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Chord Basics for Songwriters: The Most Important 5 Things to Know

How to Harmonize a MelodyGetting melodies and chords working well together is vital knowledge for any songwriter. “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step by step, how that works, and gives you sound samples to follow.

There’s nothing keeping you from using someone else’s chords in your own song, since chord progressions aren’t protected by copyright.

Having said that, though, I’ve noticed that songwriters who feel the need to use someone else’s chords also seem compelled to borrow the backing feel, the tempo and the style of the song they’ve borrowed them from.

Once you’ve done that, you’re on the slippery slope of crossing the line into plagiarism territory. For that reason, I always feel that it’s best if creating your own progressions — even if they’re ones that have been coincidentally used in other songs — is part of your songwriting process.

The notion of strong versus fragile chords is an important one for songwriters to understand. Check out this short video that helps to explain what those two terms mean.

If you’ve always found chord progressions hard to create, it’s best to look at other songs’ progressions just to try to get a handle on why they work. The more you look, the more you’ll understand.

And as you work to try to become better at working out your own progressions, here are five tips that are probably the most important things you should know about chord progressions:

1. Identify the Tonic

Good progressions are not random collections of chords; they typically use a tonic chord as a point of focus. This means that for most songs, one chord serves as a “home” chord, the one that represents the key you’ve chosen. So in this progression, C F Dm G C, the C chord is the tonic chord, and all the chords in that progression come from the key of C major.

If you’re not sure how to identify the tonic, or how to come up with the chords that will all work together in a key, this article might help: How to Know What Key Your New Chord Progression Is In

2. Create Shorter Progressions as a Good Starting Point

Chord progressions don’t need to be long and involved. In music, especially with things like chord progressions, simplicity as a starting point is almost always better than complexity. If you like complex chords, start by working out something that’s short and simple, and then advance from there.

3. When Chords Pull Your Song Into a New Key, Find a Way to Get Back to the Original Key

One of the advantages of adding chords that don’t normally exist in your chosen key (called non-diatonic chords) is that they will pull your song’s key in a new direction, and often put you in a new key.

But usually it’s necessary to get back eventually to the original key. So if you’ve done something like this: C F Dm E7 Am Bdim Am, which starts in C major and ends up in A minor by using that E7 chord, you’ll want to think of ways that can get you back to C major.

That means coming up with something like this: Am E7 Dm G Dm G7 C. In any case, it’s always a good idea to know how you’d get back if you’ve allowed your chords to pull you into a new key.

4. Create Progressions That Use Chords Whose Roots are a 4th or 5th Apart

When adjacent chords in progressions use roots that are a 4th or 5th apart (like this one: C G Dm G C F C), it provides important musical strength. Bass lines that move in this way add solid structure to the music.

So if you find that your chord progressions sound like aimless wandering, where one chord doesn’t seem to lead naturally to the next one, it’s often the case that the roots of most adjacent chords are not a 4th or 5th apart.

Of course, you don’t necessarily want or need to have all chords 4ths or 5ths apart, because that might lead to excessive predictability. The chord progression for “Let It Be” is probably a great example of good balance:

C G Am F |C G F C/E Dm7 C

Many of the adjacent chords are a 4th or 5th apart (C-G, F-C, etc), just enough to add strength to the musical structure.

5. Opt for Innovation in Your Melodies and Lyrics Before You Target Your Chords

In other words, your listeners are going to appreciate complex melodies and complex lyrics, but will often just be confused by complex chords — especially if your chord complexities don’t really work.

So when you’re writing songs that you hope will get attention for how they stray from the norm in your chosen genre, think about playing style, lyrical development and creative melodies before you try to work out complicated chords.

A simple, well-structured chord progression will act as a solid foundation for your songs, and putting your energies into other song components will go a longer way to making your music sound fresh and innovative.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas”. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas. Get the free deal!

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