Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/ECCG chords dont fit?


QUESTION: Hi . I'm a beginner at music theory and guitar and have gone through the circle of fifths, triad formation, scales, and keys.

I recently became interested in writing a song, the chords for which I used were E,C,C,G, and repeat.  The problem is that although it sounds fine, I can't find any evidence in theory that these chords go together.  ie what key fits all these chords? None to my knowledge.

Please let me know how can I go about harmonizing this progression if it is infact it is a valid one.  I would know the notes to use if I knew the keys. Is there any other strategy I can employ to harmonize it?

ANSWER: Hi there!

This is a great question because a lot of people get stuck thinking that if a certain progression doesn't exactly match a key signature, then it's not valid or it's not something that they want to mess with. There are no wrong notes or invalid progressions...there are poor choices, but no such things as "wrong". Your particular progression, however, is quite popular and even occurrs in the song "Steppin' Stone" originally performed by Paul Revere and the Raiders, later performed by the Monkees. The progression in this song is E, G, A, C, and yours is just a slight variation of that.

The short answer to your question is that the song is in C, and you would write the key signature accordingly in its proper place if you are writing on manuscript paper, and then write the name of each chord over wherever you need it to be played. We can say that the progression simply follows a III-V-V-I progression, and call it a day.

The longer answer, however, is that this piece still needs to be harmonized. You will notice that the E chord remains major, and that it does not have lower case Roman numerals, even though it is in the Key of C. Traditionally, in your standard I-IV-V song, this particular chord would be indicated as iii, to indicate minor; however, it can remain major if the writer chooses to treat it as such. This chord is, no doubt, the one that is giving you a headache when it comes to settling on a key. In this instance, the G# is merely treated as an accidental, even if it is a permanent one, and the rest of the music can go about its merry way with no sharps or flats. I haven't seen the song you have written, but I'm guessing that it does not follow the standard C Major Scale 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 pattern, and that perhaps you are using a hexatonic (6-note) or heptatonic (7-note) scale, such as a blues scale or an augmented inverted scale or any other such scale for which there are dozens in each key signature. These scales are often used by blues & jazz musicians to lend color to the composition. While these scales may contain sharps and flats, they are merely a variant of their respective major scales, and therefore the key signature would be written according to that major.

If this is a bit confusing, consider our treatment of Minor Keys. There are three minor configurations for each single minor. If I am writing a song in the Key of Am, but I am using the harmonic form, I will have a permanent accidental of G# that will need to be written as a G# each time it appears in the song. However, that doesn't mean that I write a G# in the key signature out in front of each line. The harmonic minor is a variant of the "parent" scale, and we only need to indicate that parent scale in the key signature. That goes for all of the scales.

There are hundreds of scales throughout the world, past and present, that make up the musical stylings of each and every culture, and as cultures change, so does the music. The Circle of Fifths is a road map of parent key signatures, and there can be dozens of changes and manipulations made within each. Sometimes notes are removed, sometimes they are added. Some notes are flatted, and some notes are sharped, but regardless, it always goes back to the parent key signature, like musical genetics. Generally, music takes the "Work Smarter, Not Harder" approach. In the case of your song, I looked at the chords. I saw that there was really only one note that's actually causing all the confusion: G#, coupled with the fact that you're starting on E. There is no rule that says that a chord progression or a song has to start on I. The question then became one of what I call "the path of least resistance". It makes more sense to deal with a single G# every few measures rather than to make 3-4 other sharps natural every few beats. You wouldn't write a song in a key signature where you're going to repeatedly cancel all the sharps/flats. Plus, if all of our chords repeatedly violate the key signature, we have to make accommodations to our melody line. We can't have our melody written in E if we're going to take all the sharps out of the chords that support it. So, there had to be another answer, and the answer was C. Most of the chords in your progression follow the C rule, and therefore your melody probably does, too, and so the ancestry of this progression most likely goes back to C, where G can easily be a recurring accidental without having to "doctor" and accommodate all the other notes in the key to fit around it.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Jessica. Whew!

Thank you so much for the reply. You are very right about the 'Settling for the Key' and put the song on hold for several weeks.

Reading your reply gives me the assurance that i was not wrong to have doubts over so many of the details of this song.  Especially about treatment of G# as accidental.

The song as it stands is hardly 50 some seconds long without any instrumental melody. Just me singing while playing chords on the guitar.  I have yet to make a chorus and had been waiting for some clear direction to take. Now that you say C is the way to go. Shall i assume anything in C will go, like the minors of C or blues for melody. Are there any notes to be absolutely avoided?

I was considering F or Am for the chorus. (If you have an email address i can send an attachment for your listening)

You wrote the progression can be called III-V-V-I.  Please clarify as according to my understanding it would be III-I-I-V-III (ECCGE)?



Yes, I misread the progression in my first answer, but it doesn't change the theory behind it. I have amended that answer to fix the accidental transposition of letters.

The chords you suggest for the chorus, F and Am are actually part of the Key of C's regular progress. F is the IV in the standard I-IV-V, and vi is the relative minor of the Key of C, which is often the fourth chord a songwriter has at his disposal for a standard progression. As far as melody making goes, you can pretty much use anything you want as long as it satisfies the key signature requirements. There are no such things as wrong notes; there are poor choices, but no wrong notes. You can use any notes you want. Usually we try to stay away from prolonged dissonance of minor seconds, but if that's what your song is about, then you can use as many as you like.

Most songs aren't written from a music theory perspective. If you're looking for scales to use and trying to explain the song before you write it, chances are the song won't turn out with as much feeling as you'd like it to, and may fall flat. It's like poetry. No one actually sits down and says he's going to write 5 stanzas in iambic pentameter, it just happens.  The rules of language and structure can be applied to a lyric piece to explain why it works, and of course there are all sorts of exceptions made in language to explain things that don't follow the norm. However, nothing of art is ever successfully written cerebrally. It has to come from the heart, not the head. Unless you're writing for a class project and have to explain it, it doesn't matter what rules are at work. If it sounds good and carries the emotion and soul of the writer, then it's good. In music and art, there are no right or wrong answers. As a session musician, even with as much music theory as I know and understand, I don't generally think in terms of these rules when I'm recording on a song. I hear the song and feel it, and that's how most musicians operate. Granted, there's nothing wrong with knowing why it works, but be careful not to over think it or over-analize it and treat it like a test question. Remember, music is speech without words. Everything you feel, you will put into your song, whether you realize it or not. If you're concentrating too hard or struggling with it, it will inadvertently come through. Sometimes it's easier to let it flow and explain it later, if necessary.

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Jessica Vaughan


I can answer any questions about Music Theory and Music Education, and I can answer questions about musical composition in American and Western European folk and popular music. I can also answer questions about playing in musical ensembles.

I CANNOT answer questions about orchestral composition, vocal compositions or give advice on how to sing. My specialty is non-classical music, however I can answer some classical questions.


I am a professional musician having played music since age 5. I have been a professional musician since the age of 13. I have been a full-time private music educator since 2002, and I am a full-time performer. I have had many students of all ages who have also become professional and semi-professional. My specialty is non-classical music, however I am classically trained since age 9. I play: piano, trumpet, violin, guitar, fiddle, electric bass, mandolin, and I sing (however, my technical knowledge in the vocal area is limited). I am also a studio musician and also a "hired gun" (musician who is paid to quickly fill in for stage/live performances).


I have been a musician for 29 years and I am 34 years old. My mother was my main teacher my entire life. She has a Bachelor of Music Education, an Associate of Arts, a Master of Music, and is an adjunct professor at Indiana Weslyan University. I studied piano under professors from Cleveland State University since I was 10, and I studied violin under Simma Korostoshevsky, former Master Violinist with the Toledo Symphony. I've played in the bluegrass band "Rogues Hollow Junction", am a regular guest with local performing groups, placed 3rd in the State in championship old-time fiddling, and I do play professionally and have done so since I was 13.

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