How to Choose the Right Chords for Your Song

If you’re new to songwriting, it can all feel like a bit of a minefield. So, you need chords, of course, but how do you know which ones to choose? How do you even decide which one to start with? Well, here we’ll look at a set of ways to determine the right chords for your song, in a logical order so you can get started right away. We’ll consider the mood of the song, finding which key it’s in, and matching chords with your vocal melody.

 

1) Major or Minor

The first decision you need to make will likely be the easiest: Should your song start on a major chord or a minor chord? If you are writing a melancholic ballad, the answer’s likely minor. If you’re writing happy, feel good music, it usually makes sense to start on a major chord. Of course, these rules have been broken, many times, and sometimes you might deliberately choose to sing sad or angry lyrics along to happy music. Let’s keep things straightforward to begin with, though.

So, now you’ve decided whether you’ll begin on a major or minor chord, which one should it be?

 

2) What’s the Key?

The easiest way to write a song is to do so in the key that naturally suits your singing voice. If you already have lyrics and/or a melody for your song, sing it. As you sing, fumble around on your guitar or piano, looking for the matching note. When you hit it, rejoice! You just found the root note for your first chord. Now, try playing it as you sing your opening line. Does it feel like it needs to change somewhere? That’s where you find the second chord. It will be handy to use a key chord chart for this, like the one below:

 

 

Major Key

                       

           

I

                       

           

II

                       

           

III

                       

           

IV

                       

           

V

                       

           

VI

                       

           

VII

                       

 

A

 

 

A

 

 

Bm

 

 

C#m

 

 

D

 

 

E

 

 

F#m

 

 

G#dim

 

 

B

 

 

B

 

 

C#m

 

 

D#m

 

 

E

 

 

F#

 

 

G#m

 

 

A#dim

 

 

C

 

 

C

 

 

Dm

 

 

Em

 

 

F

 

 

G

 

 

Am

 

 

Bdim

 

 

D

 

 

D

 

 

Em

 

 

F#m

 

 

G

 

 

A

 

 

Bm

 

 

C#dim

 

 

E

 

 

E

 

 

F#m

 

 

G#m

 

 

A

 

 

B

 

 

C#m

 

 

D#dim

 

 

F

 

 

F

 

 

Gm

 

 

Am

 

 

Bb

 

 

C

 

 

Dm

 

 

Edim

 

 

G

 

 

G

 

 

Am

 

 

Bm

 

 

C

 

 

D

 

 

Em

 

 

F#dim

 

                                   

Minor Key

                       

                                   

I

                       

                                   

II

                       

                                   

III

                       

                                   

IV

                       

                                   

V

                       

                                   

VI

                       

                                   

VII

                       

 

Am

 

 

Am

 

 

Bdim

 

 

C

 

 

Dm

 

 

Em

 

 

F

 

 

G

 

 

Bm

 

 

Bm

 

 

C#dim

 

 

D

 

 

Em

 

 

F#m

 

 

G

 

 

A

 

 

Cm

 

 

Cm

 

 

Ddim

 

 

Eb

 

 

Fm

 

 

Gm

 

 

Ab

 

 

Bb

 

 

Dm

 

 

Dm

 

 

Edim

 

 

F

 

 

Gm

 

 

Am

 

 

Bb

 

 

C

 

 

Em

 

 

Em

 

 

F#dim

 

 

G

 

 

Am

 

 

Bm

 

 

C

 

 

D

 

 

Fm

 

 

Fm

 

 

Gdim

 

 

Ab

 

 

Bbm

 

 

Cm

 

 

Db

 

 

Eb

 

 

Gm

 

 

Gm

 

 

Adim

 

 

Bb

 

 

Cm

 

 

Dm

 

 

Eb

 

 

F

 

 

It’s worth noting that when studying charts like these, some rules are “made to be broken.” Don’t be afraid to use a chord outside of the key if you know it sounds good.

 

3) Popular Chord Progressions

There are thousands of different chord progressions to choose from, but there are a few that come up time and time again, particularly in pop songs. Just because a sequence is popular it doesn’t mean you need to use it, but it does give you an idea of the chords that sound best together to develop a particular feel. Below are a couple of the most popular.

 

  • I – V – VI – IV. This four-chord sequence is probably the most popular guitar chord sequence in western pop music that has been used for countless hits. You’ll instantly recognize the C – G – Am – F sequence used in songs such as “Let it Be” by The Beatles and “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey.

 

  • I – IV – V. This three-chord sequence is also very popular in pop and rock music. You’ll recognize the G – C – D and E – A – B variations of this in songs such as Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

 

4) Does it Match the Melody?

As you play your chords and sing the lyrics, do the movements of your vocal line match the chords? You may have to adapt or create a new melody so that they are in sync. This isn’t always easy to decipher, especially as sometimes the note you sing may harmonize nicely with the chord without being a note that’s in the chord itself.

One thing you can do to check if your chords match your melody is to find your melody on your guitar. It might take a little while, but it’s worth persevering with. When you play your melody on the guitar, do the notes fit in with the key you’re supposed to be in? If there are “accidentals” (sharps or flats out of key), do they enhance or detract from the song?

 

5) Does it Feel Right?

Generally, you’ll know when your chords match your melody by how they feel together. Beyond this, though, does your chord progression feel right? Sometimes, we get caught out, using chords that we know should fit — they’re in the correct key, the interval is appropriate — but something just feels off. My advice would be, if it feels off, change it. Even if it takes you trial and error after trial and error to find the right chord. Respect your song; it deserves it.

 

Summary

Writing songs can be hard at first but is incredibly rewarding and can have a range of benefits, especially for children. Finding the right chords for your songs involves a combination of music theory, aural skills and trust in your own creativity. The first step, choosing an opening chord appropriate to the mood, is just that: a step. It’s then up to you whether you follow the rules of the key with your chords and with your melody, or whether you allow your creativity to take you elsewhere.

Finally, it’s extremely important to ask yourself if the chords you’ve chosen feel right. If they don’t, you’ll never, ever be happy with it, even if listeners adore it.

Roz is a UK music teacher and musician that has released four studio albums with her band The Roz Bruce Infusion. See her blog at www.guitaristroz.com and Facebook www.facebook.com/rozbruceguitar/ https://www.facebook.com/rozbruceguitar/

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