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Pop Songwriting Tips

Selecting Chords and Keys

Most pop songs use a set of chords built from the notes in the major scale.

One chord starts off of each note of the major scale for a total of seven chords.

Three of the chords are major which have a happy or positive sound.

Three of the chords are minor which have a sad or serious sound.

The last chord in a major key is diminished which has a very tense sound.

Diminished chords are not very common in pop music.

Here is a table showing the first six chords in each major key:

Key  Major Chords  Minor Chords 
Ab  Ab Db Eb  Fm Bbm Cm 
A   A D E  F#m Bm C#m 
Bb  Bb Eb F   Gm Cm Dm 
B   B E F#   G#m C#m D#m 
C F G   Am Dm Em 
Db  Db Gb Ab  Bbm Ebm Fm 
D   D G A  Bm Em F#m 
Eb   Eb Ab Bb   Cm Fm Gm 
E   E A B  C#m F#m G#m 
F Bb C  Dm Gm Am 
Gb   Gb B Db  Ebm Ab Bb 
G   G C D  Em Am Bm 

Alternate letter names you may see for the same chords and notes:

A# = Bb

C# = Db

D# = Eb

F# = Gb

G# = Ab

Every major key has an equivalent minor key called the relative minor.

The first minor chord in the table above is the starting chord of the relative minor key.

The art of songwriting is not as simple as choosing a few chords from the key randomly.

The first six chords from a major key will produce a coherent sound when used in any order.

Songwriting is arranging the chords so that they balance the emotional tone, energy, and harmony of the vocal melody.

The first chord is important because it gives the first impression of the tone.

Subsequent major and minor chords fine tune the tone.

The length of each chord balances the emotional tone.

Using a minor chord half as long as a major chord adds diversity while keeping the emphasis on the major.

The most common lengths of a chord are one half measure or one measure or two measures.

Common Chord Progressions:

It is very common to use only the three major chords from a major key.

These three chords are enough to support any vocal melody derived from their major scale.

Four chord progressions are also very common to use in a verse or chorus.

The most common quartet of chords to use is the three majors and one minor.

The first minor chord on the list above is the one that is most common one to use.

Many songs use a one chord progression for all parts.

The emphasis on dynamics provides the flow from verse to chorus.

The verse has a lower or building energy that leads to peak energy in the chorus.

A common form is to start the verse with first minor chord on the list for a serious tone.
Start the chorus with the first major chord on the list for an uplifting sound.

A larger palette of chords is available by "borrowing" chords from other keys.

Borrowing chords from a similar key will integrate smoothly.

A similar key is one that has a lot of chords in common.

Using chords from a dissimilar key will sound more jarring.

Study basic music theory to further understand chord options and relationships.

Songwriting is a process of trial and error where your ears are the judge.

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