5th, and the 11th chord tones.
Dominant seventh chords. You have the most opportunity with these chords. You can use #5, b9, #9, and #11. And of course a combination of these together. Again, you don’t need to use all possible alterations. One of the best combinations is the C7(#9#5) chord (C – E – G# – Bb – D#)
Mino seventh chords. The only alteration you can use in the case of minor seventh chords is the b5, for example, Dm7b5 (D – F – Ab – C). You cannot use #11, b9, or any other alterations.
Major seventh chords. There isn’t much opportunity for alteration with these chords either. The best sound can be achieved with the #11, like C#11 (C – E – G – B – D – F#). By the way, this chord can be used to write songs in the Lydian mode.
Know the Keys
It’s extremely useful to know how to build chords fast in all the 12 keys. This might seem like a big deal at first, but it really comes naturally after some practice. This is important because many neo soul chord progressions utilize borrowed chords that are chords from other keys, so it’s very practical to be flexible about this. One of the ways you can get routine in this is by playing the following chord progressions in all 12 keys. It will be hard at first, but it will become very easy after some practice.
New Soul Chord Progressions
You can build a song by using only two chords. If those two songs fit together, then you really don’t need more chords. Listen to songs from Erykah Badu, they really don’t have many chords in those songs. First, let’s play some major seventh chords. The first one is a “IVmaj7” and a tonic “Imaj7” chord in the key of C major. You can experiment with any chord voicing you want, based on what we have learned so far. And keep in mind, even though I only indicate the seventh chord, you can always add any extended chord tones to these chords. In fact, in the MIDI tracks, I use extended chords, even though you will see only seventh chord symbols here in the article.
Fmaj7 – Cmaj7
IVmaj7 – Imaj7
Staying within the key of C major, using only diatonic chords, we can make a different sound by using the IIm7 chord then going to the tonic “I” chord again. The IIm7 chord is actually a substitution for the IV, they are both subdominant chords.
Dm7 – Cmaj7
IIm7 – Imaj7
The next two-chord example is the bIImaj7 and the Imaj7. This is also in the key of C major, but the first chord is a borrowed chord that we borrow from another key.
Dbmaj7 – Cmaj7
bIImaj7 – Imaj7
In this next two-chord example, we utilize a sus7 chord, which has a smooth sound and brings some tension which is resolved with the tonic “I” chord. Again, the first chord is a borrowed chord from another key, so we are still in the key of C major.
Bbsus7 – Cmaj7
bVIIsus7 – Imaj7
Chord progressions don’t always have to include the tonic “I” chord. So we can make chord progressions that never resolve to the tonic. One of the most commonly used cadences in jazz is the IIm7 – V7 chord progression. This cadence can be used in many different situations.
Dm7 – G7
IIm7 – V7
Another variation of this cadence is if we alter some chord tones. The previous cadence is mostly used in a major key, but the altered version sounds better in a minor key.
Dm7b5 – G7(#9#5)
IIm7b5 – V7(#9#5)
You can use these previous chord progressions without going to the tonic, but any of those cadences can be resolved to the tonic “I” if we want to use three chords in our song. For example:
Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7
IIm7 – V7 – Imaj7
Bm7b5 – E7(#9#5) – Am7
VIIm7b5 – III7(#9#5) – VIm7
This next example is kind of a variation of the previous one, even though it looks very different. In the songwriting course, I show you how you can create these kinds of variations with any chord progression. In this case, we are using two borrowed chords. The second chord can be a sus7 chord, as in one of the previous examples.
Fm7 – Bbsus7 – Cmaj7
IVm7 – bVIIsus7 – Imaj7
Another variation of the previous minor cadence is if we substitute the first chord, which is a subdominant chord, with a major IV, like this:
Fmaj7 – E7 – Am7
IVmaj7 – III7 – VIm7
Adding one more chord, we can make chord progressions that contain four chords. We can start from some of those previous cadences. For example, the jazzy IIm7 – V7 – Imaj7 cadence can be continued with the VI chord.
Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7 – A7
IIm7 – V7 – Imaj7 – VI7
One variation of the previous minor cadence is if we substitute the IImb5 chord with the IV. There are two borrowed chords in this chord progression, the II7, and the III7 chords, although the latter is the main dominant of the minor key. You can also start this chord progression from the VIm7 chord, it will still sound good.
Fmaj7 – E7 – Am7 – D7
IVmaj7 – III7 – VIm7 – II7
Am7 – D7 – Fmaj7 – E7
VIm7 – II7 – IVmaj7 – III7
This next chord progression is very similar to the previous one, but there is one chord that is different. The last chord is the tonic “I” which became a dominant seventh chord, so it’s a borrowed chord. This chord progression is actually used in the song “Just The Two Of Us” by Bill Withers and “Thank U Next” by Ariana Grande.
Fmaj7 – E7 – Am7 – C7
IVmaj7 – III7 – VIm7 – I7
Create your own
When it comes to jazzy, neo soul chord progressions, the possibilities are almost endless. It’s good to know these basics that we have discussed here, but you can really create your unique sound if you know how to utilize all 12 notes to build your own, unique chord progressions. In our songwriting course, I show you a very powerful hack of how you can utilize all 12 notes as a root note for your chord progressions, even if you stay within one key! While some of these chord progressions look like total chaos, there’s actually a system in it which becomes simple once you understand it.
The secret pattern behind successful songs
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About the Author
Producer, songwriter at Bánhidy András, and Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of The Rhythm Code.