Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly http://healthsavy.com

Chords and harmony

Ask me a Question!, the website who run my mailing list (You have subscribed haven’t you? there’s a box on the top right of your screen and clicking here will tell you about the ebooks you’ll recieve) have started a new question service where you can ask me a question. To do so, apparently you just have to click this button:

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So if you’ve any songwriting related questions, feel free to ask them.

Here’s one that’s already been asked, and my initial reponse. If you have any more answers, please chip in in the comments:

Q: Hi!! I’m a songwriter from Peru. Quick question: when do you use an aug chord and when do you use a diminished chord to spice a chord progression? all the best.

A: Quick answer – When they sound good! :)

That’s a little facetious though, so here’ a longer answer:-

Diminished chords are useful as a substitute for Don7 chords. So instead of playing a G7 I might play Dbdiminished. This potentially lets me change key easily because there are lots of keys that could be related to this chord.

Augmented chords again can sound good in lots of contexts, but one way of using them is in a minor key as a substitute for the dom7. Eg: in A minor, instead of playing E7 Am you might play Eaug Am, or even Eaug/G# Am.

There are other possibilities – my song ‘Measure of a Man’ ha sa 2 chord verse that goes Eb major – B Augmented.

I’d say try things out and see what you get.

I hope that helps!

How to Harmonize – A New Free Ebook

here’s a new, free ebook available from To download it, you just have to sign up to the free, no-spam mailing list using the form at the bottom of the post.

How to Harmonize

How to Harmonize is a collection of 5 primer lessons aimed at Songwriters who are just starting out and want to know more about how to harmonize their songs – how chords and harmonies work.

Lesson 1: What Does’Harmonize’ Mean?
Aim:    To explain how the two meanings of ‘harmonize’ are really one.

Lesson 2:
Some Questions About Intervals
Aim:    To explain which intervals are found in the major scale

Lesson 3: Some Questions About Chords
Aim:    To explain what a chord is and show you which chords are found in each of the major keys

Lesson 4: How to Harmonize a Melody Using Primary Chords
Aim:     To explain how the 1st, 4th and 5th chords of a key can be used to harmonize a melody

Lesson 5: Harmonizing a Melody – Beyond the Primary Chords
Aim: To explain how chords other than the 1st 4th and 5th can be used

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What do you do when you’re bored of all those chord progressions?

Have you ever found yourself frustrated with the chords you’re using? As if you’ve used all the chord progressions that could possibly exist, not just once but hundreds of times. I have, and I know lots of others have as well.

According to this rather good article on chord progressions even Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead has felt the same.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood once said “There are only 12 power chords, and I think we’ve had about 20 years of them, so maybe it’s time to move on.” He even went as far as to issue a message (half-jokingly) to the bands fans to send him in any unusual chord progressions they could write.

So what’s the solution? I can think of a few possibilities.

1. Are you sure you’ve exhausted all the possibilities?

Have you really tried every possible chord progression? What about jazz chords? Gospel Chords? Sometimes learning something new about chord progressions is what we need. A new nugget of information can help you find something fresh to say.

2. Don’t think vertically, think horizontally

In pop music we often think vertically – a C chord in this bar, an Aminor chord in that bar – notes stacked on top of each other, changing all at the same time. That isn’t how our system started though. Western music developed from single lines – by accident we happened to develop a written system that allowed us combine more complicated lines of melody (that’s a huge oversimplification, but you get the idea) – chords happened through the combination of single lines blending together.

So why not write like that? Don’t have any instruments playing chords, give them melodies and riffs and see what you come up with that way.

3. Stick to percussion

Do you really need chords?

4. Use a drone

A drone can be a wonderful thing – one note, or perhaps a perfect fifth to define your tonal centre, but everything else is fluid – the key could be major, minor or modal, the pulse can shift and vanish, the bar line stops being a barrier. Why not forget chords, and just use a drone?

We all feel Johnny Greenwood’s frustration from time to time. Hopefully those 4 ideas will get the grey matter firing.

For the comments:

Anyone else have any ideas?

Ultimate Songwriting Lessons – Songwriting Hooks and Songwriting Meat

I just stumbled across this video, via this post.

It’s from this website.

First off, let me make clear that I have a very low opinion of sales pages like this one. I know they’ve been shown to work, that they’re ‘good marketing,’ but I really don’t like them.

However, don’t take that us an opinion of the book, as I haven’t read it, I’ve just seen the video.

A few thoughts occured as I watched, and I made some rough notes:

  • The narrator equates artistic worth with ‘lyrical depth’. Personally I would argue that lyrics are not the main conveyor of meaning in popular song – meaning comes from other parts of the song as well.
  • Suggesting that ‘Satisfaction’ by the Stones has lyrical depth is probably pushing things.
  • The Cardigans hook is great, but I want more meat in this analysis. For example, the hook is not just the guitar part, it’s the combination of a relatively static two pitch guitar riff over a moving chord progression. The rhythm of the guitar riff – emphasising beats 2 and 4 like the snare drum, probably has something to do with it, as does the A A A B structure of the riff.

Hooks are generally good because they emphasise or play with our expectations.

Take that fantastic Satisfaction guitar riff – yes it has only three pitches and a really unique timbre, but we can say more than that.

For a start, the chords underneath are E and A. The riff follows the chords starting on a B note in the E chord before moving through a Csharp to a D. When we come to the A chord the guitar is playing a D, creating an A sus4 chord that then resolves to the Csharp and a straight A chord.

So it’s taken a suspended chord we’re very used to from choral music (and lots of other styles) and transposed it to a rhythm and blues setting.

The Kylie Minogue hook is worth mentioning because the meat of it is so wonderfully simple – all those off beat notes, plus a melody that traces a simple line between two chords that are a fifth apart – just like in Satisfaction.

I’ve only watched the one video from this website, and they definitely look worthwhile. Whether the ugly sales page is a good move is up to you.

How to write a song with only one chord progression.

Here’s a link to the song, which won’t let me embed for reasons I don’t really understand…

Justin Timberlake’s Cry me a River might be guilty of stealing the title of a much better song, and having truly dreadful lyrics but I happen to think it’s an okay little ditty that does some interesting things.

Specifically, it only uses one chord progression. Most pop songs use chord changes to create interest, but here the songwriters have decided to stick with the same 4 chords and create interest in other ways.

Now, it’s a good set of chords – song starts with keybord arpeggios of G# min, D#7, E, D#7/C# which don’t stop until near the very end of the song.

There’s also the countermelody that starts at 13 secs, and is also used as the bridge melody. The rest of the song is all about different melodies and layers – the verse starts with a drum beat, bass line and staccato string pad chords emphasising the chord changes. The strings go legato for the chorus and Timberlake layers up the falsetto vox in his best Michael Jackson tribute mode.

The second verse adds some more interest by putting in a couple of short breaks from the drum beat and adding some extra vocal layers. I particularly like the staccato vocal melodies, eg at 3.28, which are a great example of one of my favourite features of modern rnb.

The whole point of the song is to create interest through the layering of different melodies and loops though, and there are certain points where the lack of harmonic changes starts to drag – essentially every time the song reaches ‘Cry me a river, cry me a river…’  where it sounds like an outro and therefore loses energy. And the ‘jammy jay’s done…’ rap sections are just laughable.

While it’s not a perfect song, and certainly needs some improvement in the lyrical department,  there are some great ideas that I’d steal if I was thinking of writing in this style:

1. Staccato vocal melodies (usually in the natural minor mode) – very RnB but rarely heard in other genres.
2. Complicated chords – that is a good chord progression, I like the D#7/C#. It’s essentially a clever play on the common harmonic minor i IV V7 progression (eg. Am, F E7)
3. Tiny percussion breaks – a second verse always needs something new – why not have the rhythm section drop out for just one bar?

Talking of RnB style vocals, here’s a much better songwriter who does some great vocal stuff: Trouble Over Tokyo

Know Your Modes – The Mixolydian


The Mixolydian is a mode I associate with country, blues, heavy rock and the Beatles. It isn’t the only scale used in those styles, and it isn’t limited to those styles, but with it’s dominant seventh tonic chord and the emphasis on the seventh note of the scale, it always conjures up images of old fashioned, American rock. It’s a beer drinking, gibson chugging, guitar twangin’ mode (or at least, that’s how it feel to me).


The mixolydian mode is almost the same as the ‘normal’ major scale, except that the seventh note is flattened by one semitone. So in C Mixolydian the notes would be C D E F G A Bb C.

You can do the same to any major scale. For example, G mixolydian is G A B C D E F G (all the white notes on the keyboard starting at G). D mixolydian is D E F# G A B C D.

To generalise, the intervals in the mixolydian mode are:

Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Semitone, Tone

It might look like a tiny change but having that flattened seventh creates a very distinct harmony that is miles away from the major scale.


The seven chords in those mode are:

I7 iimin7 iii Half-dim IV Maj7 v Min7 vi Min7 VII Maj7

In C Mixolydian: C7 Dmin7 E Half-dim F Maj7 G Min7 A Min7 Bb Maj7
In G Mixolydian: G7 Amin7 B Half-dim C Maj7 D Min7 E Min7 F Maj7

In the major scale, we’re used to chords VI and V being important. Chord V in particular often comes before I to form a cadence. In the Mixolydian mode, the VII chord performs a similar function, as in one of the most famous songs that uses the mixolydian mode, Sweet home Alabama:

What to do if you want that mixolydian sound? Try writing chord progressions that use chords I and VII, eg. C Bb F,    G C  F and work from there.

Harmonising a melody – Beyond the Primary Chords

This morning I had a comment on my previous post on how to harmonise with primary chords..

Emelia asked why I couldn’t harmonise ‘Oh When the Saints’ with a D minor chord.

Now fitting chords and melodies together is a big subject, and there’s lots to say on the matter. The point I want to make here is: there is always more than one possibility, when choosing chords.

Here’s the first half of the melody:

Oh when the saints, go marching in


Oh when the saints go marching in


Using primary chords (ie the chords on the first, fourth and fifth step of the scale, in this case C F and G) I harmonised it something like this:

C                                 C
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in

C                                  G
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in
C                      F
I want to be In that number
C              G             C
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in

Here’s what that sounds like:

Oh When The Saints

But Emelia has spotted that whenever I’ve use a G chord, the melody use a D. So couldn’t I use any chord with a d note in it?

Yes, Emelia, I could you’re right. The reason we start off with primary chords is to make sure people understand the principles, because with those three chords any melody that doesn’t change key can be harmonised. That doesn’t mean using the primary chords is always the best way.

In this situation for example, I could do replace the G chords with D minor. That would sound like this:

Oh When The Saints with a Dm chord.

I could replace the C chords with A minor as well, that would sound like this:

Oh When The Saints with Am and Dm chords.

The chords we use are very often a creative choice. Change the chords and you change the character, so it all depends on what mood you want things to have. The best way to find the correct mood is to improvise, experiment with other chords until you find what you think sounds best.

Personally, my favourite harmonisation of Oh When the Saints is during the later, darker verses, where I’ve heard it transposed into a minor key:
Oh When The Saints Minor.

Well known folk songs and hymns constantly change and evolve as people find new ways to harmonise them. There are always different choices, and once you’re sure of the basics, the best way to find the right chords for your melody is to explore all the possibilities.

I’m currently writing a new ebook about harmonisation. Why not join my no-spam mailing list so you can get a free copy when I’m finished. There’s another free ebook available as well, and you can leave the mailing list any time you choose.

How to Harmonise – Part 1

Edit: The free ebook ‘How to Hamonize’ is now available. Click here!

This is the opening section of a new Ebook I’m writing ‘How to Harmonise’.

What Does Harmonise Mean?

The most common subject people search for on is ‘how to harmonise’. When I talk to people, they seem to mean two slightly different things by this: how to add chords to a melody, or how to add vocal harmonies to a melody. These are similar concepts that both contain the idea of harmony, or more than one note sounding at the same time. Both also pre-suppose the existence of a melody. The idea of vocal harmony, however, concentrates on linear movement – parallel lines of melody weaving together – wheras chords are a vertical idea – blocks of notes changing from bar to bar.

When I was studying music I was taught a hugely simplified history of how harmony developed: monks singing plainchant in medieval Europe moved from unison song, with everyone singing the same note, to two notes at a time. As music developed through the Rennaissance systems of contrapuntal music developed, with different lines of melody weaving together. As time went on this was replaced with a system that put more emphasis on vertical chords, and the whole tonal system of scales and chords came into being. Composers noticed that their interweaving lines came together to form specific groups of notes, chords, that sounded good, so rather than thinking only in terms of the horizontal melody, they could start by thinking of the chords then ‘fill in’ the appropriate notes.

I don’t doubt that this history is so simple as to be incorrect, but this book isn’t about history. The only point I want to make is that the two ideas, of vocal harmony and putting chords to a melody, are not in fact different. If you want to know how to harmonise vocals, you will need to know which chords are being used. Liewise, if you want to put chords to a melody, you will need to consider not only which chord, but how to arrange vocal melodies and other important elements (such as the bass line) to fit the chord.

Simply put, ‘harmony’ is more than one note at the same time. Usually it means combinations of notes that sound good together, but what we mean by ‘good’ can change – you might want your music to sound ‘unharmonious’ and discordant. Achieving that also requires a knowledge of harmony.

Some basics :- Intervals and Drones.

Harmonising At An Interval

Here are the first few notes of the major scale:


Example 1

There are lots of ways I could harmonise this. I could use octaves, the same note but at double the frequency. This is what you might hear if a male and female singer were singing the same melody:


Example 2

Another common harmony is in ‘thirds’. If C is the first note, E is the third along. If D is the first, F is the third. So ‘thirds’ simply means adding the note that is two ‘up’ the scale. You can find this easily by singing the correct ‘third up’ harmony note E and singing up the same melodic contour.


Example 3

You could also do the same by going up a fifth (ie treating C as the first and starting on G), or down a third:


Example 4


Example 5

This is a basic idea that singers might have started with when music was first developing and it forms one of the most important ideas for harmonising your songs. The important point to take away is the idea of parellel lines a slight gap apart. Harmonising with a third above is by far the most common form of vocal harmony in pop song. The concept of going up a third is also a vital one in forming chords, which we’ll come to later.


Lots of musical genres, for example Indian music, use a drone to provide a harmonic basis to a melody. The most simple version of a drone is a single note, plus its fifth, for example G and D. These could be repeatedly plucked on a string instrument or played as sustained notes. A melody can be played over the top.

Ex6. A Drone in G

Drones can be very effective for certain moods and they also illustrate a very important concept. Unlike harmonising at an interval, where we followed the contour of the melody completely, changing harmony note when the melody changed, here were have a harmonic layer underneath the melody that does not change at all.

Things To Try

1. Take a melody you know well and try harmonising at an octave, a third, a fifth and so on.
2. Get a drone going using a keyboard or sequencer, or just use the one I’ve provided in example 6. try improvising melodies over the top.

Mailing List

This post is just the first draft of the first page of the new ebook I’m writing called ‘How to Harmonise’. For regular updates (and absolutely no spam) why not sign up to the Songwright mailing list: