The Key of One Part 4: Chord Foundations for Songwriting and Jamming

May 6, 2015

Last month, we focused on improving your understanding of chord theory. This time, let’s explore some ways that you can learn to use the chord matrix to better your improvising, songwriting, and overall chord choices. Whether you’re writing songs, playing covers, improvising solos, or jamming with a group, having a more expansive palette of chord choices is a big help. In every case, you need to know your structural foundation.

The Matrix Has You

All songs are built on chord progressions, which at their most basic, are triad movements. These triads are interrelated, and the entire pattern of those relations is set in a matrix that you need to learn to navigate freely. Picture geodesic monkey bars, but in a complete sphere. There are overlapping paths in every direction, including straight across the middle, and the matrix of these relationships is set in stone.

Last month’s column looked at how we can tweak or add to triads by moving the middle, raising or lowering the fifth, and building on top with sixths, sevenths, and the repurposed 2/4/6 as 9/11/13. That’s all frosting on the cake, and your ear needs to be attuned to the more basic movements beneath: A progression like Cmaj7-F9(add2)-G7#9 is at it’s heart a C-F-G progression. When we stop thinking of these additions and tweaks as somehow separate entities, we stop being overwhelmed by “all those chords.”

Remember that with a basic major and minor triad in each of the 12 keys, we have a total of 24 basic chords—period. How you dress them up (or not) is your choice. So how do we learn our 24 chords in a way that infuses our ability to play with a more innate sense of how songs work? Here are two simple ideas that can boost your ability to “speak” chords:

1. Use chords to position your hands for melodic parts. When you play all the notes of a chord together, it’s considered harmonic. When you arpeggiate those notes, they become melodic. Any song you play is based on certain chords, so playing any of the single notes of those chords will sound right. To start a lick or fill, you can roll down a chord into a scale. Most importantly, you can quickly get your hand situated on a handful of notes that work. Once you grab a chord shape, it’s also easy to figure out what “frosting” notes are in between the ones you’re playing. If you’re playing a 1-3-5-1 chord (the triad with the octave on top), then we know that the 2 is between 1 and 3, the 4 is between 3 and 5, and a pair of sixths and sevenths lie between 5 and 1.

2. Play through the same numeric changes in all 12 keys. This is a great exercise that will get you familiar with the chord matrix in the most comprehensive way. By taking a numerical chord progression like 1-4-5 and repeating it in each of the 12 keys, you’ll become increasingly familiar with the lettered chords in each key, while reinforcing the sound of the single numerical pattern.


Chords in Common

Traditional music lessons tend to focus on the differences between chords and progressions—often because the same progressions in different keys look and feel different on the uneven landscape of the piano keyboard. But let’s look at how many songs use one of 15 common numerical progressions, which in turn use the four most common chords in rock and pop music: 1, 4, 5, and m6.

1-4-5-4: “La Bamba,” “Wild Thing,” “Twist and Shout”

1-5-4-5: “All Out of Love,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “All the Small Things”

1-4-1-5: “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Free Fallin’”

1-5-m6-4: “Let It Be,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “With or Without You”

1-m6-4-5: “Heart and Soul,” “Stand by Me,” “Earth Angel”

1-m6-5-4: “Surrender,” “Two Princes”

1-4-m6-5: “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “She Drives Me Crazy,” “More Than a Feeling”

m6-4-5: “Rainbow in the Dark,” “No One Like You,” “18 and Life”

m6-5-4-5: “All Along the Watchtower,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Under My Thumb”

m6-4-1-5: “Africa,” “Self-Esteem,” “One of Us”

m6-4-5-1: “Heart of Gold,” “Take It on the Run”

4-1-5-m6: “Umbrella,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”

4-1-m6-5: “Learning To Fly,” “Payphone”

4-5-1-m6: “Walking in Memphis,” “Viva la Vida”

5-4-1-1: “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Magic Carpet Ride”


As a bonus, if you want to practice just one song that will lead you through almost every change in pop music, learn to play “American Pie” by Don McLean. See you next month!

Robbie Gennet is a touring keyboardist, guitarist, longtime Keyboard contributor, and educator at Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, California. His book, The Key of One (Alfred Music) outlines a thorough method for understanding music without learning traditional notation. You can get it at alfredmusic.com, and take private lessons from Robbie at thekeyofone.com.


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