Fret Farm

Complete Reference Books for Guitar, Bass and Mandolin
Including Chords, Keys, Scales, Capos, Modulation and Songwriting

Composing in One Key

This tutorial shows you how to write songs using the chord map for one key.

The diagram shows a chord map for the key of A. The chord map shows the 6 minor and major chords that are part of the key: C#m, F#m, Bm, E, A and D.

Reading the Chart

The A chord is the root chord of the key, its what gives the key of A its name and its feel. Typically you'll start and end on this chord. The E chord is the 'dominant' chord. It can be played as an E7 to give a very strong lead into the A, or it can be played as regular E. It is written as E7 to remind you of this, but you don't have to play the seventh. The other chords are less crucial to the sound of the key.

The map shows you which chords naturally lead into one another. There are two kinds of arrows on the map: solid arrows show the 'main line' of chords that strongly lead into one another; open arrows show paths that are also common, but not as obvious.

Writing a Chord Sequence

To write a chord sequence, start at the root and jump to any other chord (the root doesn't have any arrows because it can lead anywhere). Then work your way around using the main line arrows (and going anywhere when you return to the root) to get to either the root or the dominant at the end of the sequence. You'll hear that these chords sound smooth, simple and they feel right. It may also feel a little boring and predictable.

You can use open arrows to vary the chord sequence a little. Say we want to write a 8 bar chord sequence. We start at A, then jump to D, now we choose to go to E, then to C#m. We'll use the long arrow to D, and come back to A, before leaping out to Bm. So far we haven't used the main line at all, but now we'll follow it home from Bm to E7 ready to start the sequence again at A. Notice that we ended the chord sequence with E7: this is a common strategy in songs where the chords repeat because the dominant leads strongly back into the start of the chord sequence again.

The chord sequence is:

A | D | E | C#m | D | A | Bm | E7

We have used only one arrow from the main line: the sequence sounds less smooth, but a little more interesting than the main line alone.

Unusual Jumps

The map shows chord changes that are very strong (the main line) and fairly strong (the open arrows). That doesn't mean that no other chord change is allowed, just that they are less smooth. To add interest it is often a good idea to add a more unusual jump into your chord sequence, in amongst following the arrows. If every chord change was unusual, the sequence would likely sound odd, but including just one can add variety.

We could modify our chord sequence, for example, to move to F#m rather than Bm. This is still an allowed change (you can go to anywhere from the root), but then jumping to E7 on the next chord is unusual. If you play the two chord sequences you'll notice that the second is less smooth, but could still be the basis of an interesting song.

Even more unusual chord sequences can be written using multiple chord maps by modulating between different keys.