by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
If you’re one of the melody-first writers out there, I applaud you. Writers who work on getting the melody right first have a greater chance of coming up with something that will stay in the listeners’ minds. But how do you add chords? Here’s three easy steps that will get your melody and chords working together.
Before going through the steps, you need to know that chord progressions follow certain traditional patterns, and it’s important not to stray too much from these patterns, or formulas. For example, there’s a reason why C F G C works so well, while C B G F7 is confusing. What works, and why, is actually beyond the scope of this article. But please keep reading, because it can help clear up some of the mystery for you.
1. Find the time signature and basic pulse of your melody. You’ll find that it’s likely to be a 4-beat-per-bar melody (i.e., 4/4 time), or possibly 3-beats per bar. You can find this easily by simply singing your song and tapping your foot. If you feel a strong beat every two beats, with a weak or imagined beat between each foot tap, it’s 4/4 time. If you feel that every third foot-tap is strong, it’s 3/4 time. In 4/4 time, you’ll want to consider a chord change every 2, 4 or 8 beats (or more.)
2. Choose the key of your song. You’ll want to use the range of your voice as the primary determining factor. Keep in mind that placing the song high in pitch often increases the songs’s energy, so key and vocal range are important choices to make. (All songs can be transposed, but for the purposes of choosing chords, you’ll need to settle on a key.
3. Determine chord choices based on the notes in your melody. Let’s say that you’ve chosen to change chords every two beats; take a look at the first two beats of your song. If your song uses quarter notes (i.e., mainly changes notes on every beat) you’ll want to look at the first two notes. Find a chord that uses both these notes. The good thing is that there are usually several choices, and that’s what can keep your progressions sounding fresh.
Now you’ll want to proceed through your melody, changing chords mainly every two beats. Here are some things to keep in mind:
1. How often you change chords is called the harmonic rhythm. You should choose a harmonic rhythm, but don’t feel the need to stick ridgedly to it. Changing it up once in a while keeps the song from being over predictable.
2. While you want to look at every two beats (or four, or whatever you’ve chosen), keep in mind that your chord choices should follow a sensible pattern. As I said at the beginning, there’s a reason that C F G C works. Most melodies will want to be harmonized by starting on the I-chord (tonic chord), and will probably want to end there. In between, don’t stray too far from the “beaten track”, or you risk losing your audience.
3. Listeners remember chord patterns as much as they remember good melodies, so you should strongly consider using the same chords every time that same melodic fragment shows up.
4. Chords do not have to be overly creative. Some of the best songs in the world use very simple progressions. Remember this: a simple progression that works is far better than a complicated progression that leaves a listener scratching their head.
I’ve written several e-books about chord progressions, formulas, and how to harmonize melodies. Check the Online Store to see if any of them might answer your questions. (Right now “Chord Progressions Formulas” is part of a free promotion in the Online Store.)