Identifying Chords that Work Well Together

all_10_newJan_smSometimes all you really need is to get some chords that work, and to learn how to add chords to the melodies you’ve written. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle packages tell you everything you need to know, and give you hundreds of progressions that will get your songwriting back on track. More..

Pianist playing a chordIf you are a chords-first kind of songwriter, this has probably happened many times to you: you find a nice couple of chords, like C and Dm. You play them back and forth, but then you wonder: what other chords would go well with those two? Other than random searching with your guitar or keyboard, is there any way to know how and why some chords work so well together while others don’t?

For the vast majority of music you’ll encounter in the pop genres, music is in a key, and identifying that key will tell you the seven chords that exist naturally within that key. Here’s a bit more about how that works:

If you know your scales, you’ll know that every scale has seven notes. If your thinking in C major, the seven notes are: C-D-E-F-G-A-B.

Those seven notes represent the roots of seven chords, all of which exist naturally in the key of C major. These chords are triads – 3-note chords that consist of a root, a 3rd, and a 5th. So a C chord is comprised of the notes C-E-G.

If you continue up the scale and build triads on top of each of the notes of a C major scale, you’ll get:

  • C: C-E-G
  • Dm: D-F-A
  • Em: E-G-B
  • F: F-A-C
  • G: G-B-D
  • Am: A-C-E
  • Bdim: B-D-F

You’ll notice that the C chord is major, the chord built on D is minor, the chord built on E is minor, and so on. In fact, for any major key, the chord built on the first note of the scale will always be major; the chord built on the second note will always be minor, etc.

So if you’ve identified the key of your song you’re working on as being in, let’s say, D major, you can know right away the seven chords that will exist naturally within that key, as long as you know the notes of a D major scale. Those chords are: D Em F#m G A Bm C#dim.

If you need help identifying the key of your song, give this article a read.

That article will also give you ideas for other chords that go beyond the seven naturally-existing chords. It will give you advice for how to use various types of altered chords, such as Flat-VI, Flat-VII, minor-iv, and so on.

The advantage to knowing this is that choosing chords will become much more systematic. It will save you time as a songwriter, since you don’t have to go on a random chord hunt looking for the ones that will work well together.

Keep in mind, however, that none of this is meant to tell you that you can’t use whichever chords you’d like. In that regard, you should always let your ears be your guide. It can be fun to go exploring through the very large palette of chord possibilities, and you’ll stumble on some interesting gems from time to time.

But if you want to get going quickly with some chords that work, identifying the key and finding the seven naturally-occurring chords for that key is a great way to work.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter 

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    • Hi Michael – This post will tell you which chords work well together from a theory point of view, but if you want something that pertains more to ease of play on a keyboard, you probably need to find a beginner keyboard site.


    • Hi Marcel:

      Yes, the same structures exist for those chords no matter what key (major or minor) you use. You can write a minor scale out and then create triads above each note of the scale. That would give you:

      Cm, Ddim, Eb, Fm, Gm (or G), Ab, Bb

      Hope this helps,

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