As many of us are advised to stay home and are searching for feel-good music, what better time than now to explore house music? And this is not just because you’re supposed to stay in your house right now! House is one of the oldest and most popular genres of electronic dance music dating back to the late ‘70s. During its long history, house music has borrowed from all the other genres and has constantly morphed and adapted into subgenres such as deep house, electro house, tech house, French house, Dutch house, ambient house, micro house, Balearic, and more.

Check out the playlist below to hear how house music has evolved through the years:


Because of its crossbred origins, it can be hard to define exactly what makes a house tune, but some characteristics include a four-on-the-floor rhythm pattern and plenty of organ sounds. What we can determine is that house music has always been uplifting party music that brings people together to dance. And while we can’t enjoy house music in a traditional club or festival setting right now (though many house music DJs are spinning live on online platforms), I’m sharing some of the basic principles to help you make your own house music.  

These tips are pulled directly from my course Composing and Producing Electronic Music 1, where we spend three weeks focusing on the diatonic progressions, melody, and development of house music. To get started, you’ll need: 

  • A Digital Audio Workstation: Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, SONAR, FL Studio, or Cubase
  • Synthesizer
  • MIDI keyboard

Building Chords

Start by choosing a scale. Take a moment to improvise within the scale to get a feel for how it sounds and how it feels on the keyboard. Remember to be listening the whole time, as it is easy to fall into math instead of relying on your ear. How it sounds is what matters! Your decision is based largely on three factors: your personal taste, what scales you like to use, and what keys you like to work in. Think about the emotion you are trying to convey, because each scale has an emotional feeling to it. The norms of the style tend to fall within a limited range of keys and scales.

Frankie Knuckles was a DJ for the all-night parties at the Warehouse club in Chicago during the transition from disco to house. His use of the drum machine helped define what house music is today. “Baby Wants to Ride” with Jamie Principle shows much of the house-disco heritage including four-on-the-floor beat, open hats on the off-beat, and a funky bass line.

Don’t Use Diminished Chords

As you are building progressions, be aware of the diminished chord that is part of the major scale and all of its modes. In general you will want to avoid it. A diminished triad is rarely heard in electronic music due to its highly dissonant and unsettled nature. When building progressions avoid this triad by using the six other diatonic chords.

Voicings

Voicings are the way in which we set the octaves of the individual notes in our chord part. When the chords move in perfect coordination with the bass, the overall sound can be childish. By adjusting the octave of individual notes, you can create smoother movement within the progression and get a suitable amount of independence between the chords and the bass. Moments of contrary motion between the top voice and the bass are particularly sought after. Adjusting voicings can also help you create a longer phrase out of a repeated progression.

Wider “spread” voicings give an open spacious sound that can be desirable. Watch out with how low you put the 3rd of the chord. Remember that the 3rd of a chord is the most dissonant note in our triads, placing that note in a low register may give you a “muddy” sound overall.

Harmony

House harmony tends to be repetitive but can be quite interesting. House progressions often rely on traditionally popular progressions, so look to other tunes for inspiration for your progression. Progressions are freely shared and there really isn’t any “original” progression in this type of music, so feel free to borrow one that you love from another song. Everyone does it, and everyone is okay with it!


Daft Punk’s “One More Time” was able to reach beyond electronic music and become a mainstream hit. It features a constant four-on-the-floor beat, off-beat hats, and a catchy vocal phrase. They explore the technology of the time with heavily auto-tuned vocals in this track and have created a very loud mix with heavy compression. Like much of house music, this track uses a simple harmonic progression repeated for much of the track, but instead of a piano, catchy horn samples play the harmony.

If building diatonic progressions is new to you, take your time. With experience, it becomes easy but all the numbers and notes can be intimidating at first. Start by practicing a scale. Play it up and down until you have the sound in your head and the shape under your fingers. Then, start to explore the scale in more unusual ways and combinations. Often just by improvising within a scale, the harmony will just jump out to you. If you can’t explain what you are playing, that’s okay; let your ear be your guide. If it sounds right then it is right.

Chord Rhythm

Once you establish your harmonic structure, it is time to create a chordal element suitable for a house tune. Try to create your chord rhythm from a percussive rhythm that is already in your groove. It is good to have a consistent strong rhythm played on many instruments throughout your piece of music. This avoids confusing the listener and creates a piece that is easier to mix. 

Bass

The overarching goal here is to completely fill the spectrum. Because the chords have no energy below 100 Hz, there is room under the chords for two bass parts. Because bass is so crucial in house music, it is important to have separate control over the sub bass range that is below 80 Hz and the bass range that goes from 80 to 250 Hz. When composing the bass line, start with the roots of each chord. Like with voicings, sometimes it can be helpful to use a different chord tone as your bass note. This technique is called inversion. If you are using inversions, listen carefully to how they sound and make sure you like it. 


“Miami 2 Ibiza” by Swedish House Mafia is loud and bass-heavy, but not overpowering. Turn it up as loud as you want and it still sounds great, where some other tracks get harsh and piercing, this track just gets more and more powerful. It has huge builds featuring noise filter sweeps, drum fills, and careful control of the bottom end to also make those drops huge. The bass is heavy in this track, but somehow it stays out of the way of the kick.

Melody

Many house tunes develop a single simple melody for the whole tune. It only takes one strong melody to capture the audiences’ attention, but then how do you keep their attention? Layering: By changing the sound and layering the sound in many ways, you can make a simple idea interesting over and over again. 

Major keys are okay, and it’s alright to be a bit cheesy. Have fun with it, and make sure you have a smile on your face. After improvising for a while, walk away from the piano. Are you still humming the melody? If so, that is a good sign. Play your melody for some other people and observe their reactions. A smile is best, and if they walk away with a bounce in their step you know you are onto something. 

Countermelody 

It is quite common for a house tune to have two main melodies. When arranging the tune, one melody is introduced first. Then the second one is introduced without the first, and finally, in the big climax, both melodies are used together. By composing them all together and in different octaves the spectrum is totally filled with notes and we know it will all work together. You can attempt to give the countermelody a clear overall shape that is different from the first melody.

Focal House Rhythm

When creating a house rhythm, the grouping-of-three rhythm works very well. Try to create obvious phrases and repeated rhythmic motifs. Keep it simple! Employ syncopation regularly and leave space for the groove. Be aware of how often you hit at the same time as the kick drum and keep those to a minimum. Those moments when this focal rhythm hits with the kick drum will be perceived as important moments so place them carefully. Most importantly the groove and rhythm should work well together. Try to think of the focal rhythm as having a conversation with the groove.

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