Are you looking to start writing your first songs and want to know where to begin? What are some of the chords that go together? Where do they go together, and why?
All this and more will be addressed today as we take a look at some of the inherent links between your favorite chords and the songs that they are so often featured in.
Working It Out Oneself
One way to find chords that go together – and one that I strongly encourage anyone to at least attempt to engage with – is to work it out for oneself.
By traditional standards of western harmony, any chords which contain all or almost all of the notes of the given key are guaranteed to work together. These can be major chords or minor chords, for a key signature and its scale degrees correspond to different tonalities depending on whether the key itself is major or minor.
The scale degrees of a major scale, for example, would be notated as: I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii. These correspond to the fact that those in lowercase will inherently be minor chords in the key. So, if ‘I’ is C then we have a C major chord going into a D minor chord, then into an Em, F, G, Am, Bm, and finally back round into C.
Freelance performer John Malcolm suggests as a beginner exercise to draw or print out a neck diagram and then pick a key and detail all of the relevant notes of that key onto the fretboard. Using your guitar, you can then find all the combinations of these notes that sound pleasant to your own discerning ear and innate harmonic sense.
Of course, in constructing your own chord sequences you will want to use chords that are outside the bounds of the chosen key signature. These are often referred to as passing chords. Alongside these kinds of chords, you will also want to use chords from related (or unrelated keys) to encourage or bridge the gap modulations of keys.
All of these I would encourage the user to figure out for themselves, as there is no better ear than one’s own.
Using Your Own Ear
Taking this idea even further, I might even encourage you to completely negate any sort of taught education regarding what chord progressions sound good together.
Many famous artists will tell you that tone is whatever pleases the ear of the beholder, just as whatever sounds good together is truly in the ears of whoever is listening. In this way, whatever you hear and like the sound of can be used in a chord progression of your choosing.
Granted, many popular chord progressions make use of established harmonic logic like the circle of fifths and they sound all the better for it. They are, after all, established institutions of harmony and tonality for a reason.
Certain combinations of chords do just sound good together, hence why they have come to be used together so much and why they have become staples of music theory (in theory and practice). These kinds of chords are so ubiquitous throughout the western world and a sequence in C major scale, therefore, is going to be more likely to please an audience than a chord progression littered with diminished chords.
All of this being said, do not let these boundaries be the boundaries to your own creativity and imagination. You can do far better than just following the rules established by years of western classical conquest. For all the boundaries established within western music, there are still so many depths still unplundered and it seems such a waste.
There are now more musicians around than there ever have been. Encouraged by the internet and the supposed democratization of information it can provide, more people have been learning guitar, so it surely stands to reason that it is more important to stand out now than ever before, instead of just playing the same old chord progressions.
Using the Circle of Fifths
Of course, if you are a little stuck to begin with, you can use the circle of fifths.
When we talk of a key in music, we are referring to the relative tonal center of the music at hand. There are likely more examples than not of music with a veritable tonal center, where the melody and harmony will revolve around a single note or chord which we call the tonic and which is, in western classical theory, given the designation ‘I‘.
From this tonic note, we can build the scale that is used to compose the melodies and harmonies in the tonic key. In western classical harmony, these scales are more often than not major chords and minor chords, and, in order to retain this major or minor tonality, scales will feature accidentals, a way to augment or diminish a note through sharps and flats respectively and in relation to the C major scale, which is supposed to have no accidentals: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.
So, in trying to find the key, we are essentially looking for how many sharps or flats there are in the stave, the key signature. These will be indicative of how many sharps or flats there are in the diatonic scale of the key, whether in a major key or a relative minor key.
Circle of Fifths… Continued
All of this can certainly feel like a lot to be taking in at once, but thankfully these kinds of things are a little easier on the guitar. On a piano, because of the inherent formation of the keys, the shapes will change depending on which note you are starting from. Alternatively, on a guitar, the shapes that the fingers are tracing in order to sound out the major or minor scales will stay the same because of the way the fretboard is structured like ceaseless rows of sameness.
Try it for yourself and see how simple and unassuming the circle of fifths can truly be! Pick a note from the outer ring and trace your finger sequentially clockwise and you will see that they are always ascending by an interval of a fifth.
The simplicity of the circle of fifths is, however, deceptive for not only do the characters around the circle of fifths correspond to certain notes but they also represent different keys and key signatures, hence why you will see in some renderings of the circle of fifths a stave with a treble clef and the corresponding sharps or flats of each key signature laid out on each respective stave. C major, of course, is without accidentals (sharps or flats).
And, of course, they refer to chords. Some of the most famous and common chord progressions can be found in the circle of fifths, for it provides a quick and relatively easy way to visualize which chord groups traditionally work together.
Commonly Used Chords
So, further to working out the notes in each key for oneself, this chart seeks to map out each of the keys of the chromatic scale and all of the notes contained herein:
|Step||I (i)||ii (II)||iii (III)||IV (iv)||V (vi)||vi (VI)||vii (VII)|
|Key||Major (Minor)||Minor (Major)||Minor (Major)||Major (Major)||Major (Minor)||Minor (Major)||Diminished|
Though this chart certainly favors the major key as a way to exhibit its ideas, the minor scale is present, albeit in a rather clumsy way that does its best within the bounds of the table format.
If you look closely, you will see that the ii chord is in lowercase. In the major scale version, when a chord is in capitals it is major, and vice versa. The same is very much true for the minor scale version, but since the scale degrees are reversed, so too is the diagrammatic rendering.
Some Other Common Chord Progressions
To round off the list, here are some other common chord progressions that can be found throughout the western world.
I – IV – V
- C – F – G
- D – G – A
- F – Bb – C
- G – C – D
- A – D – E
I – vi – IV – V
- C – Am – F – G
- D – Bm – G – A
- F – Dm – Bb – C
- G – Em – C – D
- A – F#m – D – E
ii – V – I
- Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7
- Em7 – A7 – Dmaj7
- Gm7 – C7 – Fmaj7
- Am7 – D7 – Gmaj7
- Bm7 – E7 – Amaj7
I – vi – ii – V
- C – Am – Dm – G
- D – Bm – Em – A
- F – Dm – Gm – C
- G – Em – Am – D
- A – F#m – Bm – E
I – V – vi – IV
- C – G – Am – F
- D – A – Bm – G
- F – C – Dm – Bb
- G – D – Em – C
- A – E – F#m – D
I – IV – vi – V
- C – F – Am – G
- D – G – Bm – A
- F – Bb – Dm – C
- G – C – Em – D
- A – D – F#m – E
I – iii – IV – V
- C – Em – F – G
- D – F#m – G – A
- F – Am – Bb – C
- G – Bm – C – D
- A – C#m – D – E
I – IV – I – V
- C – F – C – G
- D – G – D – A
- F – Bb – F – C
- G – C – G – D
- A – D – A – E
I – IV – ii – V
- C – F – Dm – G
- D – G – Em – A
- F – Bb – Gm – C
- G – C – Am – D
- A – D – Bm – E
So, there you have it!
Hopefully, some of your burning questions have been addressed and your curiosity has been satiated. Perhaps you are now feeling better equipped to experiment with chords and notes and to form them all together into a composition all of your own.
FAQs Chords That Go Together
One way to find chords that go together – and one that I strongly encourage anyone to at least attempt to engage with – is to work it out for oneself. By traditional standards of western harmony, any chords which contain all or almost all of the notes of the given key are guaranteed to work together. These can be major chords or minor chords, for a key signature and its scale degrees correspond to different tonalities depending on whether the key itself is major or minor.
The scale degrees of a major scale would be notated as: I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii. These correspond to the fact that those in lowercase will inherently be minor chords in the key. So, if ‘I’ is C then we have a C major chord going into a D minor chord, then into an Em, F, G, Am, Bm, and finally back round into C. Freelance performer John Malcolm suggests as a beginner exercise to draw or print out a neck diagram and then pick a key and detail all of the relevant notes of that key onto the fretboard. Using your guitar, you can then find all the combinations of these notes that sound pleasant to your own discerning ear and innate harmonic sense.
The chords that are most often used and that would, thus, be deemed ‘magic chords’ would be the 1st, 4th, and 5th scale degrees of any key. If the home key is major, then all of these chords will be major and will easily match. If the home key is minor, then they will be minor, etc. The scale degrees of a major scale would be notated as: I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii. These correspond to the fact that those in lowercase will inherently be minor chords in the key. So, if ‘I’ is C then we have a C major chord going into a D minor chord, then into an Em, F, G, Am, Bm, and finally back round into C.
The 4 chords that, as exemplified by Axis of Awesome many years ago at the dawn of the internet, are believed to fuel a countless number of pop songs are the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th scale degrees of the given key. In roman numerals, they would be notated as: I – IV – V – vi. When in lowercase, the roman numeral dictates that the chord of this scale degree should be minor (unless, of course, the key is minor itself, in which case it will represent the opposite).