Organizing Chords To Help You Compose Songs

Every key has seven chords that exist naturally within that key. And they’re easy to find. First, take any key (C major, for instance), and play a chord that uses each note of the scale as a root. To know if you should be playing a major, minor or diminished chord, follow this simple guide that uses the key of C major as an example:

  1. Play a major chord above note no. 1 (C major chord uses: C-E-G) (I)
  2. Play a minor chord above note no. 2 (D minor chord uses: D-F-A) (ii)
  3. Play a minor chord above note no. 3 (E minor chord uses: E-G-B) (iii)
  4. Play a major chord above note no. 4 (F major uses: F-A-C) (IV)
  5. Play a major chord above note no. 5 (G major uses: G-B-D) (V)
  6. Play a minor chord above note no. 6 (A minor uses: A-C-E) (vi)
  7. Play a diminished chord above note no. 7 (B diminished uses: B-D-F) (viiø)

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You can create a similar list in a minor key. When you do that, you’ll find that the first chord (i) is a minor chord; the ii-chord is diminished; the III-chord is major; the iv-chord is minor; the v-chord is also minor (though often adjusted to be major); the VI-chord is major; and the VII chord is also major.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re limited to using those seven chords when you write songs. That simply gives you a list of the diatonic chords — the ones that exist naturally.

There are lots of other kinds of chords: modal mixtures, secondary dominants, and so on. But for now, let’s just stick with the diatonic chords, because those chords will form the basic core of every song you’ll write.

So you have seven chords. But as you start to look at chord progressions for well known songs, the kind that make it to the top of the charts, you’ll notice that they don’t get used to the same extent.

You’ll notice that in the key of C major, for example, the I-chord (C), the V-chord (G) and the IV-chord (F) are used more often than the others. And when you think of typical 3-chord songs, it’s those three chords — C – F – G — that they’re talking about. (“Hound Dog”, for example)

After those three, the next chord in frequency of use is the vi-chord (Am) and then the ii-chord (Dm). Em is used to a lesser degree, and the diminished chord (Bdim) is quite rare.

Organizing Those Seven Chords

So what do you do to create songs using those seven chords? It’s best to think of the chords as being in one of two possible categories:

Primary Chords: C   F   G

Secondary Chords: Dm  Em  Am  Bdim

Primary chords are ones that make the key of the song very apparent. Play around with C, F and G, and you’ll hear what I mean. A secondary chord simply moves slightly further afield.

There are any number of ways to use those two lists when creating progressions for songs, but here’s one you might find very useful. It is based on thinking of how secondary chords can replace primary ones. Here’s how that works.

The chart below shows a simple chord progression made up entirely of primary chords: C  G  F  G. Beneath that progression of primary chords you’ll see possible substitutes. Those substitutes were chosen based on the fact that they use many of the same pitches you’ll find in the primary chords. For example, Dm makes a nice substitute for F, because it has two notes in common: the F and the A.

Here’s the chart:

Primary and Secondary Chords

So simply do the following:

  1. Play through the primary chord progression several times, improvising a rhythmic pattern or approach.
  2. Start to add in substitutes for primary chords one at a time, and make note of the ones you like.
  3. Mix and match… there’s no one right way to do this. You can even substitute all the original chords if you like the sound.

By doing this kind of improvising, you can wind up with the following possible progressions:

  1. C  G  F  G
  2. Am  G  F  G
  3. Am  Em  F  Em
  4. F  G  Am  G
  5. C  Em  F  G

There’s almost no end to the possible new progressions you can create. And what you’ve done is taken original progression, taken out some of the primary chords and substituted them for secondary ones.

You’re using my chord progression, so now it’s time to create one of your own. Start with a progression that’s strong (i.e., uses lots of primary chords), and then create short lists of possible substitutes for each of the original chords.

And then… improvise! It may take a while, but you’ll soon start to hear bits of progressions you like. And because everything refers back to that original strong progression, you’re more likely to create progressions that really work.

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