Songwriting Part 3: Some Scale And Chord Theory

The Major Scale

If you want to read the preceding 2 songwriting lessons, you can do so here when you click on following titles: How To Write Chords To Your Melodies and Fretboard Mastery for Better Songwriting.

Some important theory to memorize.

The most commonly used scale in our music is called the major scale.
The definition of that scale is:

  1. 2 whole steps, half step, 3 whole steps, half step.
  2. Another way of looking at that structure: Half steps are in between the 3rd and the 4th, and the 7th and the 8th note.

As you can see: a scale is defined by its structure. “Definition” of a scale means: “the structure” of a scale.
Another way of spelling this structure out in greater detail, gives following map:

  1. Play a first note,
  2. Next note = up 2 frets (from previous note),
  3. note 3 = up 2 frets,
  4. note 4= next fret
  5. note 5 = up 2 frets
  6. note 6 = up 2 frets
  7. note 7 = up 2 frets
  8. note 8 = next fret (is the same note like the first note you started on. This distance between the first and the last note is called “an octave”. )

To practice this and to get used to the sound of the major scale, play any random note anywhere on your guitar neck (closer to the headstock so you can play the whole scale ascending on 1 string).
Then, on the same string, go up 2 frets to play the next note, up another 2 frets to play the 3rd note, up 1 fret for the 4th note, etc…

When you start that structure on note C, you happen to play all the white keys of a piano in a row.


There are no black keys in between E & F and B & C (which happen to fall on 3 & 4 and 7 & 8 when you start a major scale on C)

Now you know the structure of the scale we write most of our music within the Western World, let’s have a look at all the chords in that scale.

The Connection Between Chord And Scale

You play a chord when you play at least 3 different notes in a scale together.
“At least” means that you could play more than 3 different notes in the scale simultaneously, but not less. (If you only play 2 different notes together, that is called “an interval”)

You can play a chord on every note in a scale.
Hence, Since there are 7 notes in a scale, there are also 7 chords in a scale: 1 chord on each note.

Since the notes in a major scale are organized following the order of intervals as explained above, that means that the chords are going to follow exactly the same intervallic series:

start with chord 1,
next chord up a whole step,
chord 3 up a whole step from the previous chord,
chord 4 up a half step from chord 3,
chord 5 up a whole step from chord 4,

A word of caution:
The above explanation only really makes sense when you play up and down a scale with bar chords.
You then literally see the chord movements linearly line up with the structure of a major scale

However: When you hit open string beginners/folky chords, you can’t visually tell that for example a C chord and a D chord are a whole step apart. 🙂
(This only starts making sense over time as you learn more theory, so don’t worry about that for now if this doesn’t make sense)

The following info is important though and is purely a matter of memorization.

There are 2 main types of chords: major chords and minor chords.

Since most of the music you will be writing, especially if you are an aspiring singer-songwriter, will be using the major scale, you will benefit from memorizing which type of chord appears on which location in the scale.

The chords in a scale are:

  1. I = major chord
  2. IIm = minor chord
  3. IIm = minor chord
  4. IV = major chord
  5. V = major chord
  6. VIm = minor chord
  7. VIIdim = diminished chord (rarely used in anything but jazz or classial music)

So you typically use 6 chords for the most part in song-writing.
(I know this is an oversimplification, but we’ll get to the more complicated harmonic options in time)

When you translate this to for example the key of C, you get the following 7 chords:

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

You probably already know all these chords.

So here’s how easy songwriting is:

You choose a couple of these chords and play them, 1 chord per bar. Keep repeating that chord progression, and without giving it any thought: sing melody lines over the chords.

Don’t criticize, don’t judge, don’t try to approach songwriting like it’s a matter of life and death. Remember: you are not trying to resolve world peace all by yourself, you’re just strumming chords and singing melodies you invent on the spot.

It’s like a muscle you work out: the more you do this, the better your melodies are going to get.

This concludes Part 3 of a series of Songwriting lessons about how to figure out the chords to your melodies.

Now you know what the chords are in a scale, but how do you put those chords together into great chord progressions?
What makes a chord progression great?
How do you use this above theory knowledge?

We’ll answer those questions next week when we’ll cover the final part: “Understanding How Chord Progressions Work”.


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