Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/music theory


I know that the chords that sound best are the 1st 4th and 5th of a major chord, please correct me if I am wrong. Though what about for a minor chord is it as well the 1st 4th and 5th that sound best in the scale? I would also like to ask you for the simplest way to explain how long to hold each chord in a chord progression when creating a song, is there a certain rule to follow when creating a song? My last question has to do with applying words to the chord progression must there be a melodic pattern involved? Must the words you sing for example sound the same as the chord? as a c chord must you always sing in a c note. Please explain this to me as simply as you can.

I truly do thank you


Hello Andrew,

Anyone taking music seriously needs to acquire a thorough understanding of its theory. If you're going to compose a song you need an understanding of how music "works". It's the difference between picking up a few phrases in a foreign language and learning the language properly; if you don't acquire a complete grasp of the grammar and syntax you'll never progress beyond baby talk.

The three inseparable and interdependent elements of music are rhythm, melody and harmony, and all three need to be taken into consideration to produce a successful composition. Even if you're writing an unaccompanied melody line, the underlying harmonic progressions must be implicit. Emphasis on the word "progressions" - music should never be static. It's always moving somewhere, taking ideas, developing them, introducing new ideas, reverting to our original idea, drawing to a close.

The basis of the Western tonal system is that: the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones; the two predominating diatonic scales, major and minor, are constructed in exactly the same way in all 12 keys; the various degrees of the scale and the triads built up on them are of greater or lesser importance in relation to the keynote; and we have the concept of "related" keys, which makes it easy to move from one key to another, either directly or via other, more closely related, keys. So once you have firmly established your home key, you have a network of interconnections and interrelations that underpins every note you write, and its the relationship between chords rather than the chords themselves that is all-important.   

First of all you need to understand about the cycle of fifths, so read what I wrote about it here:  That answer only discussed major scales, but the cycle of fifths is equally relevant to minor keys (I presume you know about relative minor/major keys - they share the same key signature).  So it's not so much that chords IV and V "sound best" in any given key, it's that they're the most closely related regardless of whether the key's major or minor.  It's possible to write an entire composition only using I and V, and probably 80% of pop, C&W and folk music doesn't move out of its home key and a sizeable proportion of that only uses the three primary chords.

To answer your last question next, you're asking whether the melody line has to fit with its underlying harmony and the answer's yes, it does.  Generally a melody note needs to be found in the chord sounding with it, but it won't always be the root of the chord - you can find the note C in C major, C minor, Ab major, A minor, F major, F minor and that's just the triads.  Which chord you use depends on its context.  And I said "generally" a melody note needs to fit with the harmony - there are exceptions but there are rules for their use which you need to follow.

You're trying to run before you can walk, I'm afraid.  You need to understand *thoroughly* about intervals, triads/chords and their inversions, diatonic scale construction and the cycle of fifths, and you need to be able to recognise them when you hear them, because if you treat harmonisation as a mere paper exercise you won't get anywhere.  When you do know what you're doing, it's down to you as the composer to decide how often your harmony changes (to answer your second question) - it could be every couple of bars, every bar or every beat.

Hope this helps.

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Clare Redfarn


All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.


57 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 42 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 45 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 20 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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