Songwriting: Which Chords to Use, and When to Use Them

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Guitar chordAdding chords to a melody that you’ve already created causes a great deal of anxiety for some songwriters. For many, even if they know the seven chords that naturally exist within a key (by building triads on top of the scale notes of the song’s key), that doesn’t necessarily answer the question, how do I know which chords to use, and when to use them? Some chords, like the tonic (I) and dominant (V) get used a lot, while others less so. How does a songwriter figure all of this out?

There are several factors involved in harmonizing a pre-existing melody. First of all, remember that chords usually change in a regular pattern or frequency. For example, every 4 beats, or every 8. This is called harmonic rhythm. There’s no rule that governs how frequently chords should change, but in general, the faster the tempo, the longer you’ll want to keep a chord. Frequent chord changes while in a fast tempo has a way of making music sound unpleasantly frantic.

But how do you know which chords to use? Here are some tips for you to consider:

  1. Chords represent a musical journey away from and back toward the tonic chord. So you’ll likely find, particularly in a song’s chorus, that the tonic chord will happen more often than the others.
  2. You’ll also find that the dominant (V) chord and the subdominant (IV) chord are the chords that move most smoothly back to the tonic.
  3. Chords usually change on strong beats. So your song, which is likely to be in 4/4 time, will feel most natural if the chords change primarily on beat 1, and to a lesser degree on beat 3 of the musical bar.
  4. You can give your song a shot of energy by changing chords at times that are less expected, such as on beats 2 or 4. It amounts to a kind of harmonic syncopation, and can that unexpected location for chord changes can be exciting.
  5. To figure out which chords to use, look at the notes that occur primarily on the strong beats, and choose a chord that fits those notes best. A chord does not need to accommodate every note of the melody at any given time, but should work with most of the notes that happen on the strong beats.
  6. Increase the energy of your song by increasing the frequency of chord changes. While I mentioned earlier that changing from one chord to the next too frequently give songs a frantic, panicky feeling, it is also possible to use that characteristic to good effect. Songs that lag in energy can be given a lift by increasing how quickly you move on to the next chord.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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