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Choosing Song Chords That Work Well Together

Improvising chords doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know a bit of theory.


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Recently I took a look around online to see the kinds of questions that people are asking about songwriting, specifically about chord progressions. I continue to be astonished by the suggestion from more experienced songwriters that the only way to choose a chord progression is to just noodle around until you hear something you like.

Having said that, there is a bit of truth to that. The wrong bit is the implication that songwriting, and chords in particular, is a completely random thing, where you’ll eventually stumble upon something that works if you’re patient enough. The right bit is that your ears should be the final arbiter of what gets used in a song, and what gets tossed.

The “noodle-’til-you-hear-something-good” advice usually comes from songwriters who aren’t sure of the specific reasons why something sounds right while something else doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with improvising your way to a catchy chord progression. But knowing where you are (with respect to chords, key, etc.) and randomly improvising need not be mutually-exclusive activities.

If you’re trying to find chords that work nicely together, try the following approach. It involves figuring out the key of your song first. That can be beneficial because once you know the key, you’ll have instant knowledge of several chords that will work nicely together. It doesn’t mean you must use those chords; improvising and noodling around do have a place in good songwriting. But systemizing things a bit will help direct your improvising, and you’ll be able to put interesting chord progressions together rather quickly.

  1. Try to determine the key of your song. If you’re starting a song with chords, then the key is up to you. Whether you find that there is one chord you keep coming back to, or you simply want to designate one chord as the “home” (tonic) chord, choosing the key will be a great way to begin. (This blog article might help.)
  2. Find the seven chords that exist naturally in that key. For example, if you choose C major, the seven chords are: C(I), Dm(ii), Em(iii), F(IV), G(V), Am(vi), Bdim(vii). That list is, of course, transposable to any key. (If you want to see a list of several keys that someone has already created, try this link.) If you chose a minor key such as C minor, the seven chords are: Cm(i), Ddim(ii), Eb(III), Fm(iv), G(V) (or Gm(v), Ab(VI), Bb(VII).
  3. Start improvising with those seven chords. In most tonal music (i.e., music that’s “in a key”), you’ll notice that the I, IV and V chord will get used the most. Next most common will be the ii and vi, followed by iii, with the vii chord probably least used.
  4. Add to your list by considering different types of altered chords. An altered chord is simply one that doesn’t belong naturally to a key. The most likely choices for major key songs will be “flattened” chords such as Flat-III (Eb in the key of C major), Flat-VI (Ab) and Flat-VII (Bb). You can also choose modal mixture chords, secondary dominant chords, etc. If you’d like to see a page that shows various kinds of altered chords and how to use them, check out this page.

Yes, it’s a good idea to let your ears be your guide, but that should never mean that giving yourself some knowledge of how and why chords work the way they do isn’t a good thing. By following the steps above, you’ll find that you can still do a great deal of improvising while making your chords sound well-structured and musically strong. Your ears are always the final judge.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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