As songwriters our goal is often to translate what’s in our heads into songs that can be played and recorded. One of the trickiest parts is knowing which chords are the chords we want for the melody we have in our heads. Let's start from the top.
Chords are combinations of at least 3 notes, so imagine how many different ways the notes on a piano could go together. Combine that with the fact that the order of the chords also affects what they express. What an overwhelming number of combinations for writing a song! That's why it’s really useful to know what I’m about to show you.
Basically when we get done, we’ll end up with the 6 chords in each key that your melody will almost always fall into. This way you can get your song written and not always get stuck trying to find the right chord progression. If your melody happens to not fall into one of these six, still keep looking for the right one! This is just a way to make it simple and keep you from getting stuck. Let's start by first looking at the building blocks of chords: notes.
We’ve all heard doe – re – mi – fa – so – la – ti – do, right? This system of syllables is called Solfege and these syllables mean the 8 notes that make up a scale or a key. For example, if I were going to sit at a piano and play all of the white piano keys from middle C up to the C above middle C, then I would be playing the C major scale. I could say each syllable of do re mi fa so la ti do on each note of the C scale and they would match up.
Now, when we’re writing songs what we want to know is which chords fit with our melody. It turns out most songs only use chords that have those 8 notes. It really helps to know that we can pretty much limit the melody options we’ll need to try to the 8 notes of the major key and so we can also limit the chord options to chords that have these notes. And out of these 8 notes, one of those notes (do) is a repeat! So that really makes the number of unique notes seven. Let’s check out some examples.
If my song is in the key of C, I’m going to use these chords:
(Note: the major chords have capital letters and the minor chords have lower-case letters.)
Ok so C major, E minor: you’ve heard of these before but you might be saying, “B diminished? What the heck is that?” You’re right, that one is definitely the least used. Technically it fits in the key, but the diminished chord can sound dark and a little sinister if not used in the right context and for that reason it just don't hear it as often.
Congrats! This narrows down the hunt to 6 choices for you to put with your melody!
Let’s look at this in the key of G. Here are the chords you could check out.
That’s it. If you have a melody for a song and you’re singing in the key of G, these are probably the chords you want. Let's do one more example just to make sure you really are getting it.
Not too bad right? All you need to do is use the chord based on the note in the scale. “But wait”, you might say, “how do I know if it’s major or minor?” Glad you asked! Here’s how it works.
To spell it out entirely:
The chord based on the first note of the scale will always be a major chord. The chords based on the second and third notes will always be minor. The chords based on the fourth and fifth notes will always be major. And finally the chord based on the sixth note will be minor.
Basically just memorize this formula:
(Again notice the relationship between major chords being capitalized and minor chords being lower-case.)
This is really useful because it means no matter what key you’re in, you know to reach for a major chord if it’s the chord from the first, fourth, of fifth note and play a minor chord if it’s from the second, third, or sixth note.
Next week I’ll post part two of this article and we’ll talk about the feeling each of these chords has combined with different melody notes and how they can be used to express what you’re trying to express in your song. What I really want to get into is discussing how our choices of chords and melody can affect what listeners experience listening to our music.
If this interests you or you have a suggestions for a future blog post, send me a message at email@example.com