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 or piano playing and the melodies you sing.

Okay, start playing that chord, sticking with a single rhythmic pattern. If you want to keep it really basic, just strum up and down on the guitar or play the same simple voicing on the piano over and over. Or get as far out 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 aren’t familiar with 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!

Next: V (The Magnet Chord)