Music Theory for Songwriting

Many aspiring songwriters wonder whether they need to understand music theory to write great songs.

The short answer is “no”.

But just enough music theory can provide you with a toolbox of options for breaking old habits, discovering new sounds, and escaping the dreaded writer’s block.

In this guide, we’re going to focus on concepts from music theory that are particularly helpful for songwriters. The more technical details in the beginning will build up to a framework that will help you quickly narrow your choices when writing songs.

Contents

Major scales and the Circle of 5ths

We’re going to use the notes on a keyboard as our reference in what follows. That’s because many of the concepts of music theory are more easy to see on a keyboard than, for example, a guitar or trumpet.

The white keys on the keyboard have letter names from A-G, as illustrated here:

White keys labelled one octave

These names repeat as we continue up or down the keyboard:

White keys labelled two octaves

The distance between one instance of a letter and the next instance is called an octave. For example, the distance between any C note and the next C note to the right is an octave:

Octave Distance

Playing the white notes from C to C gives us the C major scale. The C major scale is in many ways treated as the default in the music theory we’ll discuss here.

Here is one octave of the C major scale highlighted on the piano:

C major scale on the piano

Each of these notes can be numbered with a scale degree:

C major scale degrees on the piano

Using scale degrees, we can say things like “A is the 6th degree (or 6th note) in C major”.

The 8th note is called the octave (similar to how a shape with 8 sides is called an “octagon”). The 8th note can also be labeled 1 since it is the start of a new octave.

Let’s hear how the C major scale sounds:

Half-steps, whole-steps, and note names

In European-influenced music, the smallest distance between two notes is called a half-step. The C major scale contains two half-steps:

  1. E-F
  2. B-C

Notice what they have in common on the keyboard. There are no black notes in between E and F or in between B and C.

Half steps in C major

So a half-step is the distance between two directly adjacent notes. A whole-step is 2 half-steps.

The C major scale contains 5 whole-steps:

  1. C-D
  2. D-E
  3. F-G
  4. G-A
  5. A-B

Notice that each of these pairs is separated by a black note:

Whole steps in C major

So what are these black notes called? That depends on whether the black note is treated as a raised note or a lowered note.

For example, take the black note to the right of C:

Black note to the right of C

In some contexts, that note can be a raised C. In this case, it’s called “C sharp”, written C#.

In other contexts, that note can be a lowered D. In that case, it’s called “D flat”, written Db.

The context that determines whether a black note is sharp or flat is the scale.

When we don’t have a specific scale in mind, we can use both the sharp and flat name together (for example, C#/Db).

Here is a list of all the general labels for the keys on the keyboard:


C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab - A - A#/Bb - B - C

Here they are on the piano:

All note names on piano

Building major scales

We saw that the C major scale is the collection of white notes starting and ending on the note C:

C major scale on piano

This scale is called “major” because of the sequence of half-steps (H) and whole-steps (W) that separate those notes. Here’s the C major scale as an example (with numbers for scale degrees):

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C
  W   W   H   W   W   W   H

Notice that there is an H below E-F and an H below B-C, which are the two half-steps in the C major scale.

More generally, we can say that a major scale is made up of this sequence of intervals:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8
  W   W   H   W   W   W   H

To get a major scale based on a particular note, start from that note and play that sequence of intervals. For example, here is the G major scale:

1   2   3   4   5   6   7    8
G - A - B - C - D - E - F# - G
  W   W   H   W   W   W    H

And here it is on the keyboard (notice that the half-steps are B-C and F#-G in G major):

G major scale on piano

A rule to remember is that every note letter must show up once in a scale. This is what determines whether a black note is sharp (#) or flat (b).

For example, notice that in G major, we couldn’t use F as the 7th note, since we need a half-step in between the 7th and 8th notes.

So in the G major scale, we need to raise the F to F#.

Let’s look at an example with a flat, the key of F major:

1   2   3   4    5   6   7   8
F - G - A - Bb - C - D - E - F
  W   W   H    W   W   W   H

Here it is on the piano:

F major scale on piano

Again, we need every note letter to show up once. But in this case, we can’t just use B as our 4th note. The 3rd and 4th notes in a major scale are only separated by a half-step.

So in the F major scale, we need to lower the B to Bb.

The Circle of 5ths

The C major scale is the only major scale with no sharps or flats. We can place all of the major scales on a line from scales with the most flats to scales with the most sharps:


#s:                                  1   2   3   4   5   6
    Gb - Db - Ab - Eb - Bb - F - C - G - D - A - E - B - F#
bs: 6    5    4    3    2    1

If you play careful attention, you’ll notice that Gb and F# are two different names for the same black note.

This means our list of major scales actually wraps around. This is the basis for what’s called the “Circle of 5ths”:

The Circle of 5ths

If you follow this circle clockwise, you move in 5ths. For example, G is the 5th of C. And D is the 5th of G. This is why it’s called the Circle of 5ths.

If you follow the circle counterclockwise, you move in 4ths. For example, C is the 4th of G. And F is the 4th of C.

The Circle also tells us how many notes with a sharp or flat are in each major scale:

The Circle of 5ths Sharps and Flats

On the right (sharp) side of the Circle of 5ths, the clock position tells you how many sharps are in a scale. For example, A is at the 3 o’clock position and has 3 sharps.

If you read the left (flat) side of the circle as a mirror of a clock, you can do something similar. F is the mirror of 1 o’clock, so it has 1 flat. Eb is the mirror of 3 o’clock, so it has 3 flats.

Remembering the 5ths

If you asked me if there’s one thing you should memorize from music theory, I’d probably tell you to memorize this sequence:

F - C - G - D - A - E - B

Use a mnemonic and repeat it to yourself wherever you go. I recommend you make up your own, maybe something weird like “Five Cats Give Dogs An Eerie Balance”.

This covers the first part of the Circle of 5ths, starting on F.

If you follow that mnemonic by repeating the part from G onward, you capture the rest of the Circle: “Five Cats Give Dogs An Eerie Balance / Give Dogs An Eerie Balance”.

Here’s that complete sequence:


F - C - G - D - A - E - B - Gb - Db - Ab - Eb - Bb

Once you have this sequence memorized, you’ll easily be able to determine the 5th of any note. This is a valuable skill for a songwriter, for reasons we’ll see as we continue.

Identifying sharps and flats

One more trick before we move on. If you know that a scale has 4 sharps, how do you know which sharps?

Use that same sequence!

Here’s the list of keys with sharps, in clockwise order on the Circle of 5ths:

Key   Sharps in Key
---   -------------
G   - F#
D   - F#, C#
A   - F#, C#, G#
E   - F#, C#, G#, D#
B   - F#, C#, G#, D#, A#
F#  - F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#
C#  - F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

Notice the pattern emerging, the same pattern you just memorized:

F - C - G - D - A - E - B

For flats we use the reverse of our sequence:

B - E - A - D - G - C - F

Here’s the list of keys with flats, in counterclockwise order on the Circle of 5ths. Notice the reverse sequence emerging:

Key   Flats in Key
---   ------------
F   - Bb
Bb  - Bb, Eb
Eb  - Bb, Eb, Ab
Ab  - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db
Db  - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
Gb  - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb
Cb  - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb

If all of these lists of sharps and flats seems like too much information right now, don’t worry about it.

You can always look it up if you need it for some reason.

Scales and modes

We’ve looked at the fundamentals of major scales and briefly touched on the useful Circle of 5ths. Let’s dig deeper into scales in general, which will form the basis for a number of songwriting principles.

Whenever we referred to a specific scale above, we mentioned the note that the scale starts on.

For example, in C major, C is the 1st note in the scale. In G major, G is the 1st note.

Each individual scale has a tonic note, which is just that 1st note.

Think of the tonic note as the home note for the scale. Melodies using that scale will often begin or end on that note (or both). And often times, the home note will show up more frequently than any other note.

This means that if you use the white keys for a melody, but never play C, it probably won’t sound like it’s in C major. Give it a try.

The next most important note in a scale is the 5th. When popular song melodies have been analyzed, for example, the 5th often shows up second most frequently after the 1st.

Together, the 1st and 5th of a scale establish a sense of home. This is part of why the Circle of 5ths is so significant.

In particular, the 1st and 5th together establish that our tonic note is home. But they don’t tell us what kind of scale we’re using.

Kinds of scales

So far, we’ve only talked about one kind of scale: major scales.

But there are many kinds of scales besides major. We’ll look at three categories in what follows:

  1. Major scales
  2. Minor scales
  3. The common modes of the major scale

These are the most common scales used in popular music.

The 1st and 5th notes are shared by all of these scales, which is why those notes alone don’t give us enough information to distinguish between scale kinds.

Let’s take a closer look at what does distinguish these scales.

Major scales

Besides the 1st and 5th, the most important note in the major scale is the major 3rd.

A major 3rd is an interval of 2 whole-steps (or 4 half-steps).

If we play the 1st, major 3rd, and 5th together, we get a major chord.

For example, in the C major scale, the major 3rd is E and the 5th is G:

C major chord degrees

Since this chord starts on the tonic note, it’s called the tonic chord. In major scales, the tonic chord is always a major chord.

The major 3rd explains why the scale is called “major”.

Minor scales

You might not be surprised to hear that in a minor scale, the 3rd is a minor 3rd.

A minor 3rd is an interval of 1 whole-step and 1 half-step (or 3 half-steps).

In C minor, we lower the 3rd one half-step from E to Eb to make it a minor 3rd.

When you play the 1st, the minor 3rd, and the 5th together, you get a minor chord. In C minor, this would be C, Eb, and G:

C minor chord degrees

Since this chord starts on the tonic note, it is the tonic chord. Notice that minor scales have a minor tonic chord.

This minor scale is also called the natural minor scale to distinguish it from a couple of other types of minor scales we’ll be ignoring in this post. When someone tells you a popular song is in C minor, assume they mean C natural minor.

Relative and parallel minor

Every major scale has a relative minor scale. To find that scale, take the notes of the major scale and play them starting on the 6th note.

For example, the relative minor for C major is A minor. That’s because A is the 6th note in C major:

Sixth degree of C major

So if we play the white notes from A to A, we are playing an A minor scale:

A minor chord degrees

These notes have a different sequence of half- and whole-steps from the major scale:

A - B - C - D - E - F - G - A
  W   H   W   W   H   W   W

If you want to find the minor scale starting on a particular note, use this sequence of half- and whole-steps.

For example, here’s C minor:

C - D - Eb - F - G - Ab - Bb - C
  W   H    W   W   H    W    W

And here it is on the piano:

C minor scale

If you compare this to C major, you’ll see that in C minor we have lowered three of the scale degrees:


         1   2   3    4   5   6    7
C major: C - D - E  - F - G - A  - B
                 |            |    |
                 v            v    v
C minor: C - D - Eb - F - G - Ab - Bb
         1   2   b3   4   5   b6   b7

The lowered 3rd (b3 or flat 3) is the minor 3rd we’ve already discussed. The b6 and b7 also contribute to the distinctively minor feel of the scale.

This gives us another way to find a minor scale. Take any major scale and lower the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees to get the parallel minor scale.

A parallel scale is a different type of scale that starts on the same note. So C major and C minor are parallel scales.

Let’s look at the parallel minor of D major:


         1   2   3    4   5   6    7
D major: D - E - F# - G - A - B  - C#
D minor: D - E - F  - G - A - Bb - C
         1   2   b3   4   5   b6   b7

Notice that the 3rd, 6th, and 7th are all lowered a half-step in the parallel D minor scale (F# -> F, B -> Bb, and C# -> C).

In case you’re curious, let’s also find the relative minor for D major. As a reminder, to find the relative minor, we use the same notes as in D major, but start and end on the 6th scale degree.

Let’s start by looking at the scale degrees in D major:

Degrees of D major scale

Since the 6th note in D major is B, the relative minor of D major is B minor:

B minor scale

Notice that B minor is made up of the same notes as D major, just in a different order. We say that B minor is a mode of D major, since it shares all the same notes.

The modes of the major scale

We’ve seen that to find the relative minor for a major scale, we find the 6th note in the major scale. Then we play the major scale notes but start and end on that 6th note.

The 6th note of the C major scale is A, so the relative minor of C major is A minor. And since the notes of the C major scale are just the white keys, we know that the A minor scale is all white keys starting and ending on A:

A natural minor scale

So you can find a new scale by changing the note you start on. But what if we started on the 2nd note of C major (which is D) instead of the 6th?

Playing the white keys starting on D gives us a scale called the “D Dorian mode”:

D Dorian Mode Piano

Remember that the major scale and the natural minor scale each had a distinctive sequence of half-steps and whole-steps. The Dorian mode also has a distinctive sequence of steps:

 C Major: C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C
            W   W   H   W   W   W   H

D Dorian: D - E - F - G - A - B - C - D
            W   H   W   W   W   H   W

 A Minor: A - B - C - D - E - F - G - A
            W   H   W   W   H   W   W

You might have guessed that we can find a different mode starting on each note in the major scale. Since there are seven notes in the major scale, there are seven modes of the major scale.

Here’s the list of modes with the relative scale degree they start on:

1 - Ionian (major)
2 - Dorian
3 - Phrygian
4 - Lydian
5 - Mixolydian
6 - Aeolian (natural minor)
7 - Locrian

Notice that the major scale is the same as the “Ionian” mode. And the natural minor scale is the same as the “Aeolian” mode.

There are two ways of determining the notes of a mode. The first is the derivative method. This is the approach we just discussed, where you take a major scale and start playing on a different note of the scale.

Here are the derivative modes of the C major scale:

1 - C Ionian (major)
2 - D Dorian
3 - E Phrygian
4 - F Lydian
5 - G Mixolydian
6 - A Aeolian (natural minor)
7 - B Locrian

Notice that reading down the starting notes of each mode gives us the C major scale (C - D - E - F - G - A - B). We can say that C major is the relative major of all these modes derived from it.

As I mentioned above, each mode has its own distinctive sequence of half-steps and whole-steps. In particular, the two half-steps found in the major scale are in a different place for each mode.

This is easy to see when using the modes of C major as our example.

Listed below is every mode of C major. Notice how the half-steps between E-F and B-C are in different positions relative to the home note of each mode. These placements help create the distinctive sounds of the modes:

1. C Ionian (major)

C Ionian Mode Piano

2. D Dorian

D Dorian Mode Piano

3. E Phrygian

E Phrygian Mode Piano

4. F Lydian

F Lydian Mode Piano

5. G Mixolydian

G Mixolydian Mode Piano

6. A Aeolian (natural minor)

A Aeolian Mode Piano

7. B Locrian

B Locrian Mode Piano

The parallel method for finding modes

The parallel method is another way to determine the notes in a mode. In this method we find all of the modes starting on the same note.

For example, using C as our starting point, we can find C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, etc. In order to do this, we can use the patterns of whole and half-steps for each mode.

But perhaps a better approach is to look up (or memorize) the distinctive sharps and flats in each mode.

Let’s look at each parallel mode of C major to understand this more clearly. Comparing parallel modes also helps brings out what is different about each mode.

As you listen to each, pay attention to the sound of the flat (b) or sharp (b) degrees.

1. C Ionian (major)

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

C Ionian Mode Piano

The Ionian mode is just the familiar major scale.

2. C Dorian

1   2   b3   4   5   6   b7   8
C - D - Eb - F - G - A - Bb - C

C Dorian Mode Piano

Notice that in Dorian, we have a flat 3 (b3) and a flat 7 (b7). That is, while C major contains an E and a B, C Dorian contains an Eb and a Bb.

The b3 makes Dorian a minor mode. You can think of Dorian as the “least minor” of the minor modes.

3. C Phrygian

1   b2   b3   4   5   b6   b7   8
C - Db - Eb - F - G - Ab - Bb - C

C Phrygian Mode Piano

Like Dorian, the Phrygian mode has a b3 and b7, but it also has a b6 and b2. The b3 makes it a minor mode as well.

You might remember from earlier that natural minor has a b3, b6, and b7. Phrygian adds the b2, which I sometimes say makes it “more minor than minor”.

4. C Lydian

1   2   3   #4   5   6   7   8
C - D - E - F# - G - A - B - C

C Lydian Mode Piano

The Lydian mode is just like a major scale but with a sharp 4 (#4). No other mode of the major scale has a sharped degree in it.

Because of the major 3rd, Lydian is a major mode.

5. C Mixolydian

1   2   3   4   5   6   b7   8
C - D - E - F - G - A - Bb - C

C Mixolydian Mode Piano

The Mixolydian mode is just like a major scale but with a b7.

Because of the major 3rd, Mixolydian is also a major mode.

6. C Aeolian (natural minor)

1   2   b3   4   5   b6   b7   8
C - D - Eb - F - G - Ab - Bb - C

C Aeolian Mode Piano

The Aeolian mode is just the natural minor scale we discussed above. It has a b3, b6, and b7.

Unsurprisingly, it is a minor mode (because of the b3).

7. C Locrian

1   b2   b3   4   b5   b6   b7   8
C - Db - Eb - F - Gb - Ab - Bb - C

C Locrian Mode Piano

The Locrian mode is a weird one. That b5 makes it very unstable.

Remember that the 1st and 5th of a scale help establish a sense of home. Since Locrian doesn’t have a normal 5th, it is difficult to establish or maintain that sense of home.

In fact, Locrian is rarely used (if ever) in the melodies of popular songs. It is used in some popular contexts though, like metal guitar improvisation.

Summarizing the modes

That takes us through all the modes of the major scale. We have seen two ways to find the modes (derivative and parallel) and some of the features that make each mode distinct.

We have also seen that there are three major modes (Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian), three minor modes (Aeolian, Dorian, and Phrygian), and one weird mode (Locrian, which we will generally ignore).

We have looked at the modes in order of the scale degrees they begin on. But there is also a way we can order the modes in terms of their characteristic sounds, from “more major” to “more minor”. I explain this in more detail in another post.

Chords and keys

We’ve made it all this way and still haven’t said much about one of the most important concepts in songwriting: the chord.

That’s because the musical meaning of chords is in many ways tied to the underlying scale or scales. But now we know enough about scales to dig in to chords!

A chord is a simultaneous combination of notes. We will see that just as each scale/mode has a distinctive sequence of notes, it also has a distinctive sequence of chords.

The combination of a tonic (home) note, a scale, and a set of chords gives us a key. Think of the tonic note as the center or resting place of the key.

In traditional European music theory, the term “key” has a narrow meaning (for example, limited to major keys and minor keys). But in popular music this narrow definition is often a bad fit.

So we will use “key” in a broader sense. This will allow us to say things like “the key of D Dorian”, which I’ll admit might cause some music theorists' heads to explode.

Building chords

The most common chords in popular music are major triads and minor triads. A triad is a chord with three notes, and the term normally refers to chords with a 3rd and a 5th.

If the 3rd in a triad is a major 3rd, it’s a major chord. If the 3rd is a minor 3rd, it’s a minor chord.

As an example, consider the C major and C minor chords. Notice that the minor 3rd is the same interval as the flat 3s we’ve been discussing:

              1   3    5
C major  (C): C - E  - G
C minor (Cm): C - Eb - G
              1   b3   5

As discussed above, a major 3rd is an interval of 2 whole-steps. A minor 3rd is an interval of 1 whole-step and 1 half-step.

If you take a major scale, you can form a triad starting on any note in the scale. Some of these will be major chords and some will be minor.

Here are all of the chords (triads) formed on the notes of the C major scale. I include half- (H) and whole-steps between notes for context:

        W W H W W W H W W H W W W H
SCALE: C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
    C: C   E   G
   Dm:   D   F   A
   Em:     E   G   B
    F:       F   A   C
    G:         G   B   D
   Am:           A   C   E
   B°:             B   D   F
SCALE: C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
        W W H W W W H W W H W W W H

You’ll notice that the major chords have a pattern of

 WW HW
1  3  5

On the other hand, minor chords have a pattern of

 WH  WW
1  b3  5

Note that depending on the chord, you might see WH (e.g. A minor) or HW (e.g. E minor). What matters is the overall interval size, not the exact order of half- and whole-steps within an interval.

The odd chord out is the B diminished chord. A diminished chord has the following pattern:

 HW  WH
1  b3  b5

A diminished chord has a minor 3rd, but it also has a diminished 5th, which is a b5. Just like we’ve seen with the Locrian mode, this diminished 5th creates a lot of instability. As a result, diminished chords are relatively rare in popular music.

Chord scales

Forming a triad on every note of a scale creates what’s called a chord scale. The chord scale for the key of C major has a distinctive order of chords:

1: major chord
2: minor chord
3: minor chord
4: major chord
5: major chord
6: minor chord
7: diminished chord

This order holds for any major scale, not just C major. For example, the triad starting on the 2nd note of any major scale will be a minor chord.

It is powerful to be able to talk about these patterns without having to refer to a particular key and tonic note. And we can do this relatively easily by using Roman numeral chord notation.

In the Roman numeral system, an uppercase Roman numeral represents a major chord. A lowercase Roman numeral represents a minor chord. If we add the ° symbol after a Roman numeral, that means we have a diminished chord.

Here are the chords in C major represented using Roman numerals:

I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii°
C - Dm - Em  - F  - G - Am - B°

This same sequence of Roman numerals holds for any major key. For example, here are the chords in D major:

I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii°
D - Em - F#m - G  - A - Bm - C#°

Chord progressions

A chord progression is a sequence of chords (often repeated) that provides the harmony for a section of a song. We can write chord progressions using chord names:

| C | G | Am | F |

But we can also write that same C major progression using Roman numerals:

| I | V | vi | IV |

Those | | areas represent bars (also called measures). A bar is the smallest meaningful unit of rhythmic structure. In the common 4/4 time, a bar lasts 4 beats (think taps of your hand or clicks of a metronome).

One of the powerful aspects of the Roman numeral system is that we can easily use it to transpose a progression from one key to another.

For example, the following table shows the chords in every major key. We can use it to transpose our I-V-vi-IV progression from C major to F major.


I  - ii  - iii - IV - V  - vi  - vii°
--------------------------------------
C  - Dm  - Em  - F  - G  - Am  - B°
Db - Ebm - Fm  - Gb - Ab - Bbm - C°
D  - Em  - F#m - G  - A  - Bm  - C#°
Eb - Fm  - Gm  - Ab - Bb - Cm  - D°
E  - F#m - G#m - A  - B  - C#m - D#°
F  - Gm  - Am  - Bb - C  - Dm  - E°
Gb - Abm - Bbm - Cb - Db - Ebm - F°
G  - Am  - Bm  - C  - D  - Em  - F#°
Ab - Bbm - Cm  - Db - Eb - Fm  - G°
A  - Bm  - C#m - D  - E  - F#m - G#°
Bb - Cm  - Dm  - Eb - F  - Gm  - A°
B  - C#m - D#m - E  - F# - G#m - A#°

Looking up each chord in F major, we find:

| I | V | vi | IV |
| F | C | Dm | Bb |

The relationship between the chords is the same no matter what key you play them in. So by studying chord progressions in Roman numeral form, we learn things about progressions that can be applied to any key.

You can read more about about writing major key chord progressions and minor key chord progressions.

And if you’re a guitarist, keep in mind you can [write and transpose songs in any key with chords you probably already know] (/write-songs-in-any-key-with-guitar-chords-you-already-know/).

Keys

We now have everything we need to understand the concept of a key. For example, the key of C major has a tonic note of C, a scale called the “C major scale”, and a chord scale made up of all the triads on the C major scale.

Here’s a summary of the key of C major:


 Tonic note: C
      Scale: C - D  - E   - F  - G - A  - B
Chord scale: C - Dm - Em  - F  - G - Am - B°
             I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii°

So what about if our scale is something other than the major scale? We can find a chord scale for other scales as well.

For example, here is a summary of the key of C minor:


 Tonic note: C
      Scale: C  - D   - Eb   - F  - G  - Ab  - Bb
Chord scale: Cm - D°  - Eb   - Fm - Gm - Ab  - Bb
             i  - ii° - bIII - iv - v  - bVI - bVII

Notice that the Roman numeral version of the minor chord scale is significantly different from the major scale above. Let’s compare them directly:


Major: I - ii  - iii  - IV - V - vi  - vii°
Minor: i - ii° - bIII - iv - v - bVI - bVII

The minor scale has a minor chord for its tonic chord (written i). And every chord symbol is different between the major and minor keys.

There’s no need to stop here. Every mode can be interpreted as the basis for a key. For example, here is D Dorian:


 Tonic note: D
      Scale: D  - E   - F    - G  - A  - B   - C
Chord scale: Dm - Em  - F    - G  - Am - B°  - C
             i  - ii  - bIII - IV - v  - vi° - bVII

And here is the complete list of the Roman numeral chords for the modes:


    Ionian: I  - ii  - iii  - IV   - V  - vi  - vii°
    Dorian: i  - ii  - bIII - IV   - v  - vi° - bVII
  Phrygian: i  - bII - bIII - iv   - v° - bVI - bvii
    Lydian: I  - II  - iii  - #iv° - V  - vi  - vii
Mixolydian: I  - ii  - iii° - IV   - v  - vi  - bVII
   Aeolian: i  - ii° - bIII - iv   - v  - bVI - bVII
   Locrian: i° - bII - biii - iv   - bV - bVI - bvii

Note that the qualities of the chords (major, minor, or diminished) are shifted over one to the left each time we go down a row.

Don’t worry about memorizing this arcane looking chart! You can always look the chords up for a mode if you need to use them.

Thinking in terms of the “super key”

As a beginning songwriting, the theory covered up to this point is probably plenty. You can write countless songs by picking a key and creating chord progressions from just the chords in that key.

So feel free to stop here and start writing!

On the other hand, we can go much further.

Many popular songs move beyond the contraints of individual keys and modes. For example, even if a song is mostly in a major key, it’s common for the songwriter to use chords from other keys and modes.

This is called borrowing, mixing modes, or modal interchange, among other names.

I like to think of this in terms of what I call the “super key”.

The super key has a tonic note but then encompasses all of the chords from all of the keys or modes that could start on that note.

Think of this less as a music theory concept and more of a way to approach writing songs.

What are the chords that are available to you in the super key? To say “every possible chord” isn’t helpful at all. Instead it’s useful to think in terms of the choices you are likely to see in popular music.

These fall into a few categories: major, minor, and “modal”. By “modal” here, I just mean the chords not already covered in major and minor.

Let’s look at the list:

Major: I, IV, V, ii, iii, vi

Minor: i, iv, v, bIII, bVI, bVII

Modal: bII, II, bvii, vii

This list leaves out all of the diminished chords and the distinctive chords from the Locrian mode. Otherwise, it captures all of the chords from all of the modes of the major scale.

I’ll discuss the concept of the super key in more detail in later posts (including how to think in these terms when writing songs). For example, how to combine major and minor keys together. But before concluding, I’ll make a couple of observations.

As a songwriter, you are free to choose any chord that sounds right. And you can write great chord progressions without any knowledge of music theory.

Where theory helps is in presenting options that you can choose from. It provides frameworks for narrowing your choices.

Thinking in terms of a major key, for example, narrows your choices considerably, possibly to just six chords.

Thinking in terms of a super key broadens those choices out again, but still provides some guiderails.

If you’d like to experiment with the idea of the super key, I recommend beginning by writing songs based on the major key chords and borrowing one or two chords from the other lists. As you develop more of a feel for what’s possible, you can start kicking away the training wheels of “thinking in major”.

But whatever you do, don’t think of goals like “writing in a major key” or “writing in a super key” as anything other than disposable techniques.

No matter what key your song is in, the important thing is whether it sounds good.

Write better chord progressions.

Chord Progressions Cheatsheet

Quickly get started writing chord progressions, or adding variety to your current approach. Techniques, tables, and sample progressions.

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