Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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The problem with developing a working set of chord progressions for your song can be learning how key and chord choices are related. Once you’ve determined the key of your song (which, if your theory is a bit rusty, will often (but not always) be the final note of your melody), it’s quite easy to come up with the chords that easily work. From there, it’s simple to add other ones.
Determining the key is important, because that bit of information will allow you to find the seven chords that naturally exist in that key. You’ll want to avoid creating a song where the chords simply sound like aimless wandering. This means choosing chords that focus in on a main “tonic” chord, especially in choruses.
Let’s use the key of A major as an example:
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#).
Now build 3-note chords above each note of the scale. Each chord, of course, is made up of “stacked 3rds”, using the scale notes as the bottom. 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
Those are the seven chords that exist naturally within A major. And as a starting point, it’s all many songs ever use. Here are three chord progressions that use the naturally-existing (also called “diatonic”) chords from A major:
A Bm A/C# C F#m E A
A F#m Bm D C#m Dmaj7 A
A E D Bm A/C# D E7 A
To these chord choices, you can start to add all sorts of altered chords. An altered chord is a chord that uses notes that don’t naturally exist within the key. For example, take a look at these chord progressions, similar to the ones above, but modified to include some altered chords:
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
The whole topic of chord choice covers a large area. It’s why many of my songwriting e-books deal with it in one way or another.
Getting chords to feel right can be the difference between songs that succeed and songs that fail. It’s worth it to consider using chord progression formulas to get your chords working properly.
There’s a tiny difference between songs that fail and songs that work. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” suite of songwriting e-books are designed to help you fix your songs!