Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Every major key has seven chords that occur naturally in that key. Of those ones, three or four of them are used more than the others. For example, in A major, these 7 chords exist naturally: A Bm C#m D E F#m G#dim. Of those, you know you’re going to use A D and E the most, followed by Bm and F#m. C#m is used less frequently, and G#dim less so. But if you really want to affect the mood of your song and make an impression on your listeners, try using altered chords.
An altered chord, quite simply, is a chord that doesn’t naturally exist within a given key. In other words, to put it in music theory terms, you’d need to be adding accidentals in order to create them.
The great thing is that you can use altered chords even without being able to read music. There are certain types that are more common than others. Here are some standard altered chords, with examples for each:
- Modal Mixtures. A modal mixture (also called a “borrowed chord”) takes a chord that normally exists in the minor version of a key, and uses it in a major key. For example, in A major, you’d normally get a D major chord as your IV chord. So try D minor instead. It gives a nice, melancholy feel to your progression. Here are some examples:
– A Dm E A
– A D Bdim E F#m
– A C D E A
- Flat VII Chords. A flat-7 is created by finding the note a whole tone lower than the key you’re in, and creating a major chord on that note. (Technically, it’s also a kind of modal mixture). They add a darker, stronger feel to the end of a progression:
– A D G A
– A D F#m G A
– A E Bm G A
- Augmented 6th Chords. The theory behind this chord is a little advanced, so I’ll skip the technical description, and give you this suggestion: Go to the 6th note of a major scale, lower it by 1 semitone, then build a 7th chord on that note. So in the key of A major, the 6th note is F#. Lower it by 1 semitone and you get F. So F7 is the correct Augmented 6th chord. It usually moves to the V chord (E). So here’s a progression that shows the standard way of using it:
– A D F#m F7 E A
Keep in mind that this kind of chord can also be used to change key, since F7 also moves nicely to Bb. So you can use what starts out as an augmented 6th chord, and then “redefine it” to be a modulating chord that moves to Bb major:
– A D F#m F7 Bb
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