If you like to start your songwriting process by working out bits of melody first, one of your biggest challenges might be the adding of chords. How do you work out a chord progression that supports your melody?
It’s a bit amazing, when you think about it, that melodies can be so different, but chord progressions in any given genre will tend to be very similar. Two melodies that have no similarities might both use the very same chords, even in the same order.
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But that is certainly not to say that adding chords to a melody is a random process, and hopefully you know that already.
Here, in no particular order, are 7 tips to think about when working out chord progressions to fit the melody (or bits of melody) that you’ve been working out:
- Most of the time, chords should change on strong beats. Sing your melody to yourself, tap your foot, and you’ll probably notice that you’ve created a pattern of alternating strong and weak beats. It will sound most natural to have a new chord occur on a strong beat.
- The melody note that happens on a strong beat should belong to the chord of the moment. Most melodies consist of a mixture of scales and leaps. It’s not expected, nor even desirable, really, to have every note of your melody fit the chord of the moment. So if your song is in 4/4 time, which is most likely, the melody notes on the first and 3rd beats of the bar should usually fit the chord that’s being played at that moment.
- The melody notes that happen between strong beats don’t necessarily need to fit the chord. The old standard “A Lover’s Concerto” (Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell) is a great example. Its melodies consist of many notes, most of which occur between strong beats, and use lots of scale-type patterns. Only the notes on the strong beats are members of the chords, and everything else would be considered “passing tones” that don’t necessarily need to belong to the chord.
- The faster a song, the longer you should hang on to a chord before changing. Having a fast song that changes chords every beat, for example, gives the music a frantic, panicky feeling. It’s most common, for songs in a moderately fast tempo (120 bp, or so), to change chords every 2 or 4 beats.
- Progressions, usually in a verse, and almost always in a chorus, should target one chord as the tonic chord. If your song is in C major, for example, you will want your progressions to make C sound like a tonic. So strive to use progressions that end in: Dm-G7-C, Am-G-C, F-G-C, Ab-Bb-C, and so on.
- Chord progressions should feature a good number of adjacent chords whose roots are a 4th or 5th away from each other. The root of a chord is its letter name. Progressions sound strong and pleasantly predictable if you notice lots of 4th and 5ths: C-F, C-G7, Dm-G, etc.
- Never worry about repetitive chord progressions. In fact, songs that feature constantly changing progressions can sometimes sound confusing or poorly constructed. Check out hit songs from the past 6 decades, and you’ll see that the progressions tend to be short, repetitive and predictable. That’s not a bad thing, unless you were hoping for something more adventurous. Adventurous is fine, but never worry about progressions that repeat throughout a song. The quality of your melodies and your lyrics are the real determiner with regard to a song’s over-all quality.
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