How I compose 3 – Chords

Guitar chords

How to play a chord on a 6-string guitar

“A chord in music is any harmonic set of three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously.” (Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2013)

To me, chords form the shell of a piece of music – the walls and roof of a house, so to speak. For me, this is the most difficult part of composing and always has been. Possibly because I’m a percussionist and therefore spent a lot of time focusing on rhythmic patterns and combinations rather than harmonic.


“Harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the ‘vertical’ aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the ‘horizontal’ aspect.” (Good old Wikipedia again, accessed August 7, 2013)

Many composers, particularly song-writers such as Lady Gaga [despite her marketing style she really is a very good song-writer. My friend in NYC who knew her on the circuits before the fame will attest to that as well] start with a melody and work from there. I’ve done that sometimes, but as I know harmony is a weakness of mine I’m focusing on that first.

Chords are like a building's frame

Chords form the musical walls within the predetermined structure.

So, when composing a piece of music, I need to establish what the walls and roof are made of. This is the harmony, which is made up of chords. The content of the psalm or story always influences the harmony, particularly if the piece is to be in a minor key (sad-like) or a major key (happier than minor).

Outside my composition, administration, booked activity time, I’m studying various harmony books to build on what I learned many years ago. Over the past few years I revisited the ABRSM music theory guides (awesome material, by the way) and looked through many of my high school and college notes and texts, including Walter Piston‘s mammoth treatise. Now I’m fascinated by Tchaikovsky‘s guide and Rimsky-Korsakov‘s manual.

Next I’ll be delving into Schoenberg‘s “Fundamentals” and after that, will take a more serious approach to Walter Piston’s and dive into Persichetti‘s 20th Century Harmony. The plan is that by the end of Year 2 of this project I’ll have a pretty firm grasp on traditional harmony.

Enough context – how do I actually compose? Once I’ve got my ‘mood’ (happy or sad) I then consider the instrumentation. Some instruments are more sonorous in some keys rather than other. In addition, the keys themselves have characteristics, even colour (a form of synesthesia).

Once the key is established, I play around with various chord progressions: “Does chord I sound better after chord V (we use Roman Numerals a lot in Western music)? Or would chord II sound better? Hmm. But if I follow it with chord III, II doesn’t sound that great in this key. I’d better stick to chord I.”

“Unless I go to chord V again…”

This way I could end up with a pattern of chords that last 4, 8, 12, 16, 20 or any other number of ‘bars’ or ‘measures’. How do I know what a bar or measure is? That works in tandem with choosing the chords:

This is a medley/mixture of waltzes (3 beats) and marches (2 or 4 beats), as well as a rather talented trombonist @ 7mins

A happy dance might be grouped in 3 little beats (think of a waltz by Strauss) whereas a march would definitely be grouped in 4 steady beats. Sometimes the story is not that obvious and 4, 5 or even 2 beats grouped together sound better. At what speed? Again, depends on both the story and the chord progression.

I’m exhausted. You?! Next article in this series will demonstrate how I get a tune (or melody) out of the chord progression. To me, melodies are like a journey through the house, moving from room to room or dancing/ sitting in one spot.

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