Choosing the right chords for a song can make all the difference between a great song and a terrible one. When you first start writing songs though, you may be overwhelmed by the options available to you. 12 major chords, 12 minor chords, plus all kinds of diminished, sus, and seventh chords to consider…

How do you know which chords to use in your songs?

Start from what works

There are certain patterns of chords which work well together, and create the kind of “musical journey” we’re used to hearing in songs. Studying these common progressions is a great way to get started when writing your own songs. The sounds they create will be familiar and effective, and while you may want to venture into more unusual territory later on, it’s very helpful to start from something you know will “work”, musically.

A more concrete way to do the same thing is to take examples of songs you know and like, and analyse the progressions they use. You can then adapt these progressions for use in your own song writing. In this way you learn from specific examples of what works.

Learn the basic theory

Even if you know very little music theory (and have no desire to learn it!) you should find out a bit about how chord progressions work. It’s worth learning the “rules” about which chords go together – you can always choose to break those rules later on, but you should start from understanding why the rule exist and how they can help you write better songs faster.

Simply learning about the “Circle of Fifths” will rapidly help you make sense of those 24 standard chords and know which ones you should try using together.

Train your ear for progressions

Of course, what matters about the chords you choose isn’t letters written on a page or notes on sheet music, but the sounds of the chords and the musical effect they have on the listener.

Doing chord progressions ear training will teach you to recognise the sounds of common sequences of chords. This has a number of benefits for you as a song writer:

  • You will better appreciate how the chords you choose sound together.
  • You can learn by listening to songs. Work out their chords by ear, and use what you learn in your own song writing.
  • You will be able to imagine the sounds of progressions in your head before trying them out. This greatly accelerates the process of writing your own chord progressions.

Explore with your ears

Ultimately, your power as a song writer lies in using your ears and your own musical judgement to decide what goes into your songs. Your tastes, your influences, your creativity and your inspiration are all key factors in the songs you write.

Chords and progressions are simply a tool for you to use to express your musical ideas. Don’t just haphazardly choose your chords by guesswork.

Learn to use progressions as a tool and explore how they can help you – and you will increase the chances of reaching your full potential as a song writer.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • How can I write chords for my songs?
  • What’s the point of chord progression ear training?
  • What ear training helps you write good songs?

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