Songwriting: How do you come up with the right chords for your song?

This is the first blog post on this topic, and here we’ll tell you about the most basic approach: making use of diatonic chords. Diatonic chords support the vast majority of pop, country and R&B songs, and knowing about them is basic stuff for songwriters. 

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Guest Post from Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics

Very Handy!

When writing songs, it comes in very handy to have set of chords that fit nicely together. This is exactly what the chords we’ll be talking about do, since they’re all native to the same scale. You can pretty much toss them around in what ever way you want, without getting into too much trouble.

Diatonic Chords

Diatonic chords: it sounds fancy, but it isn’t, really. There’s nothing special with the chords themselves – they’re just ”ordinary” chords. The finesse here is how the chords relate to each other. 

Diatonic chords come in sets of seven chords. Each set of chords is derived from one scale. Not just any scale, but a diatonic scale. The most commonly used diatonic scales are the major scale and the minor scale (natural minor). More on the various diatonic scales in the book: ”Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics”.

What seven diatonic chords might fit your new song? We’ll show you one approach to figuring it out. We’ll assume here, that you know what key the song you’re working on is in. If you don’t know how to figure this out, read the blog post titles ”Know Your Key?”

The Promenade Method

It’s easy to find the right chords. Every scale degree can be used as the root note of a chord. Finding the triads belonging to a specific key, is as easy as playing selected notes from the scale on which the key is based. All you do is go for a walk up the scale, with strides skipping over every other scale degree!

An Example

The key E major is based on the diatonic scale e major, which contains the notes e – f sharp – g sharp – a – b – c sharp – d sharp. Each note will be the root note of a diatonic chord. Go for a walk up the scale, and get the following chords:

No. 1: e – g sharp – b – d sharp 

chord symbol: EMaj7

No. 2: f sharp – a – c sharp – e

chord symbol: F#m7

No. 3: g sharp – b – d sharp – f sharp

chord symbol: G#m7

No. 4: a – c sharp – e – g sharp

chord symbol: AMaj7

No. 5: b – d sharp – f sharp – a

chord symbol: B7

No. 6: c sharp – e – g sharp – b – d sharp

chord symbol: C#m7

No. 7: d sharp – f sharp – a – c sharp – e

chord symbol: D#m7(b5)

An Asset – in Minor Keys as well!

Finding the diatonic chords to a minor key can be done in the exact same fashion as with a major key. For instance, the natural minor scale starting on the note c sharp contains the notes: c sharp – d sharp – e – f sharp – g sharp – a – b. The chords are: C#m7 – D#m7(b5) – EMaj7 – F#m7 – G#m7 – AMaj7 – B7. Again, you’re just skipping every other note as you “walk” up the scale.

How to Use the Chords

Now follows three examples of songs containing diatonic chords. Interestingly, the songs make use of the chords in different ways, which yields different emotional results.

You’re probably aware that songs in minor keys tend to get gloomier/sadder then song in major keys, but there are actually a lot more psychology in chord sequences than just the difference between minor and major. 

The individual chords of a key create different ambiences depending on their placement within the key. The chord on the first scale degree, for instance, has a resting character. It’s the “home chord” of the key. A safe place to go if you want to end your song with a sense of closure and rest (this is true for both major and minor keys).

When we’re discussing the different roles of the chords of a key, we’re talking about what is called functions. A more accurate term for function “home chords” is tonic. There are actually three types of functions. In this post we’ll be having a look (and listen) at how the tonic can be used differently.

You Should Be Here, by Cole Swindell and Ashley Gorley (performed by Cole Swindell). 

This song is in a major key, but it isn’t all sunshine and roses. There’s something else there too, built into the chord sequence.

Listen to the end. The song does’t “land” on the tonic chord. It doesn’t leave you with a sense of being home and feeling safe and secure. Neither does the song start with the tonic. Fact is, that none of the form parts begins or ends with the tonic. 

Listen to the chorus (0:42) which is built on the repeated sequence C – G – D – Em. Since the restful tonic chord (G) is given such an unstressed position, the sequence feels like a wheel that could have kept spinning for ever. When four bars are repeated, the first and the third will become more stressed. In this song, these bars are occupied by chords with a less resting character.

What’s the emotional ambience? The song is in a major key, and the tempo is moderate. This creates a collected and balanced feel, but due to the way the tonic is more or less avoided, the music also has a streak of restlessness.

My Silver Lining, by Johanna Söderberg and Klara Söderberg (First Aid Kit). 

Here’s a song in a minor key. Due to this, it does have a slightly melancholic feel. Some minor songs have something sad, dark and desperate over them. This is not one of those songs.

When we compare it to the previous song, the big difference is how the tonic chord is treated. Here, the tonic (F#m) is accentuated and given lots of space. The whole intro section sticks firmly to this chord, and the chord loops of the verses both begin and end with it (F#m – A – E – F#m). The song accentuates the tonic so much that you get the feeling it only reluctantly goes elsewhere. The feeling of energy and movement forward comes instead from the tempo and the rhythm.

The chorus (1:02) begins with the chord parallel to the tonic (A), which introduces a slightly more up spirited feel. It’s not really a key modulation. We are pretty soon led back to the minor tonic chord.

What’s the emotional ambience? The song has a slightly blue tone, but it does nevertheless feel rather determined and strong. This effect comes partly from the fact that the chord loops pronounce the first scale degree. The harmony has a strong tonic feel. Swedish indie/folk melancholy.

Domino, by Claude Kelly, Henry Walter, Jessica Cornish, Lukasz Gottwald and Max Martin (performed by Jessie J).

Here is a song with lots of energy, drive and a sense of movement forward. The chord loop in the chorus section (0:53) doesn’t contain the tonic chord (G) at all: C(add9) – Am7 – Em7 – D7sus4. 

A difference, when comparing this song with the previous ones, is that the chords have more color. The root note, the third and the fifth forms what is called a triad – the most basic chord form. Chord tones 7, 9, 11 (which is the same note as 4) and 13 are the chord extension notes.

What’s the emotional ambience? The major key sets a happy tone. The rhythm, the tempo and the chord structure brings energy and edginess. The coloring of the chords make the harmony feel less austere/strict: Party!

Hurray, now you know about the diatonic chords! In addition, you also know some about the tonic function and chord loops. Put this to use in your songwriting!

More on chord sequences in our previous blogposts. More songwriting tips and knowledge in our book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics.