A Guide to Finding the Perfect Chords
It’s very common for songwriters to come up with great lyrics, but then become lost when they reach the stage of finding the perfect chords for their song. In this article, we’ll discuss how you can find a basic chord progression, and then make it more interesting from there.
This article is a summarised transcript of our video “How to Find the Perfect Chords for Your Melody”. Click here to watch the video for more details, explanations and examples.
The Foundation of Your Chord Progression
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that we’re making a chord progression for a melody consisting only of the note E. The most obvious chords to put under that would be E Major, E Minor or potentially E Dom7. We’ll start by using E Major and also saying that the key of the melody is E Major.
After this, the next step is to list down all the chords that are in the key. In the case of E Major, they would be as follows:
Once you’ve listed out the diatonic chords in the key, break them down so that you’re aware of the notes in the individual triads. It would look like this:
Being aware of the notes in the triads allows you to clearly see which of the chords have the melody note you’re trying to harmonise. Here, the chords I, IV and vi clearly contain the note E. So, they would be our first choices to use to form a chord progression.
Another thing to do here is to look at the relationship of the melody note to that of the chord underneath. For example, E is the 1 of E, the 5 of A and the b3 of C#m. This process of looking at a melody note and identifying it’s numerical relationship to the chord becomes really useful when you try to look at other chord options.
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Modify the Chords
A great way to create more chord options for yourself is by modifying your chords. Start with looking at the modifications for the diatonic chords that contain your melody note. Below is an example of what that would look like in the key of E Major:
Many songwriters are stuck at this point and aren’t sure what to do with the remaining 4 chords since they don’t contain the melody note. However, we can actually modify those chords to contain the melody note, like so:
This opens up a whole new avenue in terms of chord options. It gives us really interesting sounding chords with a lot of character. So, we’re able to come up with new and intriguing chord progressions.
We can take this a step further, and change the quality of the chords. This generally means changing a Major to minor, minor to dominant or dominant to diminished. It means to leave the root note of the chord but change the type of chord that it is. For example, this would mean changing the F#m to F#7 or A to Am.
Some of the chords that you produce after doing this will sound very unstable. As songwriters, we want to create a sense of tension and release. Having a chord palette consisting of very unstable chords and stable chords helps encourage the creation of that push-pull movement.
Think Outside of the Scale
Up to this point, we’ve only come up with chords using the seven diatonic notes of the E Major scale. However, the Western music system has 12 notes in total, which means that you have 5 more notes you can incorporate the E melody note into. As an example, let’s look at the F note first. If you build a chord off the F note and think about the E note in relation to that, you’ll get Fmaj7.
Here is the extensive list of chords you would get, inside and outside the key, that contain our melody note, E:
How to Use this Knowledge
The objective is not to find as many weird sounds as possible, but to get as many options as possible so that we can find the right chord for the song we’re writing. One of the best ways to do this is take a nice three chord sequence and then look for a fourth chord that’s an unusual harmonization.
For example, we could take the chord progression E A C#m (I IV vi) and turn it into:
- E A C#m B11 ( I IV vi V )
- E A C#m D9 ( I IV vi bVII )
Another cool trick is to go back and think of your original key in its parallel major or minor. For example, in the case of E Major, we would instead list out the chords of E Minor to get this:
Then, we can add these chords to the list of available chord choices for our song. When we switch from a section in E Major to a section in E Minor, it’s called Parallel Modulation. You can hear this in a lot of popular songs such as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and The Turtle’s “Happy Together”.
Conclusion: A Guide to Finding the Perfect Chords
The real takeaway here is that whenever you’re stuck trying to find chords for your song, make sure you map out the chords in that key. Think about the relationship of your melody notes to those chords. Once you’ve done that, look for opportunities to create tension that can then be resolved using more stable chord choices.
If you would like more details, explanations and examples, then be sure to check out the video now.
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