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I have spent some time reading a book that taught me different types of chords and different scales and I understand them very well. But the book didn't really expand on how to actually use these chords to write your own music. How do you find the right or suitable chords for a melody you have written, is there any rules I have to learn? When coming up with a chord progression for example, is there any rules I have to follow?or is it just what best fits and sounds right. If this is a topic that needs a lot of explanation then I totally understand. I just need to know what I should do next (get another book to learn about it, read examples to gain more experience, etc..)

I know this question might have been asked a lot but in my case I don't think I need any further knowledge on more types of chords for now but just want to use apply the chords I have learnt to write my own music.

  • You say you know different types of chords, but how about different roles of chords? Or how about the the individual notes that make up the chords - do you know what the role of each note is? Have you tried putting chords together? Have you tried finding suitable chords to melodies - do you have specific difficulties with it? – piiperi Jan 7 at 12:39
  • What style? Schubert song, Cole Porter song, lady Ga Ga song...? – Michael Curtis Jan 7 at 14:01
  • @David what sort of progressions and melodies have you tried so far, and what kind of problems did you encounter with it? Do you have a specific example melody for which you have not been able to find any suitable chords? – piiperi Jan 7 at 14:51
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    Everyone has to find their own process for composing. If you don't already know how to play a lot of songs, I would go there next. That will help you "feel" how songs work. One way to start composing is to copy existing material and them mutate it in some way. – Todd Wilcox Jan 7 at 15:10
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Reading about it is not particularly a productive way to go. Assuming you play an instrument, it makes a lot more sense to get on and play. Play about with different chords. Feel and hear how they interact with each other. Find ones that don't follow each other well.

There are no rules. There are guidelines. It's called music theory. It's no substitute for the real, live sound of music.

For starters, there are chord families. Discussed frequently on this site. Chords built on the diatonic notes of a key. Majors on I, IV and V. Minors on ii, iii and vi.

Just about any musical phrase can be accompanied using two or three of those chords. Or even just one! The idea is to listen to that phrase, and find chords which match its notes. Not one chord for each note, but maybe one for each bar, or possibly two for each bar. A clue is that the notes from the melody usually match a note or two from the chord which fits best. Which often means there's a choice of chord. Say the tune in key C, has the notes C E F E; C would fit - but so would Am, and maybe Fmaj7. Your job is to decide which is a best fit - bearing in mind the preceding and successive bars, and the chords you decided fitted there.

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The best way to learn this is by doing. Take a very familiar melody and try to figure out chords that work. Start with something simple like "Happy Birthday". The melody starts on the dominant note of whatever key you're in. (For example, if you're in C major, the melody starts on G.) The first chord of a piece of music in a major key is usually the I chord. No exception here. Happy Birthday can be done with just the I, IV, and V7 chords. If you do the work of experimenting around, you'll probably come up with this:

      I           V7         V7          I
Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.
      I             IV
Happy birthday dear person.
      I        V7 I
Happy birthday to you.

This isn't the only right answer, of course. It could potentially be this:

      I           iii        V7          I
Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.
      vi7           ii6
Happy birthday dear person.
iv6   I        vii° I
Happy birthday to   you.

...or any number of variations. (Note the 6s are meant to indicate 6th chords, not 1st inversion.) It's a skill that comes with practice. Do so by trying to figure out the chord progressions of songs you like. A great deal of music has been analyzed and can be found online. If you're stumped on a particular chord, you can look it up. You can also check your work against it (knowing that what you find online is sometimes wrong).

When it comes to composing your own music, there is no established harmony for your melody, so you can try different chords until you find a progression which both fits the melody and is pleasing to you. (Remember music is an art form and there is a lot of subjectivity to it.) Another way to go about it is to come up with a chord progression first and then improvise a melody over it.

If you do this enough, you'll find that progressions commonly fall into these formulas.

Major - Start with I, go to any other chord and jump in:

                      ┌──>── I ──>───┐
iii  ─>  vi  ─>  [ii or IV]  ─>  [V or vii°]  ─>  I  ─>  any chord
 └────────────────<──────────────────┘

Minor - Start with i, go to any other chord and jump in:

VII  ─>  III  ─>   VI   ─>  [ii° or iv]  ─>  [V or vii°]  ─>  i  ─>  any chord
 └────────────────<───────────────┘

Notice the first version of "Happy Birthday" falls into the formula for major keys. It begins with I, goes to any, which happens to be V, which leads back to I. I goes to any, which is IV this time. It takes the upper path from IV to I to V and lands back at I. It's not always this simple, of course, but this is the basis of a lot of music.

  • How come the 4 magic chords don't fit in your formulas? – coconochao Jan 8 at 15:53
  • What are the 4 “magic chords”? Are you talking about I V vi IV? It’s a notable exception. The formulas are not meant to cover every possibility, of course. But they do demonstrate the most common conventions, like the dominant chord resolving to the tonic. They’re not my formulas; you find these in plenty of material about chord progressions. – trw Jan 8 at 17:03
  • Yes, these chords, or the minor version i VI III VII. I understand it doesn't cover all possibilities, but putting aside perhaps the most common one makes it less reliable. V -> iv and V -> IV movements are far more common than V -> iii, in my experience. I'm just saying this because I liked your answer, but I wouldn't be comfortable upvoting a suspicious formula for chord progressions. – coconochao Jan 8 at 18:00
  • I’m glad you liked the rest of my answer; thanks. The formulas are based on circle progressions—moving up a forth or down a fifth until you hit V and resolve to I—which have been a part of the pedagogy of harmony for centuries. IMO, it’s an important first step for the OP to understand. – trw Jan 9 at 17:29
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There is a prescription that places chords under melody in a way that produces harmonious results. Classical western harmony theory, which in many cases covers church style choir harmonization called homophony. Tim's answer touches upon it. And it sounds like you read about it. Basically you can harmonize any melody using the I, IV and V (or V7) chords since they cover the entire scale (sounds like the beginning of a bad joke about rock and roll songs but it's true in classical music too). The basic patterns are pretty simple and tested over time to produce results.

In any key the following chords cover (or contain) the following notes:

I {1, 3, 5}

IV {4, 6, 1}

V {5, 7, 2}

V7 {5, 7, 2, 4}

There is more to the story than that. There is a method for picking the right inversion of each chord in such a way that you do not create any discordant sounds, sudden jumps in voice etc. This works well for creating smooth chord melodies on Jazz guitar as well. Like I said, it's well tested and "culturally approved". But that is only one way to look at things.

For one thing the approach is best suited for songs that are mostly diatonic (on the major scale). Accidentals that indicate a key change are not a problem as you can use the same rules in the new key. But get too funky and the approach may get frustrating. It also assumes a strict rhythmic parallelism where all voices follow the same structure and merely harmonize each other. There are certainly many other approaches to writing a supporting section to a melody.

You haven't really stated what style the song is or if it's even diatonic. Another answer mentioned the Blues. Here you have 3 dom7 chords none of which are in the same key, and one can play a pentatonic melody over it all and sound okay. Not to mention, if you start using exotic modes to write melodies standard western harmony theory will probably not get you anywhere. A lot of rock musicians start composing with a riff, i.e. the rhythm section first, then add vocals over it (melody second). If you were inspired to write a melody first then you're following a more traditional path (I think) but it doesn't have to be that way.

Personally, I am an advocate for learning classical music theory and harmony but with the caveat that they are one of many tools in the musician's arsenal. You can always just play around until you find something that fits and you might create something new. On this point I disagree with one of the other the answer. Yes, it's true that the 12 bar blues is basically the same progression for 1000's of songs, and so are the lyrical themes (my woman left me, took my money, took my booze, messed around with my friend, woe is me)... If you want to write a blues tune you can recycle 80% of what's in the template and fill in a new melody and solo, etc. Same holds for Rhythm Changes (I --> vi (or VI7) --> ii --> V7) etc. There are about a half dozen sets of changes that are so over used they cover a large % of the Real book (if Jazz and show tunes are your thing). But it isn't true that there are no new progressions. In a lot of modern music rhythm players often start with some exotic set of chords (as stated previously).

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...any rules I have to follow?

No. But, sort of yes. If you don't think about "rules", but instead think about "norms" or "models", then yes you have something to follow. Following models is a time honored method of learning.

...find the right or suitable chords for a melody...

You must study harmony and analyze the harmony of songs you want to emulate. Study will help you learn norms and terminology. Analysis will reveal the expressive effect of chords in real music.

But don't get fixated on chord progressions or matching chords to melodies. You should also study how chords relate to musical form.

Some chord progressions are like their own mini forms. 12 bar blues, I vi IV V the do-wop progression, passamezzo antico, are some progressions you could explore. This flips the question around and fits melody to existing harmony. In terms of "rules" the chord structure is fixed while the melody is sort of "free."

Traditional music form is defined by the chords used to end phrases. 32 bar song form is a great way to understand form in the world of popular music. Jazz and show tunes like 'I got Rhythm' and 'Over the Rainbow', are 32 bar song forms, but there are many examples from 1950's and 1960's rock music too. In terms of "rules" chords and melody are very free, but the phrases are expected to end in certain ways.

...But the book didn't really expand on how to actually use these chords to write your own music.

The first level of approach - let's call it the harmonization level - might be something like: my first note is A I'll use an A major chord, my next note is B I'll use a E major chord.

The second level - the formal level is like: I end bar 8 on the V chord (ex. G7) so on bar 16 I will end on the I chord (ex. Cm.)

I suspect an explanation of song form was missing from the book.

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What you're trying to do is accomplish a number of things simultaneously:

  • you want the movement of your melody to be interesting and appropriate to the style
  • you want the motion of the chords to be interesting and appropriate to the style, and possibly result in suitable cadences at particular points in the piece
  • you want the melody and the chord progression to fit together harmonically - sometimes with the melody note being a chord tone (providing stability), sometimes with it not being a chord tone (providing tension)
  • you want the melody and the chord progression to fit together rhythmically - sometimes with the two moving together to provide cohesion, sometimes with the motion of one anticipating the motion of the other to provide 'drive'.

Thinking about what musical style you're targetting is particularlaly important when it comes to choosing chords to go under a melody, as different musical genres have different 'vocabularies' of chords. For example, beginner exercises in harmony would often start by having the student choose between the major I , IV, and V chords according to the melody note - but in some genres, those would be odd chords to base a progression around.

So one exercise you could try is to start with a style in mind, and...

  • write a melody that sounds appropriate for a particular style
  • come up with what you think would be the most archetypal chord progression for that melody in that style
  • try changing the chords and melody a little to 'spice things up'
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Chord progressions are repeated all the time in songs. Observe popular songs and see the patterns of progressions. Take one you like and start writing a melody over it. Don't think you will invent something new. Think about the blues; they use a 12 bar chord progression in different keys that has been used in thousands of songs. Chord progressions certainly don't fall under copyright either.

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To follow is a collection of disorganized thoughts on the topic.

You can play almost any piece in the world somewhat convincingly with only the I, IV and V chords. The only real secret that I know to harmonizing melodies with chords is to use your ears and try them out. Eventually, you will start to hear the chord sound you want in advance, and you will know instinctively exactly which chord it is that will give it to you.

My piano teacher taught me to improvise (in a limited sense) with this approach. Take a tune, for me usually a hymn, and then play it.

Almost always, a song starts on its tonic (I). Sometimes, it helps to arpeggiate instead of playing block chords when you're starting out, because you can hear the individual chord tones better.

It really doesn't take that long to figure it out--and once you do, you can start trying to hear other chords, like the vi chord, or the ii chord.

Oftentimes, adding the 7th to the V chord will give the song a small "lift." Use (or even overuse) this effect.

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I use an app on my tablet. I select the key and scale and it gives me a grid of chords and their variations to choose from. From there I can select chords and it will play them so I see how different progressions sound. I use Chordbot but there are many others. Find one that suits you.

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The following is based on my personal research from a long time ago, and for a theoretical explanation of why it works I recommend the book "Forward Motion" by Hal Galper.

I write training software for musicians, and at one point I worked on some code to do exactly that: given any melody, choose some chords that would go well with it. The melody could be anything, based on a common scale, or made of entirely random notes.

The system that worked best was the following. (And anyone who knows enough music theory will easily understand why it worked, even when the melody is made of random notes. Again, the book Forward Motion explains it very well too).

  1. In every bar, some notes are most important: the notes on the down beat of beat 1 and 3 (assuming 4/4 time)

  2. Downbeat notes on beat 2 and 4 are the second-most important notes.

  3. Upbeat notes (8th notes on "and") are less important

  4. Other 16th notes are the least important

Established that, my program would select chords that A) always contain notes of type (1) above (notes on beat 1 and 3), and possibly also of type (2) above (beat 2 and 4). And very optionally, also of type (3) above.

That still left plenty of alternatives to choose from. I.e. Many different chords we possible. But virtually any chords that fulfilled the above conditions would sound right. Sometimes it would sound obvious, other times it would sound a bit weird, but always "in".

To do this by hand instead of a program like mine, highlight these "pillar" notes (especially on beat 1 and 3), and simplify your melody so that it is made only of those notes. Then select chords that include those notes. Then play the whole melody on those chords. Try a few different alternatives. And enjoy the process!

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