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.
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):
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.
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.