Therefore, it is good if you know what key you are writing in
It will facilitate your search for good chords. Each key contains seven scale chords (read more under the heading “Mini guide, keys”). It is these chords that you can most easily fit into your song, almost regardless of the order in which you place them.
If you know which key you are working with, you also know a bit about how the different chords “feel”. Depending on how they are placed in the key, they create different feelings. Even two chords that are similar in structure create a different feeling. For example, what feeling do you want in the final chord of your song? There are seven options!
To be able to break the rules, you have to know what they are, it’s usually hot. Although there are no rules in music, keys are part of the musical language we use. Breaking away from a key (for example, by borrowing a chord) requires that you first create a sense of which key applies.
Some programs need to know which key applies to work well. Even “smart” programs, such as ScoreCloud (a note-writing program) may need help, because we do not just use scale chords.
Mini guide, key
Most songs are written in a key.
Center points: In a key there is a tone that everything revolves around. It is usually called the central tone. All notes in the music have some kind of relation to the central note.
Scale: Each key is based on a scale that contains seven tones. The most common scales on which to build notes are the major scale and the pure minor scale (with its two variants harmonic and melodic minor). Two examples of major key: Egoist by Jocke Berg and Personal by Elle Varner, Jenna Andrews and William Wiik Larsen (recorded by Jessie J).
Two examples of minor key: Poker Face by Stefani Germanotta and Nadir Khaya (recorded by Lady Gaga), and Rockstar by Austin Post, Shayaa Abraham-Joseph, Louis Bell, Carl Austin Rosen, Jo Vaughn Virginie and Olufunmibi Awoshiley (recorded by Post Malone / 21 Savage).
Chords: A key has seven chords that are made up of notes from the scale. These are alternating major and minor chords. Each key also has a minor chord with a diminished fifth. In C major are the chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bmb5. In C minor (pure minor scale) are the chords Cm, Dmb5, Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb.
Features: The chords in a key create a different feeling. We usually talk about the chords having functions. Some chords want to lead on and can therefore feel strange to end a song with. The chords feel restless and tense. You will find such a chord on scale step five (G in C major). The chord has the dominant function. Other chords are dormant, such as the chord built on the first scale step (C in C major). Many people think of it as the “home chord”, the relaxed chord with which it often feels logical to end a song. The chord has the function tonic.
Variations: If you use a key, it is possible to create color and mood by sometimes breaking out of the key. There are several ways, for example: borrow a chord from another type of key with the same central note, such as Kiss From A Rose by Seal, migrate out of the key and in again, but with the help of leading chord sequences (called unfolding) or change key (key modulation).
How do you know what key you are in?
Melody first: If you are writing the melody first, a good tip is to start by trying to feel for what tone feels like “home”. What tone would you choose to end your melody on if you wanted to create a feeling of calm and stability? Start with the note you found and arrange the notes from the melody to a scale. Not all tunes are based solely on basic scale tunes, but most do. Your melody may have some tones that deviate from the scale that feels basic. If you have found the central tone, you have come a long way. If you do not immediately know what the scale is called: read on!
Chords first: Not everyone starts with a melody. If you start with the chords: feel for which chord you would prefer to end with if you wanted to create a feeling of calm and stability, because the same forces are in motion even when it comes to chords. The chord built on the central tone (tonic) feels most dormant. if this chord is a major chord, you are likely to type in major key. If it is a minor chord, it is likely that you are writing in a minor key.
Now that you know what key you are working in, you can consciously create effects that you would not otherwise have thought of. Durtonart can sound very arranged and “good” if you start and end on the central note in the melody and tonic in the chord sequence. Here are some examples of songs with a slightly different beginning and end. Listen and feel!
How chord sequences begin
Listen to the song Personal. The song is in major key (A major), but the chord sequence begins on one of the minor chords in the chord repertoire. Listen from 0:28 where the piano comes in and you can most clearly hear what is the basic note in the chords. The first chord in the verse is the minor chord on the sixth step of the scale (F # m). Before the tonic (scale step 1 chord A) appears, the chord is also played on the fourth scale step (D).
Listen to Rockstar again. The song begins with the chord on the fourth scale step (Cm in the key Gm).
Also listen to I Feel it Coming by Abel Tesfaye, Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Martin McKinney, Henry Walter and Eric Chedeville. Before the tonic (scale step 1) is heard, the chords on scale steps 3, 6 and 4 are played: Eb major: Gm7 – Cm7 – Abadd9 – Eb.
Be sure not to always start on tonic! The songs can be more exciting and surprising.
How chord sequences end
Listen to how Egoist ends, on the key’s most leading chord (chord A on scale step 5).
Also hear how the song Halo by Ryan Tedder, Beyoncé Knowles and Evan Bogart ends with the chord on scale step 4 (D) (in A major). The chord and the scale formed from the root note give a dreamy and charged feeling.
Be sure not to always stop using tonics! The songs can be more exciting and surprising.
How melodies start / end
Listen to the melody (Personal) it starts at scale step 3 (ciss) and ends at scale step 6 (fiss). The final tone in particular is effective. At the end of a song, one usually expects the most dormant tone (scale step 1).
Be sure not to always end your melodies on the central note (scale step 1), unless you absolutely want the most calm and resting feeling.
More parts in the series
This is how you arouse emotions in the listener
This is how you get to a really swinging riff
Borrow the film director’s tricks when writing songs
The importance of the right key – a guide to the perfect sound (this one)
- 7 useful chords you need to know
- How to get an optimal workflow with the melody in focus
- 5 tips for the songwriter’s toolbox
About the article authors
The article is written by Johan Wåhlander and Jan Sparby, authors of the book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics.
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The article was originally published on 2018-02-03.