How do I know what chords to use to write a song?

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If you are a budding songwriter and guitarist you’ll want to start writing your own songs pretty soon. While some songwriters take a words-first, approach, many prefer to start with a chord progression to serve as the framework for the song and melody. So how do you know which chords to use in which order? Is there a formula for creating chord progressions?

Learning about chords in a key

Knowing chords in a key gives you a good framework for songwriting and cuts out the guesswork when trying to write your chord progressions. This saves you a tonne of composition time and does away with those niggly questions when writing your song – Should it be this chord? Where should I go next? Shouldn’t I have a different chord sequence for the bridge aswell? Here’s what you need to know.

A family of chords that sound good together

A key is a family of 7 chords that sound good together. Selecting a few chords from this family is the basis of thousands of songs you already know and love.

You can use just a couple of chords from the key, or all of them. You can put them in pretty much any order in your chord progression, they will sound good.

Must know facts about chords in a key

  1. Each chord has a number (1-7)

  2. These chord numbers are written in roman numerals (I, II, iii, IV, V, vi, viiº = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

  3. The letter name of chord 1 is the name of your Major key e.g. G

  4. Each chord has a specific “gender” (major, minor etc)

  5. There is a set order of the chord genders

How do you make this chord family?

The major scale is used to derive the chords in a particular key. Each one of the 7 notes in the major scale is the basis for one of the chords. The chord derived from the first note of the scale is called the 1 chord, the chord derived from the second note of the scale is called the 2 chord, the third is called the 3 chord and so on.

The rules of chord gender within a single key

As point 5 above the prescribed gender order of the chords is:

1 chord - Major
2 chord - minor
3 chord - minor
4 chord - Major
5 chord - Major
6 chord - Minor
7 chord - Diminished

As you can see the 1, 4 and 5 chords are always Major, the 2, 3 and 6 chords are always minor and the 7 chord is a diminished chord.

Writing this in roman numerals we use UPPERCASE for the MAJOR gender, lowercase for the minor chords and also lowercase with this little degree (º) symbol for the diminished chord.

If we write out the chords in C major (using the roman numerals this time) we would get:

I chord - C major
ii chord - D minor
iii chord - E minor
IV chord - F major
V chord - G major
vi chord - A minor
viiº chord - B diminished

How do you remember the order of chords in a key?

Repetition usually, or some quirky hack – download my annoyingly catchy (i.e. memorable) chord gender mp3 below.


Where do seventh chords belong in a key?

If you take our above example and expand it into 7th chords you get the following:

I chord - C major 7
ii chord - D minor 7
iii chord - E minor 7
IV chord - F major 7
V chord - G dominant 7 (mostly called a 7th chord)
vi chord - A minor 7
viiØ chord- B half diminished 7 (AKA minor 7 flat 5)

You should see these 2 frameworks as of options for your progression rather than absolutes. You can mix between the two if you wish. Just because the above prescribes the I chord to be a major 7 chord doesn’t mean it has to be. It could be a basic major chord and still remain “in key”.

These 2 key frameworks are a good guide for songwriters writing chord progressions for song in the rock, pop, soul and country genres. However there are exceptions, for example in blues the I, IV and V chords are all dominant 7s

Why are Roman Numerals used instead of chord names?

Because of singers!

Yes, seriously. Singers have a specific vocal range meaning their voice has specific limits on how high or low it can go. Sometimes vocalists can’t manage to the sing asong in the original key it was recorded by the original artist, so they need to change the key.

This system was devised to make it easier for the musicians to change keys to match the key of the song to the singer’s comfortable vocal range.

Learning a progression by Roman Numerals (also called the Nashville Number System) makes it more “portable” and far less a headache for you and the other musicians.

Common chord progression in songs

Once you can see The Matrix you decipher 1000s of popular songs

Once you can see The Matrix you decipher 1000s of popular songs

Once you’ve seen (heard) the Matrix of music, you’ll discover many common progressions in songs. You’ll be surprised how similar the chord progressions of 100s of songs are but they sound different due to being in different keys and having different melodies. One that immediately springs to mind is the similarity between the chorus of Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan and the verse of Wild Thing by The Troggs. Both are I, IV, V.

I, IV, Vs are very popular

I Feel Good - James Brown
Let’s Stick Together - Bryan Ferry
Summertime Blues - Eddie Cochrane
Bad Medicine - Bon Jovi
Every Rose has its Thorn - Poison
Louie Louie - Richard Berry
Good Riddance - Green Day
Stir It Up - Bob Marley

These are all I, IV, V progressions and as you can see span a wide variety of musical genres. That said, you can find a greater concentration of I, IV, V progressions in blues, classic rock and rock n roll, and a few in country too.

What makes all of the songs listed above sound different is their different keys and melodies but also the time spent on each chord. Louie Louie for example spends half a bar on each of the I, IV and V. Whereas I Feel Good, spends 4 bars on the I chord, 2 bars on the IV chord, just 1 on the V, followed by 1 on the IV chord followed by that famous ascending riff.

But I, V, vi, IV is the winner!

This particular progression pops up as the basis for thousands of complete songs or sections of songs in music over the last 50 years. So much so that the Axis Of Awesome create some hilarity by pointing this out.

Let it Be - The Beatles
I Come from a Land Down Under - Men At Work
Torn - Natalie Imbruglia
No Woman, No Cry - Bob Marley
Don’t Stop Believing - Journey
Hey Soul Sister - Train
Love Story (chorus) - Taylor Swift
With or Without You - U2
Forever Young - Alphaville
Fall At Your Feet - Crowded House

Other great chord progressions

The I, vi, IV, V was milked massively in the 50s and 60s to bring us.

Stand By Me - Ben E King
Chain Gang - Sam Cooke
Unchained Melody (verse) - Righteous Brothers
A Teenager in Love - Dion and the Belmonts
All I have to do is Dream - The Everley Brothers
Duke of Earl - Gene Chandler
Blue Moon - The Marcels
Earth Angel - The Penguins
Monster Mash - Bobby Picket
Please Mr Postman - The Marvelettes
Lollipop - Ronald and Ruby

A common device for the middle 8

A very popular device is the move to the vi chord or the ii chord to commence the Middle 8. This is often used in songs with a overiding Major tonality that are very repetitive and have similar chords in their verse and chorus.

A move to the vi/ii chord provides some much needed respite from the repetition and “happiness” of the verse/chorus chords and (because ii and vi are minor) moves the song to a darker and more introspective place momentarily before returning to the refrain.

This can be heard in:

Every Rose Has its Thorn - Poison
Torn - Natalie Imbruglia
Round Here - Counting Crows

And many others.

now you can “see the Matrix” what common progressions or devices have you noticed?