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Chord Patterns: Home and Away

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by Conrad Albrecht

So, you've created some short chord sequences, as in our article Create a Chord Progression: First Steps. And maybe you've built up a verse and chorus from those short sequences, as in Chord Patterns: Phrases and Repetition. "Yeah, but" you say, "I want to learn more about choosing the actual chords."

The most important concept in choosing your chords is actually quite easy to understand; it's the dance between the tonic chord and non-tonic chords.

The tonic chord is just the chord with the same name as your song's key (see What's a "Key"?). For example, if you decide to write a song in the key of F major, then the tonic chord is the F major chord (or just "F" for short). And a non-tonic chord is just any other chord besides that tonic chord.

The tonic chord sounds like "home". Non-tonic chords sound "away from home". Most songs will play the tonic chord at many "rhythmic anchor points", such as the 1st beat of phrases (2-measure, 4-measure, or 8-measure phrases). You will also find the tonic chord at the end of many phrases.

If a song just sits on the tonic chord, it tends to sound "static" or "hypnotic". Or, if it stays away from the tonic chord too long, it might sound "wandering" or "lost".

The Tonic in Some Real Songs

Let's look at how the tonic appears in the hook in a couple of real songs (I'll reveal their names later). The "hook" is the catchiest, strongest, most repetitive part of a song. Commonly you can find the hook at the beginning of a song's chorus.

Instead of showing the actual chords, I'll call the tonic chord "T" and the non-tonic chords "N1", "N2", etc.

I'll start with the chorus of "Song #1". Song #1's chorus starts with a 2-measure phrase which starts on the tonic chord:

Then this 2-measure chord phrase just repeats over and over about 7 times.

Now let's look at "Song #2". This song's hook also starts with a 2-measure phrase, also starting on the tonic:

And, this 2-measure phrase also repeats over and over (4 times) before it changes.

Recipe for a Hook

The fact that these two songs share this pattern (and I didn't pick them for that reason) suggests that it's a very common pattern. If you want a very specific "recipe" for starting a song, and you want to use this same pattern, you could do this:

Step 1: Choose a first chord.

The first chord will also determine what key your song is in. The most common first chords (and keys) are the ones in ChordSong's Top Chords window. There's no "wrong" key, so don't worry too much about this. As you write more songs, you might pick different keys just for variety.

So, click on a chord button in ChordSong's Top Chords window to create your hook's first measure.

Step 2: Choose a tempo.

Make sure ChordSong's Repeat checkbox is checked, click the Play button to start playing your first measure over and over, and adjust the Tempo up or down until you find the "feel" you like.

Of course, you can easily change the tempo later.

Step 3: Choose a chord rhythm.

Each measure in a song commonly has just one chord (on beat 1) or two chords (on beats 1 and 3). Combining these options gives us 4 possible common 2-measure "chord rhythms":
Rhythm 1:
Rhythm 2:
Rhythm 3:
Rhythm 4:

Choose one of these chord rhythms for your 2-measure hook phrase. (And when you start your next song, maybe choose a different one for variety.) You don't need to do anything in ChordSong for this step; just remember your chosen chord rhythm for the next step.

Step 4: Choose the second (N1) chord.

You've already placed the "T" chord (the first chord) for your chord rhythm. Now experiment with 2-chord sequences, by right-clicking the chord buttons in ChordSong's Top Chords window. For the first chord, play your "T" chord; and for the second chord, play different chord buttons until you find the effect you like. This second chord will be your "N1" chord.

Then place your chosen "N1" chord in your song. It goes on beat 3, or on beat 1 of measure 2, depending on which chord rhythm you're using.

Step 5: Choose the N2 and N3 chords.

If you're using chord rhythm #2, #3, or #4 above, then you also need to choose your "N2" chord, and maybe N3 also. Choose them the same way, by experimenting, and place them in your song.

Step 6: Repeat the phrase.

Now copy your 2-measure chord phrase and repeat it over and over. A typical pattern would be to repeat it 4 times before moving on to something different, but your lyric or melody ideas may lead you to repeat it some different number of times.

And that's it! You've created the chords for the hook section of a song.

What Next?

This article explained the tonic chord and showed how it's used in the hooks of a couple of songs. Find more songs, figure out which chord is the tonic chord, and see where the tonic appears; not just in the hooks, but in other parts of the songs too. Then, when you're writing your own music, and you're not sure what chord to use next, try just deciding whether or not you want to use the tonic chord at that spot. This at least narrows down your choices!

This article also gave you a very specific "recipe" to create an 8-measure (or so) "hook" chord progression, using a popular pattern. After that, you can go back to our article Chord Patterns: Phrases and Repetition for ideas to help expand that hook into a whole song.

Oh, and the mystery example songs: "Song #1" was Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, and "Song #2" was Imagine by John Lennon.

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