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Some Chord Progressions that Work

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Think of a good chord progression the same way that you would think of taking a walk. When you go for a walk, you start at your house, probably stroll around the neighborhood, and then return home again. In much the same way, chord progressions start in a home key, will visit chords that are associated with that key (the "neighborhood"), and then return home again.

So why do so many songwriters get so messed up at the chord progression stage of songwriting? You'd think something so basic would be a no-brainer. But for many, just figuring out what chords go together is a challenge. And then, making sure to use them in a coherent manner will present a dilemma.

I want to help clear up some of this mystery, and hopefully get you writing chord progressions with ease.

CHOOSING THE CHORDS THAT WORK IN A KEY

For every key, there are seven chords which naturally occur. You find them by considering the notes of the scale, and then you build 3-note triads above each note. For example, the notes of the D major scale are:

D E F# G A B C# D

If you build a chord above each of those notes, you'll create chords, each of which will have their own distinctive quality; some will be major, some minor, and one of them will be diminished:

D Em F#m G A Bm C#dim D

These, then, are the seven chords that occur naturally within D major. Those chords can also be represented by Roman numerals:

I  ii  iii  IV  V  vi  Vii(dim)

The great thing about using Roman numerals is that you can refer to the first chord of a key without having to be specific about the key. This is handy, because all I-chords in a major key are major chords; all ii-chords in a major key are minor chords, etc.

USING THE CHORDS THAT OCCUR NATURALLY WITHIN A KEY

If we haphazardly used any and all chords that naturally occur in a key, we'd wind up with chord muddle, and that's what we're trying to avoid! There are three chords that will occur more often than any of the other four, and those chords are the I-chord, the IV-chord and the V-chord.

Most songs can be harmonized using those three chords, and in fact, when you hear about the 3-chord song, those are the chords they're talking about. "Hound Dog", for example, is a 3-chord song.

So how do we use those chords? How do we harmonize a melody? This can be done in three steps:
  1. Find the basic pulse of your song. Tap your foot to the music, and try to identify the beat that naturally occurs. If you feel strong beats every two or four beat, you're probably in 4/4 time. If you feel strong beats every 3 beats, it's likely that you're in 3/4 time.
  2. Choose a key for your song. For this step, you want to consider the range of your voice. The starting and/or finishing chord will often indicate the key, and then simply transpose your melody higher or lower as suits your voice.
  3. Use the notes of your melody to determine the chords you choose. If you find that your strong beats occur every four beats, then you'll want to consider changing chords on multiples of four: either every four beats, or eight beats, etc. The chord you choose for that part of your melody will be chosen by considering the note(s) in the strong position. If your key is D major, and your melody begins with these four notes: D E F# G, then you'll find that the chord that will probably work is D.

In general, most of the chord choices you make will be either the I, IV or V chord. But your next step to increase your harmonic palette (i.e.,to make your walk around the neighborhood more interesting), is to try some chord substitution. Instead of using a I chord, occasionally you might try replacing with a vi-chord. Instead of a IV-chord, try using a ii-chord.

This is only just scratching the surface, and there is so much more to say about chords, and it can be all fascinating, and really add to the beauty of your music. If you'd like more information, I've written several e-books for songwriters, all showing how great songs work.
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