Break out your guitar and let’s get started with songwriting! If you’ve already written your lyrics, the next step is to choose which chords to include, and in what order. Here, Los Angeles teacher David I. shares an example of how to make those decisions…
Choosing the right chords for your song is important. Your chords will help you build points of tension and release at the appropriate moments, and the right sequence can also highlight the emotional content of your lyrics. But how do you know what chords to use and what order to put them in? Let’s answer that question by looking at the unique character of each chord in the key of C and understanding how they go together to create musical flow.
Let’s review the 7 chords from the key of C as outlined below:
C major | D minor | E minor | F major | G major | A minor | B diminished
In music theory we refer to each chord in a key by assigning it a Roman numeral. Major chords are capitalized and minor chords are lower case:
C major (I) | D minor (ii) | E minor (iii) | F major (IV) | G major (V) | A minor (vi) | B diminished (vii)
The reason for the numbers is so that we can remember patterns of chords even if the key changes (more on this later). For the rest of this article I’ll be referring to each chord by its letter name and its number.
Each chord in the key can be grouped into one of three different chord families: tonic, sub-dominant and dominant. These families help us to better understand how each chord functions within that key center, which is important in deciding which chord comes next in the progression.
Tonic: C major (I), E minor (iii), A minor (vi)
These three chords fall into the “tonic” family. They tend to be the most stable and restful sounding. Typically you would start and end your progression with one of these chords, because they establish a strong feeling of key center. These are your release or resolution chords.
Dominant: G major (V), B Diminished (vii)
These two chords are in the “dominant” family. They hold the most tension of all the chords in the key and they usually want to resolve to a tonic chord (see above). The G major is often played as G7 in the key of C, which gives it a more dissonant or “tense” sound. To get an idea of this tension and resolution, try switching back and forth between G7 and C, and also B diminished and C.
Sub-dominant: D minor (ii), F major (IV)
These two chords are in the “sub-dominant” family. The ii and IV chords are the “in-between” chords. On the spectrum of tension (dominant) and resolution (tonic), they fall somewhere in the middle. They are useful in transitioning between tonic and dominant chords, as well as when you want to move away from the sound of the key center (tonic) but not as far as a dominant chord would take you.
In a nutshell you can break the chord families down like this: Tonic chords give you the least tension, sub-dominant is a little more tension, and dominant chords offer the most tension.
Now it’s time to pick up your guitar and actually start applying some of this theoretical mambo-jambo. Here are some common chord progression examples:
I – IV – V (C – F – G) is by far the most common chord sequence in music. It is the basis for rock, country, folk, pop, classical and most other forms of popular music. If you apply the theoretical knowledge from above, the chords gradually build tension as they progress (Tonic – Sub-Dominant – Dominant). Two songs that share this progression are Twist and Shout and La Bamba.
I – V – vi – IV (C – G – Amin – F) is a very recognizable pop chord progression used by everyone from Green Day to Matchbox Twenty. We can analyze this progression by noticing that it has two tonic chords (C and Amin) and that the G (dominant) and F (sub-dominant) are functioning as the transition between C and Amin. As with the first example, we see the pattern of establishing the sound of the key with a tonic chord and then pulling your ear away from that sound, through the use of dominant and sub-dominant chords.\
As you start exploring with these concepts, you can play around and come up with own ideas. For each chord in a progression, for example, you can try substituting another chord from the same family as the original. You’ll have to use your ears and own musical taste to decide what sounds you like best. Try applying this concept to other songs you know by analyzing the chord families and then using the substitution method as shown above. Tap into your own creativity, and with time you’ll get better at your own songwriting!
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David I. teaches guitar, bass guitar, classical guitar, music performance, music recording, music theory and songwriting lessons to students of all ages in Los Angeles, CA. He joined the TakeLessons team in July 2012, with over 10 years of experience teaching guitar and performing. Sign up for lessons with David, or visit TakeLessons to find a music teacher near you!
Photo by .allienato.