Chords are the foundation of songs and pieces of music, and as we all know, most songs use just the same three or four chords. So how can you create new and inspired music? If you’ve ever struggled for ideas when writing a song, try the techniques I’m sharing below and I guarantee you’ll find fresh inspiration!
A simple roadmap for playing chords by ear
All right, chords: Play one note and you’ve got a pitch. Play two notes together and you’re creating an interval. Play three notes together, and you’ve got yourself a chord!
And in terms of ear training your progression can be the same:
- Start with single notes. Listen to them carefully in a relaxed manner, short sessions involving only listening to single pitches.
- Then move on to intervals. First with one note at a time, thus making melodic intervals, and then pressing two keys together to produce harmonic intervals
- Finally you may start with chords. Major and minor chords to begin with, then other types too
In a previous article I’ve offered a simple roadmap for ear training, and here’s one simple plan for training your ear on chord progressions after you’re familiar with major and minor chords:
- Start with I-V. This is, in fact, the foundation. Everything else revolves around this. When you advance, though, you naturally want to break away from this sometimes (human nature!), and it’s possible to do. But you don’t have to be a rebel -a at least not when you start out.
- Then go for I-IV-V and all the variations (V-IV-I, IV-V-I-V etc.)
- Then you can mount the musical Olympus with the famous four chords: I-V-vi-IV, and all the variations. Not familiar with them already? You should check this article: Four Chords and the Truth.
Beyond the basics
In a major scale we’ve got major, minor chords, as well as one diminished chord, so you may also include the diminished seventh chord in your toolbox. (sound files for all of this). And this is where you might start to feel limited in your music creating. So let me share some more chord options from other scales. We go well beyond the major scale in here. We’ve got minor scale, harmonic and melodic major & minor scales, blues scale, Arabic scale. (Video with those chord progressions and some improvisations.) You should also check out this article on the minor pentatonic scale.
Now the human being has one very special guide in all situations in life: their mind! In case of ear training that mind works through our ears, and this is so true for chord progressions, too. There are no impossible or “wrong” chord progressions actually. Some combinations may sound good or “right” and you might even choose to make the “wrong-sounding” chord progressions or combinations sound interesting or “right”!
It’s entirely up to you, so once you’ve got some ear training experience (like at least a few weeks) and can easily hear most of the intervals and chords, then you can do much more. Improvising is useful, even if you don’t think of yourself as a “professional” musician or composer/songwriter, as it lets you explore possible sounds.
How to choose chords to fit a melody
If you’ve come up with a simple melody, then you can actually come up with a chord progression for that melody, too, even if you’re not too advanced in terms of music theory. And you can use your own melodies and chord progressions to train your ear too.
First off, check out this article for the basics of how to choose chords to fit a melody.
Here’s one example which I made for myself (an intro from a short song I wrote):
First I made a very simple chord progression to go with it. First I thought it’d be I – ii – iii – IV, but I felt like that was a little too heavy. I could, however, insist on it as a songwriter if I wanted or use that progression for another work.
Then I experimented further and decided I – V – I – IV fits better:
Whatever we make with our own hands/sweat/mind is dearer to us. That’s why it’s more fun practicing your ear training using your own creations and improvisations. Share them with the world, too! You can leave a link in the comments below.
Inspiration is all around
I – IV – V and the “supreme” I – V – vi – IV can ensure you great fortune and fame. But many of us really love to explore further, and it’s possible to find new musical ideas in even unlikely places…
Let me introduce you to my idea of making music from buildings.
Sound strange? It is actually ridiculously simple.
What I do is I look at buildings and make a scheme in my mind. For example, if there is no light in the window, then it’s a note which is not played. If there is light, then it’s a pitch which needs to be played. And from that I can get myself melodies and chord progressions: material which I can use to create new musical works
So the buildings idea is clear, right? It’s all about being imaginative and creative. You are expected to make things out of thin air, and sometimes bend things or fill some details in. These small things help out, but the final output depends on the quality of your input, and that means work. “Smart” work though – not too much “hard” work really, if you love what you do. Plus commitment, curiosity, consistency and flexibility.
Here are a couple of other suggestions for drawing inspiration from unlikely places.
Take a book, open a random page, read a random sentence. There you have it! In fact let’s use “There you have it!” as an example. What I can do is to extract all the notes from it and see what I get. This can be both melody and chord progression. So I may get “E – E – A – E” and this may take me somewhere. The letter H is used in some traditions instead of B note, so I may get “B – E – E – B – A – E”. I like this one! Sounds like a ready tune to me!
I can then experiment with some chords. It could be a IV-iii chord progression if we interpret the melody as using the C Major scale. So I make iii – IV – iii out of it:
Here’s another more challenging way. Listen to someone, or maybe to yourself speaking. And then try to hear the intervals used in the speech. I notice, for instance, that I use perfect eight, fifth and fourth intervals most often. Try to turn your sentences into melodies or chord progressions! It’s good both for ear training and for creating music.
If these techniques seem “childish” to you, then I’m okay with that! Because complex things often come out of very simple and clear ideas.
It’s up to you (and your ears)
What you get in the end depends on your attitude and, once again, on the quality of the input. Your ear is your best guide in deciding if you like what you hear or not, and ear training will make that work better for you. You may even change your mind about earlier concepts you had after doing some ear training process or after you expose yourself to new genres of music for some time.
Just look at this and listen to what the birds on the wire have turned into thanks to someone’s imagination and dedication:
Have you got your own ways of making chords or melodies? Can you make some using lateral thinking. Take a random subject and try to think how you can use it in this context. Don’t be afraid – give it a go!
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