In my guitar and songwriting lessons, students often ask me how they can figure out the chords to their melodies when they are writing a song.
While this is pretty large topic to cover, I can get you on the fast track giving you some pointers to get you started.
The better your ear is, the lesser time you are wasting on “trial and error”.
If you can’t tell the chords by ear, you can literally spend for ever hitting chords, till you found the one that you think is the one you were looking for.
Ear training is THE most important thing to work on for all musicians
Play random notes on your guitar, then sing the notes out loud, matching the note of your guitar with your voice.
Record yourself doing this.
If you never practiced your ear before, you probably will have a hard time matching the pitch you were playing with your voice.
Do 3 – 4 sessions of 4 minutes a day.
No worries! You will get better at it and it will get easier.
You want to record yourself doing this, and listen back to the recording so you can see how far you were off and hear where and how to fix your pitch accuracy.
It’s easier to hear what needs to be fixed when you can sit back and relax and listen back to a recording of your performance.
The opposite of the previous exercise:
Sing random, short melody lines that you make up on the spot. Then find the notes of that melody line you sang, on your guitar, matching the notes of your vocal melody with your guitar.
This is more challenging, which is why you want to do exercise 1 for a while first.
Do the same thing as for exercise 1: record yourself doing this. Do this 3-4 times a day, short 4 minute practice sessions.
Just like in spoken conversation, where we speak in short groupings of words with pauses (commas, colons, periods, etc.), adding up to full sentences: melodies consist of short musical phrases too.
Examples of short melodic phrases adding up to melodies:
(Phrase 1) “She loves you” (pause, then phrase 2) “yeah yeah yeah”
“Help” (pause) “I need somebody”
“When I was younger so much younger than todaaaay” (pause) “I never needed anybody’s help in any way” (The Beatles, “Help)
It is important to understand that melodies consist of shorter phrases put together.
The reason why knowing this helps your songwriting, is that you typically figure out chords to a melody, phrase by phrase.
The first and last note in a melodic phrase are typically the most important notes in the phrase.
- Those are the notes that feel and sound the strongest and the most memorable in the phrase.
Having a good ear makes it easier to find the notes of a melody you hear in your head, on your guitar neck,
- More often than not, musical phrases phrase end (Meaning: “resolve to”) on a note that is one of the notes of the chord played at that time. Meaning: if the last note in a melodic phrase is a G note, the most pleasing sounding chord will be any chord that has a G note in it. (Which would be the chords, C, Cm, G, Gm, Eb, Em)
So by figuring out (by ear) what the notes are in a melody, you are a big step closer to knowing what chord(s) will work with that melody line.
Before moving on to the next topic; an important consideration:
If your melody contains too many chord tones only: your melody will become “unnoticeable”.
You don’t want “vanilla” melodies. You also want spice, vinegar, pepper in your melody.
Just like every good story that has direction: you want the constant interplay of tension – resolution, tension – resolution.
What this means is following:
If every chord you write for every melodic phrase, is a chord that consists of starting and ending notes in each phrase, your melody gets lost inside the chord. It’s like dressing yourself up in a red suit, and then pose in front of a wall that is painted in exactly the same color like your clothes: you disappear in the background.
Doing this makes your melody bland, boring, unnoticeable, and less memorable.
You solve this by having a good blend of chords that match the melody, mixed in with chord choices that fight a bit against parts of the melody. (Which is the case if your melody line contains notes that are not in the chord)
I know this seems like a hell of a lot of work to learn. However: I have really good news for you.
It has been my experience with songwriting students that this stuff kind a figures itself out as your ear gets better.
The better your ear gets, the better and the more interesting the colors (meaning: chord choices) that you start hearing.
Yet, it helps to know that chord choices play an important part in how well a melody stands out (or doesn’t).
Which leads to following requirement…
Chord tone memorization:
You can’t know which chords match which melody notes if you haven’t memorized what the notes are in all major, minor and diminished chords.
Memorization of the notes in all diminished chords is slightly lesser important because that particular chords is much lesser used in popular music than major and minor chords are.
This knowledge is not “essential” to figure out chords to melody lines. You can totally do without this: but it would take you way longer. You would have to rely upon some form of trial and error: hitting numerous chords till you hit target by sheer luck.
Applied knowledge is power. I really believe that part of the reason why it only takes me minutes to write an entire song from scratch: is the interplay of many small pieces of theory, ear and knowledge all working together.
Is the above knowledge necessary to write amazing songs?
Does it help?
So here we go! You always want to work “smart’, not work “hard”.
There are only 7 chords you need to memorize the notes for:
C = C E G
D = D F# A
E = E G# B
F = F A C
G = G B D
A = A C# E
B = B D# F#
You can deduct all the rest from these 7 chords.
For the “in-between chords”, or in other words, the chords that start on the black keys of the piano: add # (sharp) or b (flat) (which is the same like dropping a #) to all 3 notes of the above chords.
Example: C# = C# E# G# (all 3 notes of the C chord go up a half step)
Db = Db F Ab (all 3 notes of the D chord go down a half step)
For minor chords: bring the note in the middle down one half step (= 1 fret).
Example: Cm = C Eb G, Dm = D F A, etc. …)
For diminished chords: bring the 2nd and 3rd note down a half step.
Example: Cdim = C Eb Gb, Ddim = D F Ab, etc. …)
Spend a week on the above exercises and drills.
Next week I want to take this further. I’ll talk about fret board exercises: which will help you find out what the names are of the notes in your melody lines.
After all: finding the notes on your guitar neck of a melody you hear in your head, is not going to help you a bit if you don’t know that those notes you just figured out to your melody, are A B C# D E. (Which would have an A chord as the most likely chord btw, or F#m7 as the 2nd most likely option).
I will also discuss chord theory and chord progressions. This knowledge will help you zero in on which chord options are the best for any given melody.
Looking forward to our next week’s songwriting meeting. 🙂