A great melody with lousy chords will come across as a lousy melody. Here’s a bit of chord theory to help.
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You might write a great melody, but if the chords you choose to accompany it with are faulty somehow, the melody will fail as well. That’s because no one element in songwriting operates in isolation from the others. Every song you write is a partnership of melody, chords, lyrics, rhythm, tempo, instrumentation and general performance style. Of those song elements, it’s probably the case that the relationship between melody and chords is the most important one.
Choosing the right chord has a lot to do with genre. For example, a melody that’s harmonized for jazz will use different chords from one that’s harmonized for rock & roll, as you will hear when you compare the original “Yesterday” (The Beatles) with this jazz rendition.
The main difference between the chords of the two versions lies with chord extensions. In musical chord terminology, an extension is the part of the chord that’s added beyond the basic triad. The numbers after a letter name refer to the interval above the chord’s root. So a chord with a 7th means that if you count up 7 notes (calling the root ’1′), you’ll find that a note has been added to the basic triad. So G7 means that an F has been added to the G triad.
Rock & roll (50s and early-60s variety) rarely extended chords beyond the 7th. Later 60s and 70s music explored 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths to a greater degree. Jazz uses those chords, raising and lowering the extensions by semitones to produce that typical jazz sound.
The important thing to remember about chord extensions is that they mostly never alter the function of a chord. For example, in the key of F major, C is a dominant chord (i.e., the 5th chord) of F. The chord C7 is also a dominant chord of F. So is C9, C11, C13, C7b9, C13#11, and so on. (Each sound sample opens in a new browser window. Close to return.)
Which brings us to two vital pieces of information regarding chords:
- The basic 3-note chords you choose for your progressions are crucial to the harmonic structure of your music.
- Chord extensions are the “flavour”, so to speak, of a chord. Changing the extension changes the flavour, but doesn’t often doesn’t change the function.
Here’s an analogy that will help: The basic 3-note chord choices you make for your music are like the standard ingredients in the spaghetti sauce you’re making (tomatoes, onions, garlic, etc.) The chord extensions are the extra bits you choose to add which change, or add to, the flavour, but don’t change the basic fact that you’re making spaghetti sauce. So even though you might add cayenne pepper, red lentils, and sprinkle the top with peas, you’ve still got spaghetti sauce, because you’ve got the most important ingredients: tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
Where songwriters fail, if they do, is usually with the first item above. Creating a good progression of 3-note chords is the most important step. Choosing the wrong extension will simply pull you into a different genre, and that’s an easy “error” to fix. For example, if your chosen genre is metal, your bandmates are going to look at you strangely if you try to sneak a C13#11 into your progression. Simple solution: just play C.
To make sure you’ve got the best chord progression for your melody, check out this post I did a while back on the subject.
You might also wish to know that several ebooks in my “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 ebook bundle deal specifically with chord progressions: how to write them, how to apply them to melodies, and how to become a bit more creative with them without having your song descend into “chord muddle.”
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