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If choosing chords is a random process for you, where you keep searching for the three or four that are going to sound good to your ears, you’re wasting a lot of time that could otherwise be spent creating imaginative music that really works.
There’s nothing random (usually) about chords that work well together. Simply take the 7-note scale indicated by the key of your song, play 3-note triads where each note of the scale is the root of those chords, and you’ve got seven chords that will work well together.
Beyond that, you’re getting into the interesting realm of altered chords. An altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally belong to your chosen key. In music theory terms, you’re using an altered chord if there’s a sharp or flat that’s not from your song’s key, or if a note is natural when you expect it to be either sharp or flat. So playing an F chord in the key of G major is an altered chord, because the form of F you find in G major is F#.
It’s the issue of altered chords where music can sometimes lose its cohesion. Altered chords are fine, but there are some important guidelines to keep in mind:
- Songs are short, so adventurous chord progressions need to get back to the tonic chord. A verse progression may give you lots of opportunities to use altered chords, but remember that you’ve got a chorus coming up, and that chorus is most likely going to feature the tonic chord prominently. So a wandering verse chord progression needs to abandon those altered chords and get back solidly in the song’s key before the chorus happens.
- Strengthen progressions by looking at the roots of the chords. In music, nothing strengthens a chord progression like the root movement of a 4th or 5th. So if you like that sound of an F in the key of G major, try following it with a chord whose root is a 4th or 5th away, something like: G F C G. That makes the altered chord sound like it has an important use, rather than just randomly appearing.
- Keep chorus progressions short and strong. You’ll notice in many songs, especially in the pop genres, that the chorus progressions are short — 4 chords or so — and they’re rooted solidly in the key. So while your verse progression often wanders about (G F C D Em Am C D….), the chorus progression gets short and to the point: G C Am D G.
- Allow bridge progressions to explore the opposite mode before returning to the original key. Most songs do this: if the song is in G major, you’ll hear the bridge start on a minor chord, either Em or Am. For a while, it will sound as though it might have actually changed key, but in the final 4 bars of the bridge you’ll hear things moving strongly back to the original key of G major.
- Try working out an entire melody, or even just parts of it, and then thinking of the chords that might go with it. This kind of melody-first writing will give you great ideas for how the chords should change. By working out the melody first, you come up with the part that listeners remember – the tune – and your chords will start to make a lot more sense.
The danger of chords-first writing is that once you’ve got a chord progression that works, you’ve got to create a catchy melody to go with it, and that can sometimes lead to melodies that seem shapeless or unremarkable, leaving the audience with little to hook them.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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