Identifying the melody notes that happen on strong beats will help you identify the chords that work.
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One of the advantages of working on a song’s melody as a starting point in the songwriting process is that it allows you to concentrate on that part of a song that people are most likely to remember. After all, people don’t usually hum chord progressions, and they’re only going to think of lyrics if they’re also thinking of the melody that goes along with those words.
The truth is that as you work out a melody, possible chords are already being implied. So how do you choose the chords that will satisfactorily harmonize that melody? Here’s a step-by-step process for creating a chord progression that will work with your melody.
- Determine the key of the melody. You may be noodling around on some chords as you create your melody, so perhaps the key is becoming obvious already. In any case, you’ll find that the tonic note (i.e., the key note) is often the last note of your melody, and very often the first few notes are moving in and around the tonic note. You may have to play through your entire melody to be sure, but eventually, you’ll notice one note that seems to be a kind of “target”, the note that sounds “final.” That’s the note that will act as the tonic.
- Write down the seven chords that exist naturally in that key. You do this by writing out the scale, and then building a chord above every note of that scale. For example, if Adele had used this method for “Rolling in the Deep“, she would have identified the key as C minor, and would have written: Cm Ddim Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb. If P!nk had done this for “Just Give Me a Reason“, she would have identified the key as G major, and would have written: G Am Bm C D Em F#dim.
- Work out a simple, strong progression that accompanies the melody. This is going to be the step that’s the trickiest, so here are some suggestions:
- Consider the I-chord to be the most important one, where many or most of your progressions will either start with or return to that chord.
- Remember that strong progressions feature a root movement of 4ths and 5ths between adjacent chords. So (in G major) you’ll see lots of G-D, D-G, C-G, G-C, etc. In other words, lots of I, IV and V chords.
- Branching out from the I, IV and V chords, the next tier of chords will include ii, vi, and iii-chords, with the vii-chord being used the least.
- Isolate the notes that happen on strong beats. Those notes need to work with the chord you choose. In “Rolling in the Deep”, the first note is a G, but Adele chose Cm as her chord. That’s because of point 1 above: the tonic chord is most important. In “Just Give Me a Reason”, the first note is a B, but P!nk chose G as her chord.
So simply start your melody, and find ways to make the tonic chord to feature prominently. In “Just Give Me a Reason”, the opening progression (in G major) is: G C Em C. In “Rolling in the Deep”, the opening progression (in C minor) is: Cm Gm Bb Cm
If your progression starts to sound chaotic or complex, such that your melody sounds like it is wandering aimlessly, you need to tighten up the focus back onto the tonic chord. Any time a progression sounds “weird”, it simply means that the tonic chord is not being used in a strong position. Look at the roots of adjacent chords, and move back to using chords whose roots move by 4ths and 5ths.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, which includes “Chord Progression Formulas”, a great way to create dozens of progressions in any key.