Songwriting technique: Harmonic quality of chords

17 March, 2014 in Features, Tips & Techniques

Chords and their harmonic quality

The quality of the chord has everything to do with the mood it helps create

First of a two-part article, in which Berklee Music’s James Linderman looks at chord quality and the moods they create

he terms ‘quality’ and ‘function’ sound remarkably analytical, and you may already be wondering if the concepts in this column will be too academic and theoretical for use in any real practical application in the writing of a song. But in this two-part article I will attempt to prove that an understanding of chord quality and harmonic function can be a useful practical cornerstone in real-life songwriting.

Chords have two main features: they have a quality and they have a function. We will discuss quality here in part one, and look at function in part two. The quality of a chord is based on whether it is major, minor, diminished or augmented.

The quality of the chord has everything to do with the mood it helps create. Major chords tend to sound happy, while minor chords evoke a feeling of sadness. Diminished chords can help create a feeling of anticipation or a discontented mood depending on their application, while augmented chords tend to sound anxious or sometimes remind me of what a hangover would sound like, if a hangover made a particular sound (though sometimes, of course, they do!).

If you are not sure how to apply any of these kinds of chords to the guitar, piano or whatever your harmonic weapon of choice happens to be, but want to hear how they sound, then I would recommend a (guitar or keyboard) chord dictionary which can be picked up at any self-respecting music store or book shop.

If we look at the Transposition Chart below, it’s interesting to note that in any given key there are three major chords (in the first, fourth and fifth position), three minor chords (in the second, third and sixth position) and a diminished chord in the seventh position of the harmonised scale.

James Linderman's Transposition Chart

Transposition Chart

Once it’s been determined that you’re writing in a particular key, you can look at these seven chords as being like the primary colours a painter would use to paint the background – if we also thought of the melody as being like the subject in the foreground of the painting.

The question you’re no doubt asking is, “What about augmented chords?” Augmented chords are indigenous to minor scales and therefore are most prevalent in songs with a lot of other minor-sounding harmony. To learn more about minor harmony seek some professional help… by which I mean book a few lessons with a music teacher with a reputation for being a theory brainer (there are more of us than it might seem).

If the quality of the chord has to do with the mood it evokes, then it stands to reason that the choice of chord quality could enhance the mood being conveyed by a certain note in a melody or a particular word in a lyric.

A great introduction to the application of this would be to take a song that already exists and, within the context of the key that it is in, alter all, or some of the harmony to a different quality. If it was in the key of C you could try changing C chords to A minor, E minor chords to G chords and F chords to D minor. You can use the Transposition Chart as your guide for keys that are not C.

The theory behind this is that in any given key, the first and sixth chords, the second and fourth chords and the third and fifth chords are considered to be related harmony and so these pairs are highly interchangeable with respect to altering the quality of the chord within the harmonic structure of a song while keeping most of the other stabilising features of the piece intact.

The purpose of an exercise like this would be to determine if the song implies something different when the harmonic qualities are altered. For instance, in places where there was genuine sentiment there might now be some irony implied, based completely on the relationship between the lyric and melody, and the chord that is being heard behind it.

No matter how you use this information, any deliberate (or deliberately random!) use of harmonic quality will enhance your songs by making your chord choices every bit as evocative as your choice of the words and notes being sung.

Words: James Linderman


Berklee College of MusicJames Linderman lives and works at theharmonyhouse, a music lesson, songwriting and recording pre-production facility in Newmarket, Ontario. He teaches guitar, piano and music theory and coaches songwriting in studio and over Skype to students all over the world. Since 2006 he has been a Berkleemusic Ambassador, advising Berklee administrators and professors on issues such as learning management systems and online course strategies. James presents and lectures at songwriting conferences and workshops all over the world and does annual songwriting presentation work for the Canada Film Centre’s Slaight Music Lab, Songstudio, Power Up Music Conference, The Humber College Summer Songwriting Workshop, Break Out West and more. He is also pretty good at playing the guitar and making up songs. Contact James at jlinderman@berkleemusic.com

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