How to find the next chord

How to find the next chord in the progression when writing a song

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For those times when you’re writing a song and can’t find the right chord to complete a progression, this technique – using applied music theory – will help you discover your best options and help you complete your song.

How many times have you been writing a chord progression, when you suddenly hit that wall? It happens all the time: I’ll be writing a song and have three chords that sound great – and perfectly fit the idea in my head – but I can’t seem to find the right chord to go next.

Let’s dive right into this problem and explore a very handy technique for finishing those chord progressions.

Three chords

We’re going to assume you’ve started writing a chord progression, and have two or three chords together. Maybe these fit a melody you’re singing, something your bandmate is playing, or maybe you just like the sound of them as they are. Either way, you’re almost there. To frame this discussion, I’ve picked a few chords as an example, but you’ll be able to follow along with lots of other progressions too. The chords we’ll use are G, Bm and A. Here’s what that sounds like (repeated twice, with a blank space where our new chord will go):

Listen: Three chords, looking for the fourth.

Break down the chords

Chords tend to sound good together if they’re all in the same key. There are all sorts of keys (major, minor, etc.), but you don’t really need to know that stuff for now. All you need to know is that a key is a set of notes (usually seven) that sound good together. We’re going to pull the notes out of each chord in our progression and then see what other chords we can build with them. Here are the notes that make up each of our chords:

G major: G B D

B minor: B D F♯

A major: A C♯ E

Now we’ll combine all those notes, remove any repeated ones, and put them in order:

G   A   B   C♯   D   E   F♯

Find all the chords

This scale has a name (it’s a mode called G Lydian), but again, this stuff doesn’t really matter for what we’re doing. What we’re going to do next is look at all the chords we can make with these notes. The three basic chord types – major, minor, diminished – have a simple “1–3–5” relationship, which works like this:

  • Pick any note, call it “1”
  • Count two notes up the scale to “3”
  • Count two more notes up to “5” (wrap around to the beginning if you run out of notes)

These three notes make your chord!

Let’s see how that looks with the G chord. We start counting at G… two notes up is B… and then two more is D. That’s G, B, D – or G major – which is exactly what we’d expect.

G   A   B   C♯   D   E   F♯

We can do this for every chord in the key. To determine if the chord we made is major, minor, or diminished, look at the intervals between each note. A chord with the notes G B D is major because G to B is 2 steps and B to D is 1.5 steps; minor has the opposite relationship (e.g., the B D and F♯ in our Bm chord); diminished has 1.5 steps between each pair of adjacent notes (e.g., C♯ E G). Alright, here’s what we get if we pull out all seven chords:

G B D: G major

A C♯ E: A major

B D F♯: B minor

C♯ E G: C♯ diminished

D F♯ A: D major

E G B: E minor

F♯ A C♯: F♯ minor

Altogether, here are the chords in our key:

G   A   Bm   C♯dim   D   Em   F♯m

Getting that final chord in the progression

Now we can find that last chord! Since we now know all the chords in our key, we can start trying out some options. Let’s assume that for this song we don’t want to repeat any of our first three chords. That leaves us with four options to try. Here’s how they all sound.

Progression with C♯dim

Progression with D

Progression with Em

Progression with F♯m

The progression you choose is a personal choice – which do you most like? We may even decide to keep looking beyond these four, and consider seventh chords, chords outside the key, or something else. That said, my personal favorite is the chord progression with F♯m, as it fits the melody that was in my head when I brought together the first three chords. I’ll throw in that melody on synth and add in some bass, drums, and keys.

Here’s what we get:
Listen: F#m Chord Progression With Melody

Cool eh? This is applied music theory – it’s the music theory that puts you and your ideas in the driver’s seat. Want to learn more? Check out our article “Songwriting and a quick lesson in music theory” and our very special music theory app, Waay, that’s all about music theory for songwriting, with its interactive exercises, bite-sized video lessons, and progress tracking tools.

Alex Andrews is an engineer (B.Sc. Engineering Physics, M.Sc. Electrical Engineering) and musician who runs an indie app company called Ten Kettles. Based in Toronto, Canada, Ten Kettles builds apps for music education from the ground up. Their newest app, “Waay: Music theory that matters,” brings together video lessons, interactive exercises, and progress-tracking tools to teach music theory for songwriters.

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18 thoughts on “How to find the next chord in the progression when writing a song

  1. Wouldn’t it just be easier to explain that the song is basically in D major and that each major scale contains seven diatonic chords I IV V (major) II/III/Vi minor & VII diminished that can be switched around in any order of diatonic progression? This way whatever chord or chords they start with, in this case IV/V/Vim they have four other ones to choose from and of course they always can repeat the same chord as an option.

  2. I have been trying to write my song since APRIL! I realize now that my 90s esque needs a fill chord for in between the phrases, it also happened to be 3 chords and it just felt like it was missing a fourth! This is the kind of stuff I want to eventually teach in the future but I need to refresh my theory memory to get good at it myself! Thank you for writing this!!!

  3. This article is a “save.” As a relatively accomplished trumpet player, I have always struggled a bit with chord progressions when writing songs. We just don’t use a lot of chords when playing trumpet! My studies have taught me some progressions, but mostly in the way of soloing over them. As I have worked more on songwriting and less on performing, I picked up guitar and have gotten good enough to play my ideas, but that still leaves me with the question you asked at the beginning many times, “What’s the next chord?”

    Your simple, straightforward technique for finding at least a few answers is a non piano player’s dream come true!


  4. Im really lost where to go with this progression ? Be good to find another couple of chords to put on the end of this………..
    F Aflat C Eflat over C#( bass)

    E Aflat Bflat Eflat over C
    G Aflat Eflat over F
    Thought if we could find a bit more to go on the end would make it so much better.
    THANKS SO MUCH……………..max

    1. (I know it’s been many months, and you’ve likely moved on with this, but, anyway…)

      That’s not a C# in the bass — that’s a Db (D-flat. It’s the same note, but in this case, the name matters). You’re most likely in Ab Major, or F minor, I’d go with the F minor (and look at making the mentioned F chords minor or at least F5). Your last chord listed is the Eb/F, which will really want to resolve straight to Fm.

      You could also switch out the F in the bass on the last group for a Bb, then add another group of chords over Ab, finally resolving to Ab Major.

  5. Calling it a mode is overcomplicating things. You’ve got two major chords which will generally tell you what key you’re in. If you have G and A (or any two major chords a tone apart) then those are the 4 and 5 chord of the key, and the root of the key is a 4th above the latter chord, or a 4th below the former chord. So if you have G and A, then the root/key is D. Then just use the major/minor/minor/major/major/minor/diminished chord sequence and the tone/tone/semitone/tone/tone/tone root note sequence to determine the chords, in this case D E F# G A B C# so you end up with D Em F#m G A Bm C#dim

    This requires the basic knowledge that B-C and E-F (mnemonic is BE) are only a semitone apart and all other notes are a tone apart.

    1. You hit it like me. Initially I ended up on a D Major key and that would make everything cool and my fourth chord was to make the key settle home by adding a D Major chord (progression 2 up there). That’s basic to simple ears. Modes are for complex musicians and are often added after initial progressions are laid out. Giving us advanced progressions. Thumbs up, Stephen Donnelly.
      I also love your 4-5 explanation. Are you a music teacher? Because you make understanding music so nice, even for other chord works unexplained in any manual.

  6. Pingback: Songwriting: Advice and Insight on the Craft of Writing A Song
  7. It’s great that you put this out! However, there is a mistake. Just above the “Getting That Final Chord” , the chords written are not in the audio example. You have G, A, Bm……but the audio example from the beginning and throughout the article is. G, Bm, A.

    1. Hi Jef, thanks for the comment! Those seven chords aren’t meant to reflect the order in the audio recording, but instead are a list of chords that “fit” the key. It’s from those seven options that we pulled the C♯°, D, Em, F♯m that we use in the next section. Does that make sense?

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