It almost goes without saying that a good chord progression is fundamental to a good song, but when you find yourself faced with the dreaded blank screen, how do you string together a proper set of chords?
It should be noted that the chord progressions used in most pop songs are relatively simple, consisting mostly of a cycle of two to four chords diatonic to the key of the song.
Diatonic means that chords are made up of notes in the parent scale of the key – so if a song is in the key of E major, say, then the majority of the melody notes will be in the E major scale, and the notes that make up the sustaining chords – with perhaps one or two exotic exceptions – will also be taken from the E major scale.
An ongoing problem for songwriters is what to do when they’ve found a melody line and need a chord progression to fit it. So we’ll show you how to establish the key of your melody, how to generate a palette of chords that work with it, and then create a sample progression using those chords.
From here, you can vary the sounds you use and alter the rhythm and voice of the chords to suit your own tastes. Once you have the base progression, you’ll be ready to race, with that writer’s block nothing but a speck in the rearview mirror!
Step 1: Let’s start by assuming you have a melody in your head that you’ve successfully transcribed into your DAW’s piano roll. Here’s an example we created for the purposes of this tutorial. Our first job is to try to find the key, so let’s start by looking at the notes of the melody.
2nd step: If we select each melody note in the piano roll editor from the lowest note upwards, our DAW tells us in the vertical keyboard display which notes we are selecting. In this case, the melody notes all appear to be half notes, except for the third note from the bottom, the very last note, which is a Bb.
Step 3: Since Bb is the only sharp or flat note used, it is safe to assume that the melody could be in the key of F major, since F major is a scale that contains a flat – Bb. All other notes used in our melody also occur in the scale of F major, the seven notes F, G, A, Bb, C, D and E (the eighth note is a repetition of the root note of F, an octave higher).
Step 4: The only other possible key could be the relative minor key of F major of D minor, as it shares the same notes as F major and therefore also contains only one flat, Bb. However, we can rule out the likelihood of a minor key simply because of the upbeat and cheerful tone of the melody, which definitely suggests a major quality rather than a minor one.
Step 5: The parent range of a key is the one that shares its name. So if we suspect that the key of the song is F major, then the parent scale will be the F major scale. To get the diatonic chords of the key, we need to harmonize the parent scale. This is done by stepping through the notes or degrees of the scale and stacking all the other notes to form three-note chords or “triads”.
Step 6: Now that we have the diatonic chords, we can label them using Roman numerals, according to each chord’s position sequentially in the scale. We use uppercase numbers to denote major chords and lowercase numbers for minor and diminished chords (there is always a diminished chord – the vii chord – in a harmonized major scale).
Step 7: The advantage of using the Roman numeral system to label diatonic chords is that you can spell out a progression and it will translate to every key imaginable. Once you know what the I chord is – it will have the tonic of the parent scale as its root – you can then determine the relative positions of all the other chords that are diatonic to that key.
Step 8: So, for example, an IV-IV-vi progression in F major corresponds to Bb-FC-Dm, because the IV chord in the key of F major is B-flat major, the I chord is F major, the chord V is C major and the vi chord is Dm. However, in the key of C major, the same progression would go FCG-Am because the IV chord in the key of C major is F major, the I chord is C major, and so on.
Step 9: So now that we have all the diatonic chords identified and labeled, we can try to find a progression that might match our melody notes. The most commonly used chords in any key are the primary chords, i.e. I, IV, and V chords, so why not start with an I-IV-IV-V progression? It would work like F-Bb-Bb-C in this key.
Step 10: It works well, the upper notes of the chords correspond well to the melody notes, so we are on the right track. We could, however, vary things up a bit by slipping in a subtle ii chord – a Gm chord – as the third chord in the progression to balance things out and give us a nice rounded I-IV-ii-V four-chord progression.
Step 11: Once we have a progression that works, we essentially have the chords for that part of our song, so we’re free to alter the rhythm and sound to create a complementary part to the melody. We stuck with I-IV-ii-V and used a choppy rhythm synth part thanks to Dune CM’s 055 Marimba RH preset.
Step 12: To smooth out the chord changes, we used reversed versions of the chords, with the notes stacked in a different order from bottom to top. Finally, we added a drum and bass part based on the root notes of the chords, but which also uses the chord tones of the parent F major scale.
If you’re not sure how many sharps or flats each key has, you can use the Circle of Fifths to help you find the key of your song.
Simply count the number of sharps or flats in your melody and compare it with the inner ring of the circle – each key has a set number of sharps or flats, and this is displayed on the circle.
While not a 100% accurate way to find the key, this method will definitely point you in the right direction in most cases.
This technique is also a great way to approach remixing a song. If you find the original key the melody is in, you can switch the key to its relative major or minor key to find chords that will completely change the mood of the song.
For example, minor relative to C major is A minor, so if you use chords in the key of A minor below the existing melody, you have the power to change a happy melody into a darker, more brooding melody.