Here’s a set of steps that can keep your chord choices from sounding randomly picked.
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And generally, it happens that as you create melodies, you become aware that you’re also imagining the kinds of chords that might go with that melody. That’s a skill that also gets easier with time.
So let’s say that you’ve developed a melody, but you want to now add chords to it, and you’re stuck at that stage. What can you do?
First, here’s a list of facts about chords, melodies and songs you need to know:
- Most songs in the pop genres tend to be in 4/4 time (4 beats per bar. A new bar starts after you’ve tapped your toe 4 times).
- Every bar of music in 4/4 time gives you alternating strong and weak beats, where the 1st and 3rd beats are strong ones, and the 2nd and 4th beats are weak: STRONG-weak-strong-weak.
- Chords usually change on the 1st beat of a bar — the strongest of the two strong beats in every bar.
- If a chord changes every 2 beats, those changes will usually happen on beats 1 and 3. How often a chord changes is called the song’s harmonic rhythm.
- Every chord in a song should fit the melody note that happens at that moment, plus most of the notes that follow until the next chord change.
- Most chord progressions, especially in pop music, target the tonic chord as an important focus. That means that if your song is in the key of C major, the C chord often features prominently as the beginning and/or end of most of the progressions.
Regarding that 6th point above, that’s why the circle-of-fifths progression (C-Am-Dm-G-C, for example) is so popular. It’s a progression that always keeps the C chord as an anchor. By the time you get to Dm in that progression, you can hear that it wants to move back to C. That’s what we mean by targeting the tonic chord.
When it comes to adding chords to the melody you’ve created, try the following:
- Sing your melody over and over, unaccompanied. Tap your foot as you sing it, and try to get a sense of the strong beat – weak beat pattern. If you find this to be difficult, practice with a song you already know.
- Try to get an idea of the key of your song. Often (not always, though), a melody will naturally end on the tonic note, so you can frequently use the final note of your melody as the indicator of the key.
- Write down the chords from that key. For example, if you think your song is in C major, write: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim.
- Circle the chords you’re most likely to use: I (C), ii (Dm), IV (F), V (G) and vi (Am). The iii-chord (Em) and the vii-chord (Bdim) are least used.
- Play the tonic chord and see if it fits the first note of your melody. If it doesn’t, the other chords to try are: the dominant (5th), or the subdominant (4th).
- As you strum the tonic chord, start singing your melody. Your musical instincts should let you know when it’s time to change your chord, and you’ll notice that it’s either every 2 beats or every 4.
- As a starting point, try to keep to a circle-of-fifths pattern if you can. That will keep your chords from sounding random or patternless.
As you work ahead in your melody, keep the most important thing in mind: every time you change a chord, the melody note of that moment should be a note you’d find in the chord. And many or most of the notes that follow should also fit, until the next chord change.
Fitting chords with your melody will likely require a good deal of experimenting at first, and so don’t be afraid to change your chord choices. Nothing’s set in stone with this kind of musical activity, so be prepared to keep modifying what you come up with until you get something you’re happy with.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)