Songwriting 101: Knowing Which Chords To Choose

Songwriting 101: Knowing Which Chords To Choose

Trying your hand at songwriting can be an intimidating process for reasons, not the least of which is not knowing where to even start with chords. There are many chords to choose from, and not all of them will even work together by most conventional standards. In this piece, we’re to dip just a tiny bit into music theory in order to have a framework for coming up with chord progressions to your songs. I’d also like to give a big thanks to NYCGS student Shane Schmutz for the suggestion. 


Using The Chords In A Key

Using chords that are all in the same key is a great place to start when coming up with chord progressions. While many songs use chords outside of their key, chords in the key will always work comfortably together and are super easy to make progressions out of. For those who may not know, a key refers to a collection of seven specific notes that follow a pattern that ensures that they all work well together

Each key contains a unique combination of seven notes, although they are all built upon the same previously mentioned pattern. These seven pitches can then be arranged into seven main chords for each key, with each note being the root note for one of them. Below is a chart detailing these seven chords for some of the most common keys in tonal music. It is important to note that the major chord with the same root can be substituted for any of the dominant-7 chords listed below. For example, in the key of C, an ordinary G chord can be played in place of the G7. Which one to use is really a matter of preference. 

Key

Chords

C

C, Dm, Em, F, G7, Am, Bdim

G

G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim

F

F, Gm, Am, Bb, C7, Dm, Edim

A

A, Bm, C#m, D, E7, F#m, G#dim

D

D, Em, F#m, G, A7, Bm, C#dim

E

E, F#m, G#m, A, B, C#, D#dim

B-flat

Bb, Cm, Dm, Eb, F7, Gm, Adim



Don’t worry if you don’t know all of the chords mentioned above. Just because a chord is in a key that you want to write in doesn’t mean that you have to use it. In fact, very few songs use all of the chords in the key they are in. What’s important is that you understand that when you’re in any of the above keys, the corresponding chords will all work well together. 

 

Common Chord Progressions

Although all of the chords in a given key will work well together, there are some chord progressions that work especially well together. These chord progressions have become common to the point that each one of them can be heard in literally thousands of songs and have become cornerstones of popular music. Using these common chord progressions is a great way to start writing songs quickly and effectively. 

These common chord progressions are popular to the point that they transcend specific keys and be recognized based on patterns. These patterns are based on the order in which the chord occurs in the key, when starting on the root note. This means that the chord that is built upon the root note of the key can be thought of as Number One, and the chord that’s root note immediately follows it alphabetically can be thought of as Number Two. For example, in the key of C, the C chord would be Number One, and the D-minor chord would be Number Two. If this concept of counting up feels confusing to you at the moment, then you may simply refer to the chart above for the time being. The very first chord listed in each key is Number One, the chord immediately following it is Number Two, the chord following that one in Number Three, and so on. 

It is also important to note that it is common practice for these chords to be written with Roman numerals. The numerals are typically capitalized in the case of major and dominant chords, and written in lowercase in the case of minor and diminished chords. From this point on, this piece will begin following that standard practice. 

Below is a chart detailing many of the previously alluded to common chord progressions. Although these chord progressions can be applied to any key through the previously discussed concept of counting chord numbers, the specific chords to each progression will be given as well in the key of C-major. In cases of the dominant-7 chord being used (which will always happen on the V), the below chart will only list the plain old-major chord with the same root, so please remember that you can use the 7-version of those chords if you so prefer.  

Progression Written in Numerals

Progression in Key of C-Major

I-IV-V

C-F-G

I-IV-vi-V

C-F-Am-G

I-vi-IV-V

C-Am-F-G

I-vi-ii-V

C-Am-Dm-G

iv-ii-V-I

Am-Dm-G-C

 

As you can tell from the above charts, the I, IV, V, and vi chords get by far the most use in popular music, with the ii chord getting at least some of the action and the iii and viiº chords not getting much use at all. This means that sticking to the I, IV, V, and vi chords can be a great way to create progressions that will sound familiar to the listener, while incorporating the iii and viiº chords can be a great way to create progressions that sound more distinctive and less familiar, while the ii chord could go either way. 

 

Stepping Out Of The Key

While working with the chords in a given key can be a great way to start writing songs, please understand that you by no means must stick to the limitation of only using those seven chords. In fact, a well-placed chord from outside the key can be a truly wonderful thing that can really tie a whole song together. But while stepping out of the key can be a really great choice, it can be much trickier to pull off and can require a fair amount of trial and error. 

However, any easy way to go out of key that often works is to pick a chord that is in the key, and then change the quality of that chord. That means that if you are in the key of C, you can try adding an F-minor or an F7 chord to your progression instead of the F-major chord that you would usually play in that key. Try picking one of the above common progressions or a different chord progression that you like, and try sandwiching a new, out-of-key chord into that progression using this trick. 

For example, I can take the I-vi-ii-V progression listed above and put into the key of C, giving me the chords C-Am-Dm-G. I can then add an F chord in between the Dm and G, but change from an F-major to an F7, thus taking the chord out of the key. Since I now have a dominant-seven thing going, I’m going to choose to also make that G chord a G7, which, unlike the F7, is in the key. This gives me a final progression of C-Am-Dm-F7-G7.

While there are many more ways to construct chord progressions than what was discussed here, everything above is a great place to start!

Please feel free to comment on any of the progressions you came up with in the comments below, and please feel free to reach out to me at ben@nycguitarschool.com if you have any questions or a different topic that you would like to see explored in one of these blog posts. 


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Ben Fitts is a musician, writer, and instructor at New York City Guitar School. He is the guitarist of the indie rock band War Honey, the author of numerous works including the short story collection My Birth And Other Regrets, and a former NYC Guitar School student himself.

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