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It might seem like an odd question but have you ever thought about what chords do in music? Why isn’t all music just melody and rhythm?

Knowing the purpose chords serve in songwriting can help you better understand what you’re trying to accomplish with your progressions. 

Chords are one of the 3 main components of all music along with melody and rhythm. 

We know chords are essentially when two or more notes are played together at the same time. 

But what are we trying to accomplish with them?

The purpose of chords in music is to establish the mood of a song and create a song structure via chord progressions. They tell the audience what to feel and create a “setting” for the song’s story or message to take place in. 

Let’s dive deeper into the specific things that chord progressions allow us to do in music.

Creating an Emotional Context

The other day I saw this post on Instagram that does a great job at describing what each main component of music is supposed to do.

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I’m not affiliated in any way with this page but I think this is spot on. 

Chords provide the context for what you are supposed to be feeling while listening to the song. 

They help to paint a sonic landscape and set a mood. They are essentially the setting for the song’s story to take place in. 

I think this is important to keep in mind when making chord progressions because if you know the mood that you want, you can get an idea of what chords can get you there. 

The chords you choose can also help you make melodies that accentuate that mood by stressing the notes that give the chord it’s moodiness. 

Rhythm can also complement the mood set by the chords. If you have some sexy R&B chords, it could inspire you to use slow drums to complement that sexy feeling of the chords. 

Thus, the chords can provide some insight into what the rhythm and melody can do by the mood that has been set. 

Creating a Structured Journey with Chord Progressions

Have you ever played one of those 2D side scroller video games? The further you walk to the right of the screen the further you get through the game. 

Chord progressions are like that side scroller journey through the song. They provide the structure for the main character (the listener) to go through as they go through the level (the song). 

Chords can also add an element of surprise in this journey, like when using borrowed chords. 

This way the structure is a bit less predictable. However, you want to do this without straying too far from the main vibe of the song though, so it doesn’t sound like you completely changed to a different song and went off on a tangent abandoning the previous parts of the song. 

Adding Color to your Progressions with Chord Extensions

Another purpose of chords in music is to add color to your songs and you can do this using chord extensions. 

At their foundation, chords are made up of triads. Three notes to make a chord. The Root, third and 5th intervals of a scale. You could say that triads are broad sounds, like major sounding happy and minor sounding sad. 

However, chord extensions such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths add a ton of color to your chords and can further specify the “type” of happy or sad sound. For example, an epic triumphant sound could be said to be a more specific type of happy sound. It’s more nuanced. 

Chord extensions are most commonly used in Jazz which is why many people call them Jazz Chords. However, they are also used in all kinds of music including pop, rock, traditional world music, etc. 

I have a post about chord extensions here: What are Chord Extensions?. This can give you some more insight into them. 

One other thing to note about chord extensions and using them to add color to your chord progressions is that you can add the “extension” notes in different instruments. When you hear the chord spread across different instruments it helps to hear each element clearly as they work together to display the full chord.

This brings us to the next purpose chords can have in music which involves spreading chords across multiple instruments. 

Arranging Chords Across One vs Multiple Instruments

Arrangement is very important when you’re putting together songs and this not only has to do with the instruments that play in the song but also with arranging a chord over multiple instruments. 

When you write for a band the song needs to be arranged for multiple instruments, not just your own. So if you write a chord progression, you may need to consider how to spread it across multiple instruments to sound clear and have each one complement the other to have a place in the “whole” of the song. 

For example, in Jazz you will often see the Bass emphasizing the Root notes of the chord (let’s say A for an AMajor7#13), while the guitar might play inversions of the chord plus the chord extensions (such as all the other notes of an AMajor7#13 that are not the bass note). 

When both instruments are heard together you hear a full AMajor7#13 chord, even though the instruments are not playing the entire chord on their respective instruments. They sum up. 

What Music Theory to Know when Working with Chords in Songwriting

Lastly, I wanted to include the concepts you might want to look into if you’re interested in learning more about working with chords in songwriting. 

The main ones are:

  1. How chords are built – to understand chords
  2. Roman Numeral Analysis – for understanding relationships between chords in a key
  3. Chord Function – for making chord progressions that flow
  4. The Circle of Fifths – as a tool to work with chord progressions
  5. Modal Chord Progressions – for making moodier chord progressions based on the modes
  6. Chord Inversions – for making simple chords more interesting
  7. Seventh Chords – starts you off on making more interesting and complex chords
  8. Chord Extensions – more complex advanced chords

You don’t need to know all of these to make cool songs but they can help you as tools for finding the chords and sounds you’re looking for right off the bat. That way you can find what you’re looking for much faster and save yourself the headache of experimenting for hours or days until you stumble upon the sound you want. 

Those concepts can be incredibly useful to make more interesting chord progressions but remember that the sound is really what matters and simple can be great too.  

Here are some resources that can help you learn more about each concept. I try to explain things as simply as possible because I know it sucks to get overwhelmed by complicated music theory jargon. 

Wrapping it up

As you can see, it’s important to know what the purpose of chords is in music. When you know the role chords are trying to fill, it will help guide you in your decision making when bringing the song to life, whether with one or multiple instruments. 

Chords often carry most of the mood and vibe of a song. They are the context for the melody and the rhythm. Always keep that in mind. 

If this was helpful, how about subscribing to the Youtube channel for more? 


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