Starting Songs With Non-Tonic Chords

One way to be creative with chords is to simply start on a chord other than the tonic.

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Carly Rae Jepsen - Call Me MaybeA tonic chord is the one that represents the key that your song is in. So if your song is in the key of G major, the tonic chord is G, and all the chords you choose will usually move away from and back to that chord. So it will seem to make sense to create various chord progressions for your song that start with the tonic chord. But you can create a pleasant sense of tension and energy by starting on non-tonic chords – a chord that isn’t the key chord.

A good recent example of this is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” The song starts with what’s termed an implied chord. That’s a chord that’s missing notes, but enough of it is there that we can tell what chord is being suggested. The plucked string motif at the beginning uses the notes D and G, so we get the strong sense of G major. And since it’s the only chord we’ve had to this point, we think of it as the tonic chord.

But at the entry of the voice, the chord switches to C, the IV-chord, also known as the subdominant chord. This creates a nice moment of musical tension, because we automatically expect to hear that G major chord return. That’s the power of a tonic chord.

So in a way, starting the main verse progression on the IV-chord entices people to keep listening. In music, tonic chords represent a feeling of arrival, a sense that that’s where everything is headed. In between tonic chords, listeners are conditioned to wait for that tonic.

In “Call Me Maybe”, we quickly realize that the Cmaj7 that starts the verse is not the tonic, because we’ve heard that implied G tonic chord before it (the plucked strings). But it’s also possible to start a progression without having given the real tonic at all. When you do that, listeners will think that the first chord is a tonic until they start to hear all the other chords, and they slowly come to the realization that the verse started elsewhere.

I’ve mentioned in several blog postings that it works well to have a verse that uses mainly minor chords, then switching to progressions in major for the chorus. In a way, that’s another example of what I’m talking about in this post: making your audience wait for the tonic.

If you’re interested in trying some verse progressions that start on chords other than the tonic, try these (all in C major). Experiment with different tempos and time signatures. Chords with dashes after them are ones you might want to consider holding longer than the others. Chords in parentheses are ones that sound like the start of the chorus:

  1. Bb  F  C—-  Bb  F  C—-  Dm  Em  Am—-  F  G  (C)
  2. Dm  Am  Dm  Am  F  G  C
  3. F  G  F  G  Am  Dm  Em—- (C)
  4. Em  Am  Em  Am  G/B  C  F  G  (C)
  5. F  G  Am  Bb  F  G  Am— (repeat) Dm  Em  F—- Em  F  G—- (C)

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

  1. Hi, Gary!

    I’ve written a song I believe to be in Gb (technically F, because I wrote it on a guitar tuned to Eb), and I believe the progression to be in a IV – V – I – III format.

    The chords are as follows:
    B7sus2, C#m7, Gb5, Amaj7

    I chose to play the open fifth for what I assume to be the tonic chord, because at one point in the song, I mess with the melody to alternate between Gb minor and Gb major.

    The III chord in the progression (A) alternates between A6sus2 and Amaj7.

    Here are the exact expressions of the chords on guitar:

    Tabs
    7 x 7 6 x x
    x 4 x 4 5 x
    2 x 4 6 x x
    5 x 4 4 x x –> 5 x 6 6 x x (x2)

    Notes
    B2 A3 C#4
    C3 B4 E4
    Gb2 Gb3 Db4
    A2 F#3 B3 –> A2 G#3 C#4 (x2)

    Am I assigning the correct key and progression to this song (Gb; IV – V – I – III)?

    If so, can you think of other popular songs which follow the IV – V – I – III progression? I searched and shuffled songs in my head, but I couldn’t find or think of any.

    • Hi Carter – I just have a spare moment right now to take a quick look and in a couple of days I’ll have a bit more time. When I play through your progresion I hear C# minor as the key, with the C#m7 acting as a tonic with an added 7th. That being the case, I hear the progression as VII7 – i – iv – VI. But I’ll have more time in a couple of days to give this a closer look.

      Cheers,
      -Gary

      • Thanks! I’m by no means a theory person, but I’d like to have a better understanding of my own songs. I just write what sounds good to me.

      • I should add that in another arrangement of the song I wrote for solo performances, incorporating the base line, the Gb5 is actually just a an inverted major chord (I’m unsure how chord naming in the context of a given key works, so please forgive me if I’m getting wrong). So it’s not an open fifth after all, but rather its an Gb/Bb expressed:

        6 x 4 6 x x
        or
        Bb2 x Gb3 Db4 x x

  2. I’m writing a song, with chords that starts and ends on Cminor, making this the tonic chord,
    but the key that suits the best is Gminor, due to the amount of F chords modulations. Do I keep the key in Cminor and have a bunch of accidentals, or do I keep in Gminor, though its not the tonic chord?

    • Hi Annalie:

      I could probably be more of a help if you give me the chord progression you’re thinking of. Keep in mind that it’s possible to start and end a progression on a non-tonic chord, so starting and ending on C minor doesn’t necessarily mean that the progression is in C minor. It really depends on which other chords are in the progression.

      Let me know the progression, and I’ll give you my thoughts on what key it is implying.

      -Gary

  3. Dear, Gary:

    I was wondering, could I use any of the other chords such as the supertonic, mediant, dominant, etc in the beginning of a verse?

    Sincerely,
    Sean

    • Hi Sean:

      If you mean that you want to start your verse on something other than a tonic (I) chord, then yes, by all means. Lots of songs do it, and The Beatles’ “All My Loving” is a good example. I’ve written about this in previous posts, and so you may want to read this one, “Starting Songs With Non-Tonic Chords.”

      Hope that helps!
      -Gary

      • Hi again, Gary

        Thank you again for a good response! You’re an amazing writer and I love your work.
        You are officially my go-to guy if I wonder about something. I honestly feel my work has become even better by gathering some more additional reading from you besides my books.

        Keep up the good work.

        Sincerely, Sean

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