How to Write a Song | Chord Functions Pt.1 | Songwriting For Beginners #2

Welcome, fellow traveller! This is the 2nd part of a 3 part series in Songwriting for Beginners. If you haven’t seen the previous lesson, you can check it out here. I highly recommend you do, as a lot of the information here follows on from it.

If you’re a beginner struggling with songwriting, not knowing what chords to use, how they work with each other or wanting to learn how to build your own progressions, then this lesson will help you out.

Ready to delve the depths of songwriting? Let’s dive in…

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Lesson Recap

In the previous lesson we looked at:

  • Chords of the Major scale
  • How to build those chords
  • Finding familiar chords for songwriting

We’ll be expanding upon these points through looking at the following:

  • Chord functions
  • Effects produced between these functions
  • Chord progression examples

Throughout this lesson, we’ll be using the A Major key as our reference key.

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Tonal Music: The Root of all Western Harmony

To start the lesson, we first need to look at the definition of ‘tonal music’.

Music based in western harmony – that is, music made in the UK, America, Europe – is typically ‘tonal music’. Tonal music means there is one note, and one chord built from that note, that the whole song refers to, and is the central place of rest within the song.

Simply put, when you play this chord in the song, it usually feels restful and resolves tension within the song, the stuff that is created between chords and what moves a song forward.

This chord and the note are called the root chord and the root note respectively.

Each other chord in the song has a function, a role it plays to create tension, and therefore movement, around the root chord.

When two chord functions interact or are played one after the other, they either create or resolve tension. It is this tension and resolution in chords, even simply notes, that forms the basis of harmony in music itself.

You can think of it like planets moving around the sun. The sun is the root chord, and the other chords are the planets that move around it;

Free photo Planet Sun Planetary System Solar System Orbit ...

(Who thought we’d be looking at pictures of solar systems in a guitar lesson?)

Chord Functions

There are 3 families of chord functions;

  1. Tonic
  2. Subdominant
  3. Dominant

We call them ‘families’ because there are groups of each chord that form a family.

Each chord contains 3 notes that form its core structure, like the walls of a house. These notes are known as ‘chord tones’.

The chord tones for each of the chords in a major scale are always the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a chord.

For example, a B minor chord has the chord tones B, D, and F#. The 1st note is the note you start building the chord from; in this case, the B note.

With this in mind there are two kinds of root notes; the root note of a chord (1st note of a chord), and the root note of a scale (1st note of a scale).

Tonic Chords: Place of Rest

Tonic chords are places of rest, where tension resolves. In Major keys, these are the 1st, 3rd, and 6th chords. 

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The 1st chord is the ultimate place of rest in a key. When landed on, it’s sense of resolution is greater than the 3rd or 6th chords.

The reason why they’re tonic chords is that they contain two or more tonic notes from the major scale; the tonic notes of a major scale being the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes.

This is also why the 1st chord is the ultimate place of rest; because it contains the 1st, 3rd and 5th tonic notes as its structure. Example; the A major chord contains the notes A, C#, and E. These are the tonic notes in the key of A major.

This is what it typically feels like to be on a tonic chord in a song:

Theravada Buddhism Monk At Beach · Free photo on Pixabay

(Songwriting for beginners + Monk + beach = youwhatmate) 

Subdominant Chords: Creating Tension

Subdominant chords create tension by moving away from the tonic. They are the 2nd and 4th chords.

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The reason they create tension is that the chords contain more unstable notes from the major scale. They contain a mix of unstable notes and stable notes. The unstable notes are the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 7th notes.

They are a bit more firey than their tonic brethren. Like fiesty salsa dancers;

Latin Dance Lessons – NAUGATUCK YMCA

Dominant Chords: Even More Tension

Dominant chords create even more tension by moving even further away from the tonic. They are the 5th and 7th chords, and contain the most unstable combination of notes.

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Dominant chords are like Salsa dancers haven eaten chilli; Mega fiery!

Latin Dance Lessons – NAUGATUCK YMCA  Red Hot Chilli Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

We have our chords of the major scale, and what function each of these chords posesses. Now we need to know what effect is created between each of these chords.

Like I said earlier;

When two chord functions interact or are played one after the other, they either create or resolve tension.

We want to know exactly what type of effect they create. Knowing these effects, you’ll be able to choose the direction the music takes, and be able to identify what needs to change in order to make your songs better.

This is all covered in the 2nd part of this lesson, which you can access here.

Until next time, dear traveller. Thanks for being part of this journey in beginner songwriting.

 

 

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