Practical Chord Progressions: I (The Tonic or “Home Chord”)

In this exercise, we’ll get accustomed to the idea of a harmonic home and explore the variety of ideas you can build over a single chord.

BACKGROUND

No matter how little you might know about music theory, you’ve probably heard of keys before (the Key of C, the Key of A minor, etc.). Though we won’t be delving much into theory on this site, it’s important to know that a musical key always has a kind of harmonic center, its “home chord”. This chord shares the name of the key, so it’s easy to determine. Many songs begin and end on the home chord, and it’s helpful to have some idea of why this works.

In this exercise and the exercises that follow, we’ll be learning to establish a sense of home and then venture out into gradually more unfamiliar territory. Thinking of your songs in terms of this metaphor can help you build the kinds of expectations and surprises that make for an interesting tune.

We’re going to start with the simplest possible chord progression possible: playing the same chord over and over again. If nothing else, refusing to change will clearly establish a harmonic home. We are simply staying in place, after all.  In this exercise, we’re going to act as musical homebodies, exploring what we can come up with without every leaving the house. You might be surprised at what is possible against such a simple backdrop.

THE EXERCISE

Choose one major chord (I’ll be sticking to C major). This will be your “tonic”, or home chord. In this exercise, you will never leave “home” on the instrument. All of your exploration will be in terms of the rhythms of your strumming and the melodies you sing.

Okay, start playing that chord, sticking with a single strum pattern. If you want to keep it really basic, just strum up and down. Or get as crazy as you like. Start singing whatever notes come to mind. Pay attention to any little melodic ideas you like.

Now use those as a basis and start developing them. If you have a recording device, record your melody.

Start over and come up with a different melody. Record. Repeat. You might be surprised at how many different melodies you can come up with over a single chord.

For a more romantic perspective, think of the exercise this way: You’re getting in touch with the pure spiritual center of your chosen key.  We’re going to build on this knowledge in the exercises to follow.

HELP! I’M STUCK!

Okay, this exercise sounds simple but maybe you’re not getting anywhere. Your melodies are really boring, perhaps, or maybe you’re not coming up with melodies at all. Here’s one idea you could use: while playing the same chord over and over, sing up and down the appropriate scale. If you’ve chosen the C major chord, then this will be the C major scale. If you don’t know the C major scale, you can listen to it here.

Keep singing this scale up and down until you start to hear some ways to change it up a little. If you let go and just get into the process, you should find that you can begin to sculpt the scale into new melodies. If you’re still stuck, try stopping on random notes and going back up or down.  Give it a try!

NOW SUBMIT ONE OF YOUR SONGS AND I’LL ADD IT TO THE SITE!

If you have a website where you host your music, include it and I’ll also link to you. Don’t worry so much about lyrics. You can just sing “la, la, la” or “da, da, da”, or strings of nonsense. The focus is on the tune itself here. I just ask that you leave out obviously offensive or violent content.

AFTERWARD: But Real Songs Can’t Be Based on Only One Chord, Right?

Historically, the vast majority of music has been primarily rhythmic and melodic in character. Listen to Hindustani music (an Indian classical form), for example, and you can discover songs in which the harmonic equivalent of a single power chord is repeated for a full hour at a time. To Western listeners, this might sound pretty boring on the face of it. If the chord isn’t changing, then nothing’s happening, right? In fact, constraining chord movement opens up possibilities for rhythmic and melodic ideas focused on a single scale (or mode) or modulations through different modes.

Hindustani masters are reputed to respond with similar surprise when thinking about music based on simple rhythmic structures like 4/4 or 3/4. Nothing’s happening, right? Well, constraining the rhythm opens up possibilities for harmonic development. This is not to say you can’t have both (see jazz and 20th century classical music), but accomplishing this raises all kinds of difficulties that we won’t be focusing on here. For now, when sticking to one chord, pay attention to the possibilities for melodic and rhythmic variation. It might surprise you how many different songs can be written on top of the same chord.

Next: V (The Magnet Chord)

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John

John Thomas Mumm has been writing and studying music since 1997. He has recorded hundreds of songs and five self-produced albums. His day job is as an academic philosopher, and in his spare time he writes fiction and brews beer. Most recently, he's started studying the fine art of the cocktail. So far he's finding that the principles of balance in drink mixing aren't completely unrelated to the principles of balance in songwriting.

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