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Ah, the plague of every songwriter. How do you find the right chords for a song with so many options? How do you make emotive chord progressions that pull at your heartstrings and take you on a ride from start to finish? How do you make unexpected chord changes that surprise the listener?

These are all great questions and today we’re checking out the secrets and tools many songwriters use to achieve this. 

When looking for the right chords for a song, songwriters use tools and concepts of music theory such as common chord progressions, chord function, the modes, chord substitutions, and chord inversions to find the chords needed for the song. 

It’s tough to find the right chords if you don’t know where or how to look for them, so let’s dive into how to help you get there. 

Use a Common Chord Progression as a Foundation

When it comes to finding the right chords for your songs it helps to know what common chord progressions are out there. These progressions are common for a reason. They work, they sound great, and they may be what your song is asking for. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel.

If you’re struggling to find the right chords for your song, maybe look at the chords you have now and see if most of them match a common chord progression and if any of your chords would sound better if adjusted to match it. 

We hear common chord progressions so much that a lot of the time our ear WANTS to hear something expected. It’s ok to put in something expected if it is what the song is asking for. 

You can always get creative with other aspects of the song like melodies or rhythms. Always put the song first over forcing something to work.  

Use Chord Function to Make Chords Flow

One of the reasons that common chord progressions work so well is that they follow Chord Function. 

Chord Function is a concept about the roles that chords within a key have in building and releasing tension. 

If you have ever heard a chord progression and felt like one chord was pulling to the next flowing smoothly, this is the reason. 

This means Chord Function can help you figure out the right chord for your song by showing you your options for what chord feels pulled to the next.

In a key there are 7 chords, and each one has one of 3 chord functions:

  1. Tonic: The most stable. Has the least tension. Feels like home. Chords: I, III, vi
  2. Subdominant: A little more unstable than tonic. Has more tension. Feels like being away from home and has a slight urge to either go back to the Tonic chord or a Dominant chord. Chords: ii, IV
  3. Dominant: The most unstable. Has the most tension. Is the furthest from home and has a strong urge to return to a Tonic chord. Chords: V, viio

As you can see, Tonic chords give a feeling of resolution. Subdominant chords like to pull to either Tonic or Dominant chords, and Dominant chords can also pull towards Subdominant and Tonic chords. It just depends how dramatic a resolution (or how hard a pull) you want from one chord to another. 

So you can use this to check the flow of tension and release your chords are creating, and see if you’re using the right chord to achieve what you want. 

Use Chords from Modes to Stress a Mood

Modes are the moods of music. If you are looking for a particular mood in your song, then using chords from modes might be what you need to find the right chord for the right mood. 

Modes from the Major scale come in two flavors. They can be Minor modes or Major modes. 

Minor modes (from the Major scale) are based on the Minor chords within a Major key. 

The Minor modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian.  These can give very unique moods such as Mysterious, Threatening, Nostalgic, and Disturbing. These are different flavors of darker sounds. 

Major modes (from a Major scale) are based on the Major chords within a Major key. 

The Major modes are Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. These can give moods such as Heavenly or Ethereal. They are different flavors of brighter sounds. 

I have a few blog posts that could really help you using chords from modes correctly. Check these out:

Use Chord Substitutions for Unexpected Changes

This builds a little on Chord Function. 

Since some chords have roles in a key, you can substitute chords with other chords if they have similar functions. 

For example, if your song needs a chord that feels resolved but you don’t want to resolve to the first chord in the key, you could substitute that Root chord for a III or vi chord. 

Both of those will still sound somewhat resolved because they are Tonic chords, but can be less obvious than the Root chord. 

Secondary Dominants

This is one of the most popular chord tricks songwriters use to spice up chord progressions and help with making transitions. 

We know that the V to the I chord is the strongest resolution because it goes from the tensest chord function to the most stable. V chords are Dominant chords which mean that you can play them as a V7 chord. 

Here’s the trick: any chord you want to resolve to, just look for the note a 5th interval above it and play that as a Dominant Seventh chord

For example, if you want to resolve to a Cmaj, just go up a 5th and play a seventh chord like a G7 and resolve back to Cmaj. 

G7 – Cmaj

If you want to resolve to an Fmaj chord, go up a 5th interval to C and play it as a seventh chord (C7) and resolve to Fmaj.

C7 – Fmaj

If you try it on your instrument you will notice this works every time. 

It also works whether you want to resolve to a Major or Minor chord. 

So if you want to resolve to Amin for example, go up a 5th to E7 and then resolve to Amin. 

E7 – Amin

Sometimes you just need a chord to use as a transition so this works very well. 

Borrow Chords from Relative Minors

Generally speaking, pretty much all of music theory is relative to the Major scale. 

You probably already know that a Minor scale is the same as a Major scale but starting it on the 6th note. Because chords are created from those scale notes to form a key, Major and Minor keys share the same chords but are in a different order. 

Therefore a great trick for making less expected changes is to borrow chords from the relative key. 

Let’s walk through this, it’s very easy.

Chords of C Major

I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio

Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Bdim

Chords of C Minor

I, iio, III, iv, v, VI, VII

Amin, Bdim, Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj

Notice how these have the same chords but Minor starts from the 6th chord compared to the Major scale.

So let’s assume you have this C Major chord progression:

I – V – vi – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

You could change the V chord (Gmaj) and make it a v chord (Emin) because in a C Minor key the fifth chord is E Minor instead of G Major, 

I – V – vi – IV

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj

I – v – vi – IV

Cmaj, Emin, Amin, Fmaj

That’s all there is to it. Check if you like the sound it gives. You can also borrow any other chord from the Minor scale as well.

This could give you the sound you are looking for, so borrowing from the relative scale can help you find the right chords for your song. 

Switch Any Chord to Major or Minor 

There’s not as much science here. switch one or two chords in your own progression to Major or Minor and see how it sounds. It’s just a good way to experiment.

Don’t worry about what key it turns the progression into or any of that stuff, just use your ears and see if you like it and is what you are looking for. 

You just might find the right chord that you were looking for. 

Also, check out this article I did about 5 Ways Songwriters Spice Up Boring Chord Progressions.

Use Chord Inversions for a Different Feel with the Same Chord

Let’s start with how this can help you find the right chords. Chord inversions essentially make the same chord feel different by switching the order the notes are played in. 

You are just changing the voicing. Same chord, different vibe. 

You could make it sound brighter for example, which can help the chord sit better with the rest of the instruments in the song. So you might not need a different chord, just a different way of playing the same chord. 

The short and simple version is that a chord is usually made up of 3 notes, the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a scale. For example, Cmaj (C, E, G).

We could play the chord with the notes in that same order, we call that a Root Position. But we can also switch the order of the notes, we can “invert” the chord. 

So instead of playing a Cmaj chord as C, E, and G, we could play it as E, G, and C. We call this First Inversion because we are starting on the first note after the Root note (C note). 

If you start on the second note after the Root note (the G note) and play it like this G, C, E then you are playing a Second Inversion. 

Root Position

First Inversion

Second Inversion

I’ve got a whole blog post talking about how to use chord inversions in songwriting which you can read here: How Do Chord Inversions Work in Songwriting?

Know What Chord Types Give What Feeling

7ths, suspended, elevenths, thirteenths…there are lots of different types of chords and many of them have specific feelings to them. 

We can look at the Major and Minor chords which usually sound Happy or Sad. 

But there’s also Suspended chords for example that tend to sound very Spacey and Floaty. 

Or Major Seventh chords which sound Happy with a small bit of Sadness. 

There are also Modal chords which can have their own feeling to them like a Phrygian chord which could sound kind of Aggressive or Threatening. 

So knowing what chord usually carries what feeling can be helpful in finding the right chords for your song. 

If you want a Spacey/ Floaty feeling, you already know a Suspended chord might be what you are looking for. 

This approach treats chords a bit more like colors to paint with rather than worrying about keys etc, and lets you use your ear to make the decisions. 

Wrapping it up

Everyone has a different approach for finding the right chords. Many songwriters use these tools and concepts and many also are just blessed with having a great ear and great taste in their chord decisions, but this is not required. 

By using the concepts outlined in this article you will be able to find the chords you need and may even surprise yourself in how dramatically your chord progressions will improve. 

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