Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part Two

In my previous article, I examined Boards of Canada’s chord progressions and discussed their use of fifth intervals to create emotionally ambiguous sounds. Fifth intervals are simple yet versatile, they can be combined and stacked in various ways, used to imply different chord types., and they can be played manually or triggered using single notes via creative oscillator tuning or sample layering.

Boards of Canada have a versatile discography covering diverse sounds and moods, and though many songs incorporate fifths significantly, it’s far from the only trick they use. When putting together the Boards of Canada Chord Theory article, I ended up with some much material and so many transcriptions that I decided to split it into two parts. 

The first part focused exclusively on fifths, while this second part explores additional concepts such as writing exclusively with major or minor chords, transposing set voicings, incorporating chromaticism, and examining how Boards of Canada create melodies and motifs over their unconventional chord choices.

This article can be viewed with either accompanying music notation or MIDI piano roll diagrams.

MIDI
boc theory

Major Chords // Heard from Telegraph Lines

In Part One, we saw that Boards of Canada like to write chord progressions by moving around simple fifths dyads – two notes played together that are seven semitones apart. A fifth interval has a harmonically ambiguous sound; it isn’t major or minor, and because they’re so consonant (not dissonant), they can be combined and stacked in lots of useful ways. Again, refer to Part One for all the fun you can have with fifths.

The concept of composing exclusively using one chord type isn’t restricted to fifth intervals. Let’s start by looking at Heard from Telegraph Lines, from the 2006 EP Trans Canada Highway. The chord progression is G | E | B, which are all major chords that don’t belong to any one scale. This progression also doesn’t settle on a single ‘home’ chord, so it’s hard to say what key the chords are in. The E and B chords suggest a key of E major or B major, both of which make the starting G major chord a non-diatonic chord.

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  • Heard from Telegraph Lines 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Note that the original recording is approx. 30 cents flatter than concert tuning.

Non-diatonic chords are chords from outside the established key, and they tend to have an interesting, mysterious sound that catches the ear of your listeners. They’re usually used mid-way through a progression as a ‘plot twist’, but starting on the outside chord leaves everything up in the air TK.

One thing that helps this chord progression work is that each chord is voiced with a B note on top. This helps to link the chords together and creates a sense of continuity throughout the progression, especially the outside chord. Common top notes are an example of voice leading, arranging the notes within chords so that they smoothly lead to the notes of the next chord.

Olson

Olson, from Music Has the Right to Children, features the same concept of using only major chords. The chords are E♭ | F | C – all major chords without an immediately obvious key. Taking the melody into account, the key is F major. That makes the starting E♭ a non-diatonic ♭VII chord. Like in Heard From Telegraph Lines, the first chord of the progression is the outside one, and two of the chords – F and C – share a top note of C that helps with voice leading.

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  • Olson Chords 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is approx. 50 cents sharper than concert tuning. 

Writing chord progressions like this is fun; limit yourself to a few major chords and see which ones sound interesting together, but crafting a melody that works over these odd-sounding chord progressions can be challenging; unlike entirely diatonic chord progressions, you can’t just use the root scale and trust that each note will work over each chord in the progression. In our Olson example, using the F major scale (F G A B♭ C D E) would cause a nasty-sounding clash if you played E over the E♭ chord. If you replaced this with an E♭, you’d get a nasty clash over the C chord, as it contains an E♮ note.

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  • Olson Clashes 00:00
boards of canada chord theory
The simplest approach is to limit your note choice when writing a melody. Oftentimes we don’t need to use all seven notes, and many memorable melodies are crafted from pentatonic scales, useful five-note scales. The major pentatonic scale contains the root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th, so it’s similar to the major scale but omits the 4th and 7th intervals.
boards of canada chord theory

The melody in Olson melody uses the F major pentatonic scale, which contains the notes F G A C and D. This conveniently omits the troublesome E note, so all five notes will work over all three chords, even the non-diatonic E♭ chord. Here’s what the melody sounds like, notice how even as the harmony shifts during the chord changes, the melody notes always sound right.

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  • Olson Melody 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Minor Chords // Everything You Do Is a Balloon

You could also choose to write a progression exclusively with minor chords, a trick utilised by Boards of Canada in Everything You Do Is a Balloon. If a progression comprises solely major chords, it can produce an intriguing or triumphant sound; conversely, if it consists entirely of minor chords, it creates a gloomy and downbeat atmosphere.

The Everything You Do Is a Balloon chord progression is Am | Cm | Gm | Am in the key of A minor. These chords are played using two-note voicings which include only the root and minor third. These voicings omit the fifth, but you can still call them minor chords as the minor third interval is all you need to produce the characteristic minor chord sound.

This progression was probably crafted by either tuning a synth oscillator up by +3 semitones or by recording a minor third interval into a sampler, as I explained in Part One. Either method allows these minor chord voicings to be triggered using a single note.

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  • Everything You Do Is a Balloon 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

1969

The track 1969 from Geogaddi was likely written using a minor chord sample, as certain pitch manipulation effects are present, and the identical chord voicing remains consistent throughout the progression. The chords are C♯m G♯m/C♯ | Em | F♯m | C♯m, with a home key of C♯ minor. This makes the Em chord the non-diatonic chord, and it’s a similar trick to the one heard in Everything You Do is a Balloon, a minor chord played a minor third above the starting minor chord. This creates a very gloomy sound, one that Depeche Mode are fond of using in their chord progressions.

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  • 1969 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is approx. 35 cents flatter than concert tuning. 

Guitar Shapes // Hey Saturday Sun

Moving a chord shape isn’t limited to samplers or synths – you can also move a consistent voicing around on a guitar, as heard in Hey Saturday Sun, a lazy-sounding, guitar-led song from The Campfire Headphase. The guitar part plays arpeggios using a simple three-note chord shape that starts on the 7th fret position. The chord shape is then moved to the 3rd fret position, then the 5th fret position, with an open string note staying the same for each chord.

This chord shape includes the 4th and 9th intervals, so I’ve notated them as sus4add9 chords, which is a bit of a mouthful, but they have a harmonically ambiguous sound because they don’t have a 3rd interval. Here’s what it sounds like played on keyboard:

Note that the Hey Saturday Sun guitar is tuned half-a-step flat. You can also play it by detuning the G string a half-step down to F♯ and moving all the chord notes down a fret.

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  • Hey Saturday Sun 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Guitar is tuned to E♭ standard tuning so original recording is a semitone lower than notated. 

Chromakey Dreamcoat

Chromakey Dreamcoat also uses a moving guitar shape, this time a sus2 chord, a chord that features the root, 2nd and 5th intervals. This chord type is a favourite of Boards of Canada that I mentioned in Part One, specifically the song Come to Dust. It’s voiced with two 5th intervals stacked on top of each other and is another harmonically ambiguous chord with no 3rd. The chord sequence in Chromakey Dreamcoat is B♭sus2 | G♭sus2 | E♭sus2, and is a repeating six-bar sequence:

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  • Chromakey Dreamcoat Chords 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Original recording is approx. 15 cents flatter than concert tuning. 

The melody introduced at 0:59 and heard more clearly at 3:28 showcases a second approach to melody writing, where a simple phrase is transposed with the chord sequence. The phrase uses three notes: the 2nd, 5th, and 6th intervals of the underlying chord. When the chord shifts down four semitones from Bsus2 to G♭sus2, the melody likewise moves down by four semitones. This creates a melody that smoothly fits over each chord, even during unexpected chord changes. Simpler motifs with more repetition tend to be more effective for this transposing technique.

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  • Chromakey Dreamcoat Lead 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Suspensions // Dayvan Cowboy

Dayvan Cowboy uses add9 chords, which are similar to the sus2 chords we saw in Chromakey Dreamcoat, but additionally featuring the 3rd interval, so the notes are R, 3rd, 5th, 9th. It’s worth noting that a 9th interval is essentially the same as the 2nd interval, but played one octave higher. Chord naming conventions in music theory can be confusing; for instance, you might play a sus2 chord with the 2nd interval one octave higher, yet it’s still referred to as a sus2 chord. Similarly, you can position the 9th interval in the lower octave of an add9 chord, but it’s still recognized and named as an add9 chord due to established naming conventions. Outside of jazz chords, 2nds and 9ths in chord symbols are mostly interchangeable.

In Dayvan Cowboy, the add9 chord is moved around in an F♯add9 | Aadd9 | Eadd9 | Badd9 progression. There’s no voice leading here, just the same voicing transposed up and down. The song is in B major, with the Aadd9 chord being a non-diatonic ♭VII chord, just as we previously saw in Olson. Here’s the chord sequence:

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  • Dayvan Cowboy 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Original recording is approx. 20 cents flatter than concert tuning. 

Dayvan Cowboy showcases another Boards of Canada melodic technique – the use of suspensions. The first melody is introduced at 2:40 and is played on a string synthesizer, and consists of a melodic passage that features sustained half notes, resulting in two notes being played over each chord. The melody starts with the notes B → A♯ played over the initial F♯ chord. The B is the fourth interval of the underlying F♯ chord, so it creates a sus4 sound, before moving down to the A♯ (the major third) to create the resolved sound. The same idea is repeated over the B major chord with the notes E → D♯ (4th to 3rd or B major).

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  • Dayvan Cowboy Lead 1 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The synth melody at 3:15 uses a descending three-note pattern comprising the notes D → C♯ → B. This motif is repeated with the first two notes raised a tone, so the notes are E → D♯ → B. This creates some interesting melodic colours over the underlying chords. Notably, the use of the note D over the F♯ chord represents a minor 6th interval, which may seem somewhat dissonant if sustained, but its role as a passing note, transitioning smoothly to a stable note (C♯, the fifth of F♯), creates a captivating sense of mystery within the melody.

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  • Dayvan Cowboy Lead 2 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Hi Scores

Hi Scores features some subtle but interesting major-to-minor chord movements; shapeshifting between the keys of F major and F minor. These are known as parallel keys; major and minor keys that share the same starting note. Crafting progressions that blend chords from these parallel keys offers a pathway to compose chord progressions with interesting harmonic turns—a technique that Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails frequently employs in his music.

The synth intro to Hi Scores keeps things harmonically vague by having only a single F note play for the first chord. In isolation, it looks like the song will be strictly in F minor. Notice how there’s another sus4 → major sound happening within the E♭sus4 | E♭ chords.

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  • Hi Scores Intro 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Original recording is approx. 10 cents sharper than concert tuning. 

The melody at 0:58 plays an A♮ note during the first two bars; it’s only a passing note, but it’s enough to create an F major sound. This contrasts with the A♭ in bars 3-4, which creates an F minor sound. This makes the full chord progression F | % | E♭sus4 | E♭. There’s also a D♭ played over the E♭sus4, which is also from the F minor scale.

This melody also features – you guessed it – another sus4 → major sound in the first two notes, B♭ → A. Between the melody and the chord sequence, you have a chromatically descending internal melody line of B♭ → A → A♭ → G.

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  • Hi Scores Melody 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Sherbet Head

Sherbet Head features chord inversions with a chromatically descending bassline to cleverly link some unusual chord choices. The upper chords are two-note dyads that roughly outline an F | A5 | E♭ | Bm chord progression. The first time around, the bassline descends chromatically stepwise through the notes F → E → E♭ → D. This turns the A5 and Bm chords into inversions, A5/E and Bm/D respectively. On the second repeat, the bassline plays C → A → G → B, turning the F and E♭ chords to inversions; F/C and E♭/G respectively.

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  • Organ 1 // Organ 2 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Original recording is approx. 25 cents sharper than concert tuning. 

The bassline enhances the chord progression in two ways, firstly by turning the two-bar chord idea into a more interesting four-bar sequence. Secondly, it helps to link the chords together, particularly the jump between the 2nd and 3rd chords, A5 to E♭, which is a b5 interval, unusual in chord progressions. This is not too dissimilar from the voice-leading ideas we saw at the beginning of the article, only here we’re arranging the bass notes of the chords instead of the top notes. The chromatically descending bassline idea is also a favourite of many musicians, including Daft Punk, who used it in Superheroes and Son of Flynn, both of which I’ve recreated on my Patreon page.

Turquoise Hexagon Sun

Turquoise Hexagon Sun is entirely about chromaticism and features a bare-bones arrangement, with much of the song consisting simply of the bass synth over drums. The bassline plays the notes F – E – G♭ – F, which are chromatic – F, a half-step below F, a half-step above F, and then back to F. There aren’t any full chords in Turquoise Hexagon Sun, which gives the melody a fair bit of freedom in its note choice – less chance of dissonant clashes. The opening melody uses notes entirely from the F minor scale, which fits the starting note of F, though leaves the E and G♭ bass notes as outside notes. Here’s what it sounds like:

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  • Turquoise Hexagon Sun Intro 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Original recording is approx. 30 cents sharper than concert tuning. 

The second melody that plays at 3:04 has some interesting ideas; it again starts strictly in F minor, however, in bar 6, it jumps outside of the F minor scale to play F♯ and B over the E root, which are chord tones from an Esus2 chord (like the chords in Chromakey Dreamcoat). Over the G♭ bass note the melody plays both the B♭ and the B♮, which work because they’re the major third and perfect fourth of G♭, the underlying implied chord. This is the reverse of the 4th → 3rd melodic idea we’ve seen previously. With the melodic colours outlined here, we could notate the chords Fm | Esus2 | G♭ | Fm.

This represents a third approach to writing melodies over non-diatonic chords, which is drawing notes from the underlying chord tones. It’s trickier to make it sound musical, but it sounds smooth when done effectively. One of the things that helps it work in Turquoise Hexagon Sun is the repeat of the two-note motif in bar 5 (F → A♭) in bar 6 (F♯ → B).

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  • Turquoise Hexagon Sun Lead 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Recap // MIDI Download

Whew, that’s all the analysis for this article! To recap, the techniques for writing melodies over non-diatonic chord progressions are:

  1. Use pentatonic scales which only contain 5 notes, letting you avoid note clashes.
  2. Transpose a motif along with the chord changes. If the chord moves down 4 semitones, transpose the motif down 4 semitones. Works especially nicely with repetitive phrases.
  3. Borrow chord tones from the underlying chords, even if they’re outside the scale you’re using, and weave them into the melody.
If you want to take a closer look at the chord progression examples used in this article, you can freely download the basic MIDI files below.

Download MIDI Files

Download the MIDI files for the musical examples in this article above. Note that you might need to rename the ‘.mid’ files to ‘.midi’ files, depending on which DAW you use.

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Read Part One

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part One article, which focuses on their trademark use of fifth intervals.

Read Me Next

For more 90s electronic breakdowns, check out my How Aphex Twin Created Selected Ambient Works 85-92 article, which looks at the sound design and production of a seminal electronic album.

Header artwork by Makarxart 

Published on February 7, 2024

Comments on Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part Two

1 thought on “Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part Two”

  1. Lovely.

    For fans of BOC, I highly recommend listening to Casino VS Japan’s debut album ‘Go Hawaii’ …. beautifully detuned and drifty.

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