Students often ask me “how do you know what chords to use when writing a song?”

My mind races. I take a deep breath and think, “there is a short answer and a really long answer. This is a half-hour lesson, it’s best to stick with the short answer. Seriously, I’ll stick with the short answer…”

The short answer is to show them a chart with the primary chords from each key, tell them to choose a key, then choose chords from that key, and then just string them together being sure to resolve everything to the root chord.

This is fine if you want to write a simple rock, pop or folk song, but what if you are writing a more involved thing, like a jazz tune, or a progressive rock masterpiece, or a symphony, or even just a really good pop tune?

The long answer is “understand harmony”.

The concept of harmony is like looking at a big picture with lot’s of little details that are full of surprises; like one of those mesmerizing Renaissance paintings with a million things going on that you can stare at forever and always see something new. (Or that great album cover by the Fleet Foxes).

“Fleet Foxes” Album Cover

The painting represents harmony and your understanding of it is like an unsolved jigsaw puzzle of that painting.

The painting is beautiful, but the puzzle is a bunch of crazy shaped pieces all jumbled up. You have probably tried to solve this puzzle before; even if you don’t remember it so well. Some of the pieces are sticky from spilling hot chocolate on them, other pieces are torn and frayed, a few pieces you recognize immediately and know exactly where they go perhaps by their color or shape (ah, yes, part of the sky!) and some are just plain missing altogether.

Just like a jigsaw puzzle you piece your understanding of harmony together somewhat randomly. You can plan a strategy and attempt to do the puzzle methodically from top to bottom, bottom to top, left to right, right to left, inside to outside, outside to inside; but you will discover things accidentally that set you off working on a part you hadn’t planned on.

You end up with a bunch of partially constructed sections (chords, scales, intervals, keys) and then eventually, finally, everything comes together. Maybe, you had so much fun that you get it out a few months or years later and mix everything up so you can do it all over again!

If it weren’t for those damn missing pieces….

Okay, enough with the jigsaw puzzle comparison. The point is that learning harmony is achieved by piecing a bunch of smaller, related concepts together until you “get the big picture.” Seek out and learn everything you can about what chord symbols mean, how to construct scales and what interval names mean.  Examine the songs you know how to play and ask yourself questions about why the composer used this or that chord in the song; where did this chord take the song?  I have written about these things and more in my book “Choosing Notes.” Why does a C chord sound different after a D7 ch0rd than it does after an E major chord? If chords were colors, what color is a Bm7?  Why does one person play a particular chord one way and another a different way but it is the same chord name. Explore inversions and partial chords… In short,  remain curious, ask yourself (and others) many questions and you will discover secrets that link together in amazing ways. Read music theory books. You will find if you seek.

As a teacher, the challenge comes from the fact that everybody’s missing pieces are different. Our job is to identify those missing pieces and help the students discover where they are and how they fit into the big picture. Studying harmony requires a basic understanding chords, scales, and intervals and keys… Oh yeah, this is a blog post, better stick to the short answer – for now.