Thursday, January 2, 2014

Choosing chords for beginner songwriters


While music is a form of art, there is a science behind it too: music theory. Learning the ins and outs of music theory can take a long time and be really intimidating or boring for some, but learning a little can go a long way when you're trying to write a song. 

Decide your songs structure

Songs are typically composed of an intro, 2 - 4 verses, a chorus (aka the hook) and either an instrumental (possibly with a solo or some kind of lead) or a bridge. Some songs also have short instrumental breaks between verses (Simple Man, Sweet Home Alabama). If you already have lyrics written, you probably have some idea of how the song is going to be structured. If not, have a look at this:

Common song structure:
Intro
Verse
Chorus
Verse 
Chorus
Bridge
Chorus

Intro - usually a short, unique bit of the song. Often an instrumental
Verse - tells the story of the song, usually verses are all different
Chorus - the part everyone remembers, usually very catchy, simple and doesn't change
Bridge - the weird part that sounds WAY different from the rest of the song. It helps to give the song more contrast, especially against the chorus

Some songs have an outro, often the same as the intro. The structure is flexible but just about every song has at least 2 verses and a chorus. A good start is: verse, chorus, verse, chorus. After which you can decide whether or not you want an intro, bridge and outro. 

Pick a Key

A good first step is to pick a key. Check out the chart and pick a key with chords that you're comfortable with. If you can play them all with ease, go for chords that you especially like the sound of or that fit your voice best. You may have to experiment. Use the chart below as a reference.

Major Keys:
1 (Key)
2 (minor)
3 (minor)
4 (major)
5 (major)
6 (minor)
C
D
E
F
G
A
D
E
F#
G
A
B
E
F#
G#
A
B
C#
F
G
A
Bb
C
D
G
A
B
C
D
E
A
B
C#
D
E
F#
B
C#
D#
E
F#
G#

Use 1, 4 and 5 as major chords
Use 2, 3 and 6 as minor chords

Usually the chords are represented by a fancy name (tonic, dominant, etc.) and a Roman Numeral instead of a number but I'd like to keep things in plain English. Each key has it's own family of chords. They play well together because they all share notes. 

Popular progressions:

1 4 ……………ex: Feelin Alright, Everyday People, Paperback Writer, Born In The USA, What I Got
1 4 5 ………….ex: Twist and Shout, Stir It Up, La Bamba
1 5 m6 4 ……..ex: 4 chord song (Axis of Awesome), Dammit, Glycerine, Someone Like You
m6 4 1 5 ……..ex: Pumped Up Kicks, Poker Face, Zombie, Self Esteem, Kids
1 m6 4 5 ……..ex: Duke of Earl, Crocodile Rock, Stand By Me, Last Kiss, Every Breathe You Take

More examples:

1 5 ……………ex: Summer of 69 (verses)
1 5 4 ………….ex: Bad Moon Rising
1 5 m2 ……….ex: Knockin on Heavens Door
1 5 m6 ……….ex: Simple Man
m2 5 1 ……….ex: Sunday Morning (more popular in jazz)
1 4 1 5 ……….ex: Brown Eyed Girl (verses)
1 4 5 4 ……….ex: The Joker (verses)
4 1 m6 5 ……..ex: Payphone
m6 5 1 4 ……..ex: Summer of 69 (chorus)

The reason so many people can get away with using the same chord progressions over and over again is because there are so many variables to mix and match that it's easy to come up with something that sounds unique.

Pick a chord progression

Once you have your key, pick a chord progression. The progressions listed above are great but you can also make your own. Don't be afraid to try the minor 3 chord even though it wasn't listed in any of the examples. Mix and match different strumming patterns and tempos to see what you like or what fits your song. You can also try using a capo (somewhere on frets 1-4 typically) to alter the sound of the chords. 

You could stop there and be done with it, sticking with only 1 chord progression for your song. Tons of songs only use 1 progression. If you'd like to add some more dimension to your song, you can always pick another progression or two to fill it out. Try having a different progression for your verses and chorus. The bridge could also have a different progression. Here's an example of one of the first songs I put together with this method.

Sample Song

Structure: 
Intro (same as verse, no lyrics)
Verse
Chorus
Verse
Chorus 
Bridge (short)
Chorus

I chose the key of G with a capo on the second fret. My progressions are:

Intro/Verse - 1 (G) 5(D) 4(C)
Chorus - 1(G) 4(C) m6(Em) 5(D)
Bridge - m6(Em) m2(Am) m6(Em) 5(D)

I used one of the chord progressions above for my verses and made on up for my chorus and bridge. I play at a slow tempo of 50 beats per minute (a little slower than the second hand on a clock) with a D_DU_UDU for most of the song. 

Give it some character

There are still more things you can do to give your song more character. In the example I listed above, I vary some of the chord structures in the song by playing a Cadd9 chord instead of a standard C chord and playing an Em7 instead of Em. In addition to add9 and minor7, you could also try sus2, sus4, 6, major7 and dominant7 chords. If you have a smartphone, try downloading a chord app to help you with picking variations for your chords. Alternatively, doing a quick google image search can give you access to chord charts that can be helpful. You can also hammer on and pull off individual notes in some of the chords or use picking patterns instead of strumming.

One last thing. The chart above is just an easy outline for picking chords for songs in a major key, it's not the end-all-be-all of chord progressions. More advanced techniques involve changing key, using a diminished 7 or flat 7 chord, switching from major to minor mid song, borrowing chords from other keys, etc. As you get better, learn more songs and become more familiar with how chords work together, you'll notice more and more options for writing songs. 

Happy songwriting!

P.S.

Here's what can happen when two songs have the same progression and key. :)


1 comment:

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