Guitar - altered chords

Tips for Adding Chords to Melodies

If you like any of the melody-first songwriting processes, you know that eventually you need to add chords to that melody. If chord progressions are the part of writing that’s a little out of your comfort zone, here are some tips and ideas that can help :

  1. Get a sense of the strong beat-weak beat pattern of your song. In music theory terms this means identifying the time signature. But all you really need to do is to simply tap your foot to the music to get the beat. Once you’ve done that, try to identify the beats that feel stronger. Usually it will be every second beat. (If you sing the chorus melody of “Just Give Me a Reason” (Pink/Nathan Ruess), tapping your foot is easy. The strong beats occur on the words “Just“, “rea-(son), “lit-(tle)”, etc.
  2. Most of the time, chords will change on strong beats. It can change on every strong beat, or, as in “Just Give Me a Reason”, it’s mainly every other strong beat (i.e., the beginning of every bar).
  3. Use the notes of the melody to help guide your choice of chords. In “Just Give Me a Reason”, the chorus melody actually outlines the chords that make the most musical sense. The notes of the chorus start: B-B-G-G-D-D-B-B (outlining a G chord) moving to A-A-F#-F#-C (D7).
  4. Think outside the box when it comes to chord choices. The B-B-G-G-D melody clearly outlines a G chord, but an Em7 also uses those notes. In McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers”, if you sing the melody on its own, you clearly hear a C chord being implied (“Once there was a way/To get back homeward..“). But McCartney chooses Am7, which works beautifully and gives the music a very nostalgic mood.
  5. Think about harmonic rhythm. That term refers to the regularity of chord changes. Most songs will establish a certain pattern. (Changing chords every two beats or every four beats is the most common). But it’s also good to change things up once in a while. James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” changes chords every beat for the first two bars, then switches to every two beats after that.
  6. Be courageous to be creative. Throwing in an unexpected chord once in a while broadens the sound palette of your song, and can add a layer of sophistication. Once you’ve thrown in something a little odd, try to get back on track to target the tonic chord, especially if you’re writing a pop song. In the instrumental bridge to Van Halen’s “Jump”, you hear the tonality of the song going on a little journey away from the tonic. But soon enough, you hear the music pull back to the original key which happens right at the end of the bridge.

On that last point, if you like listening to classical music, you’ll notice that this is something even J.S. Bach did in his own compositions. He loved throwing in an unexpected chord now and then. But once he tossed in that musical surprise, he almost always would follow it up with a chord that was far more predictable and expected for his chosen key. So his approach was something like:

Predictable… predictable… predictable… SURPRISE!… predictable… predictable…

Believe it or not, that 300-year old approach works just fine for today’s pop music. Being creative with chord progressions is like adding a herb or spice to the sauce you’re cooking. A little can go a long way!


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a Melody“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” includes several eBooks that are meant to make your chord progressions better, including “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It shows you, step-by-step, how to add chords to that melody you’ve created.

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