How do you come up with the right chords for your song?

  • Diatonic Chords

    7 Useful Chords

    How do you come up with the right chords for your song? This is the first blog post on this topic, and here we’ll tell you about the most basic approach: making use of diatonic chords. Diatonic chords support the vast majority of pop, country and R&B songs, and knowing about them is basic stuff for songwriters.

    Guest Post excerpted from Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics

    Diatonic Chords

    Diatonic chords: it sounds fancy, but it isn’t, really. There’s nothing special with the chords themselves – they’re just ”ordinary” chords. The finesse here is how the chords relate to each other. Diatonic chords come in sets of seven chords. Each set of chords is derived from one scale. Not just any scale, but a diatonic scale. The most commonly used diatonic scales are the major scale and the minor scale (R). More on the various diatonic scales in the book: ”Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics”.

    An Asset!

    When writing songs, it comes in very handy to have set of chords that fit nicely together, which diatonic chords do since they’re all native to the same scale. You can pretty much toss them around in what ever way you want, without getting into too much trouble. Listen to these three songs which are all examples of the smooth sound produced by diatonic chords:

    You Should Be Here by Cole Swindell and Ashley Gorley (performed by Cole Swindell).


    Domino, by Claude Kelly, Henry Walter, Jessica Cornish, Lukasz Gottwald and Max Martin (performed by Jessie J).


    My Silver Lining, by Johanna Söderberg and Klara Söderberg (First Aid Kit)


    The Two Ways of Finding the Chords

    What seven diatonic chords might fit your new song? We’ll show you two approaches to figuring it out. We’ll assume here, that you know what key the song your working on is in, if you don’t know how to figure this out, read the blog post titles ”What’s the Key?”

    The Promenade Method

    Lets say your song is in the key of A major. Every scale degree can be used as the root note of a chord. Now your asking yourself: What chord can be formed on the fourth scale degree? Well, finding the triads belonging to a specific key, is as easy as playing the scale on which the key is based, you just go for a walk up the scale, with strides skipping over every other scale degree.
    Firstly, count your way upward from the first scale degree to number four. You’ll end up on the note d. A chord with the note d as its ”root note” can be had by starting with the note d, skipping the next degree of the a major scale (the note e), adding the one after that (f sharp), skipping the next one (g sharp) and finally adding the next one (a). This chord (D) is what is called a triad (a chord containing three notes).

    If you want to add a fourth note, just skip the next degree (b) and add the one after that (c sharp). Now you have a DMajor7 chord. It matters less wether you know what a Major 7 chord is or not – you know what notes to play, and how it sounds, go ahead and use it!
    Repeat this, for every scale degree and you’ll have seven diatonic chords. If you want to learn more: read all about chords and chord symbols in ”Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics”.

    There’s Always Another Way

    There’s another way of finding the diatonic chords of a key, it is much faster, and requires less thinking. All you have to do is to commit to your memory, the order in which major and minor triads are formed over the degrees of the major scale. Here it is: major, 2 x minor, 2 x major, minor, and last, but not the least, a diminished minor chord. It’s a really simple pattern, right?
    The usual drill also involves putting roman numerals to the scale degrees. Let’s do that, and at the same time, include a fourth note in every chord: IMaj7, IIm7, IIIm7, IVMaj7, V7, VIIm7 and VIIm7(b5).

    Same Scheme for Minor Keys

    Minor keys have the chords arranged in exactly the same order, only they start with the chord on the sixth scale degree of a major scale. The pattern looks like this: Im7, IIm7(b5), bIIIMaj7, IVm7, Vm7, bVIMaj7 and bVII7.

    Don’t worry too much about the flat-signs on scale degrees 3, 6 and 7. They just indicate that these degrees are lowered when compared with the major scale, which is the point of reference in music theory.

    Sample Songs Analysed

    Here is the general idea of what goes on in the sample songs, (the chord patterns are repeated):

    You Should Be Here by Cole Swindell and Ashley Gorley (performed by Cole Swindell).
    intro: IV – I – V verse: VIm – IV – V chorus IV – I – V – VIm

    Domino, by Claude Kelly, Henry Walter, Jessica Cornish, Lukasz Gottwald och Max Martin (performed by Jessie J).
    intro and verses shift between the chords I and IV, but has the base sticking to the first scale degree, pre chorus and chorus: IV – IIm – VIm – V.

    My Silver Lining, by Johanna Söderberg och Klara Söderberg (First Aid Kit)
    verse: Im – bIII – bVII chorus: bVI – bIII – bVII – Im

    Hooray, yow know about the diatonic chords!

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