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Adding chords to a melody that you’ve already created causes a great deal of anxiety for some songwriters. For many, even if they know the seven chords that naturally exist within a key (by building triads on top of the scale notes of the song’s key), that doesn’t necessarily answer the question, how do I know which chords to use, and when to use them? Some chords, like the tonic (I) and dominant (V) get used a lot, while others less so. How does a songwriter figure all of this out?
There are several factors involved in harmonizing a pre-existing melody. First of all, remember that chords usually change in a regular pattern or frequency. For example, every 4 beats, or every 8. This is called harmonic rhythm. There’s no rule that governs how frequently chords should change, but in general, the faster the tempo, the longer you’ll want to keep a chord. Frequent chord changes while in a fast tempo has a way of making music sound unpleasantly frantic.
But how do you know which chords to use? Here are some tips for you to consider:
- Chords represent a musical journey away from and back toward the tonic chord. So you’ll likely find, particularly in a song’s chorus, that the tonic chord will happen more often than the others.
- You’ll also find that the dominant (V) chord and the subdominant (IV) chord are the chords that move most smoothly back to the tonic.
- Chords usually change on strong beats. So your song, which is likely to be in 4/4 time, will feel most natural if the chords change primarily on beat 1, and to a lesser degree on beat 3 of the musical bar.
- You can give your song a shot of energy by changing chords at times that are less expected, such as on beats 2 or 4. It amounts to a kind of harmonic syncopation, and can that unexpected location for chord changes can be exciting.
- To figure out which chords to use, look at the notes that occur primarily on the strong beats, and choose a chord that fits those notes best. A chord does not need to accommodate every note of the melody at any given time, but should work with most of the notes that happen on the strong beats.
- Increase the energy of your song by increasing the frequency of chord changes. While I mentioned earlier that changing from one chord to the next too frequently give songs a frantic, panicky feeling, it is also possible to use that characteristic to good effect. Songs that lag in energy can be given a lift by increasing how quickly you move on to the next chord.
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