How to Find the Chords that Belong to a Key

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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For a lot of songwriters, finding the chords that fit with a given key causes a mass of confusion. There are so many possibilities, it seems – which ones to use?

To be in a key means that the melody you’ve written, and the accompanying chords, all point to one certain note as being musically more important than the others. This note is called the tonic note. And it stands to reason that if you just throw any old chord in your progression, the tonic note can become obscured. It can feel like taking a walk, where every footstep goes in a random direction. You need to get things going more or less in one direction.

How we do that is probably simpler than you think. Here’s the process, using A major as a sample key.

The A-major scale is: A B C# D E F# G# A (A major uses 3 sharps, a C#, an F# and a G#).

Build a triad above each note of that scale. A triad is a 3-note chord comprised of stacked 3rds. For example, a triad built on A would be A C# E. A triad built on B would be B D F#, and so on.

Continue building triads above each note.

You’ve now got the seven chords which belong to the key of A major. They are:

A  Bm  C#m  D  E  F#m  G#dim

Does that mean that we can’t use other chords if our song is in A major? Of course not. That’s what makes music so interesting. These seven chords (and in particular, the A D and E chords) will be the ones you use the most. But music would be boring if we didn’t venture a little further afield.

Try some of these progressions, which feature chords other than the ones that come directly from A major. To start with, try two beats for each chord.:

A  Bm  A/C#  C  F  G  A

A  F#m  Bm  Dm  C#m7  Dmaj7  C#sus4  C#

A  Em  D  G  C  E  A

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:
Songwriting tips! Write Better Chords, Melodies and

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