Organizing Chords to Fit Your Song’s Verse-Chorus Structure

Changing key within a song is one way of keeping things interesting. One of the most popular ways to do this is to create a song verse that’s in a minor key, and then switching key (called modulating) to the relative major for the chorus.

Lots of songs do this, and you can take Eagles’ hit song “Hotel California” as a good example. The verses are in the key of B minor, switching to D major for the choruses. The keys of B minor and D major both share the same key signature, and that’s the easiest key shift to do.

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The verses of “Hotel California” are in “true” minor, which is to say that the chords of the verse all come from the key of B minor, including the chord F# (a major chord, not F#m, which would be the naturally-occurring version of that chord. By making that F#m chord a major chord (F#), it strongly wants to move back to B minor, and that’s what makes this verse a true minor key verse.)

But there are lots of songs that start in what sounds like a minor key, but in fact they’re really just selecting the minor chords that naturally exist in the seven chords that normally make up a major key. (Adele’s “Turning Tables” is a good example.) Here’s how that works.

Let’s say that your song’s chorus is in C major. If you were to play a C major scale and then create chords that use each note of the C major scale as a chord root, you’d wind up with these seven chords:

  • I: C (C-E-G)
  • ii: Dm (D-F-A)
  • iii: Em (E-G-B)
  • IV: F (F-A-C )
  • V: G (G-B-D)
  • vi: Am (A-C-E)
  • vii: Bdim (B-D-F)

As you can see, with the exception of the vii-chord, which is diminished, they’re all either major or minor:

Major Chords from C major:

C, F, G

Minor Chords from C major:

Dm, Em, Am

What do you do with this information? With a bit of pre-songwriting organization you can more easily create chord progressions that focus on those minor chords for your verse, and then switch to focusing mainly on major chords for your chorus.

So knowing that your chorus is going to be mainly major, you’ll create progressions that use the chord C as a kind of tonal target, while not completely ignoring a nicely placed minor chord.You might, for example, use any of these ones as the basis for your chorus:

  • C  G  Am  F  C…
  • C  F  Dm  G  C…
  • G  C  F  Dm  G  Em  Am  F  C…

As you can see, they use mainly major chords, but the occasional minor chord adds nice tonal flavour to your progressions. For your verse, you could try mainly minor ones, to serve as a good contrast to the up-and-coming chorus:

  • Am  G  Am  F  Am…
  • Am  Em  Am  G  Dm  G  Am…
  • Am  C  Dm  Em  Am…

That mixture of major and minor chords is an important part of keeping the progressions interesting. But the all-powerful contrast comes from keeping the main focus on either major or minor.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Essential Secrets of Songwriting 9-Lesson CourseExcellence happens when you practice your technique. Gary’s 9-Lesson Course takes you through the fundamentals of writing good lyrics, melodies and chords, and helps you understand the concepts of great songwriting structure. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”

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