For whichever key you choose for a song, there are certain chords that you’ll use because they exist naturally in that key. Then there are the chords you’ll choose, not because they belong to that key, but because they add a bit of musical interest.
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For example, if your song is in C major, the chords you’ll likely use are: C, Dm, Em F, G, Am and Bdim. Some of those are used more than others, but the point is that those chords are easy to work into a progression:
- C – Dm – G – Am
- C – Em – F – C
- G7 – C – Am – F – C
The kinds of chords you might throw in just because they’re interesting include a large array of so-called altered chords — chords that are based on the ones that naturally occur, but change some aspect of it. Also non-diatonic chords, which aren’t naturally found in your chosen key. Usually this means changing a chord that’s normally major to being minor, or vice versa:
- C – Ddim – G – Am
- C – Em – F – Fm – C
- G7 – C – Ab – Fm – C
Most songwriting involves a fair bit of improvising — playing around with melodies, lyrics until you find something that works. And improvisation also extends to chord choices as well. Improvisation is an important part of the songwriting process.
But even though you do a lot of experimenting and improvising chord choices, that shouldn’t mean not thinking about how you’ve put those chords together. Here’s what I mean:
If a song chorus is in a major key (C major, let’s say), you’ll use mostly major chords with the odd minor chord thrown in occasionally. You see that demonstrated in the progressions above.
But sometimes it can work nicely to start a progression sounding mostly major, then switch to sounding mostly minor, before switching back to major again, all within the same chorus.
Here’s an example. Play the following progression, strumming each chord for 2 beats:
C F G C / F C Dm G / Am Em Dm Am / F C Gsus G//
As you can see, 7 of the first 8 chords in that progression are major, and the progression has a very lighthearted sound. Then the next 4 chords are all minor, giving a nice contrast to the constant major of the first part of the progression. It all ends by moving quickly back to major again.
That kind of purposeful balancing between major and minor allows the mood of the music to rise and fall, and it works really well to then pair up the lyric to match the up and down of the musical mood generated by the chords.
A great fairly recent example of how switching major and minor controls the mood of a song is Sia’s “Soon We’ll Be Found” – listen and enjoy how interesting the music becomes as it moves from minor to major, and back again.
By the way, this is not some new technique that came along with pop music. Composers for hundreds of years have been doing the same balancing act between major and minor keys in a bid to increase musical interest.
In this well-known choral setting by J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750), the first minute-and-a-half of the music is very major-sounding, with mostly major chord choices. Starting at about 1’40”, he switches to minor, eventually back to major, and that contrast is in large part what keeps us interested as listeners.
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