A guest appearance of our friends at Hobby Help.

Do you play the piano (or the guitar) and know a bunch of chords but have no idea how to use them to actually write a song? I am going to teach you how to put chords together so that you understand a bit more about how the music actually works.

The tonic/step I

When learning about chord progressions, it’s helpful to do it in a way that makes it easy to transpose the chords to any key. To make everything as easy as possible, I’m going to use the key of C major as an example.

The first and most important chord in a key is called the tonic. You find it on the first step of the scale, so in the key of C major, the tonic is the chord C. Easy, right?

Most songs begin and end with the tonic. It’s a chord that makes the music sound resting, like we’ve just come home from a long journey.

The subdominant/step IV

The next chord we need to know more about is the subdominant. It’s found on the fourth step of the scale, so in the key of C major, that is the chord F major. At this point, it can be helpful if you go to your piano (or guitar) and look at the keys (or strings). Now play a C first, then shift to F, and see what it sounds like.

The dominant/step V

The subdominant is called that because it’s just below the dominant, which is the chord found on the fifth step of the scale. This means that the dominant of C major is G. This chord often gets a 7 added as well, G7.

The dominant has a very special relationship with the tonic. It desperately wants to go to it! Especially if you play a G7, you’ll hear how good it sounds to go back to C again. Try it out!

The submediant/step VI

You could easily compose a song using only the three chords we’ve already had a look at, but it’s fun to throw in a submediant as well! The submediant is found on the sixth step of the scale, which is A in the key of C major. The submediant is kind of the tonic’s sad cousin. They have two notes in common, in this case C and E. However, while the tonic sounds happy and is a major chord (in a major key, that is), the submediant is a minor chord, A minor.


Try playing C, Am, F, G7. This is a very classic chord progression. But it’s perfectly possible to change the order and still end up with a good-sounding progression. When you’ve done this in the key of C major, try moving everything to another major key! As long as you move all notes at the same intervals, it works!

Now it’s time to complete this short tutorial by watching a video that will show you exactly how useful knowing these four types of chords can be! Enjoy!

This guest article is written by Naomi, a professional music teacher and experienced pianist. You can find more of her helpful articles and advice at Hobby Help.

More on chord theory in the article Basic Chord Build Up.

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