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How to Find Chords in a Specific Key

Question by Chris

Hi there, I am a beginner singer songwriter and I would like to know how you find all the chords that would fit into a specific key.

Lets use the key of E major.

I know that in the key of E major you can find the chords that fit well by harmonizing the E major scale.

E major; F# minor; G# minor; A major; B major; C# minor and D# diminished.

Then I went a step further and I looked at the B major scale, because E major is the 4th note of the scale. When I did that I found 2 new chords that harmonizes with the B major scale that can also work in the key of E major. They are: D# minor (the 3rd note) and A# dim (the 7th note).

I also did the same with the A major scale and found: B minor (the 2nd note), D major (the 4th note) and G# diminished (the 7th note) in that scale.

Now I would like to know if there is any other way or scales that I can use to find more chords that have a strong harmonic link to the key of E major?

Can I use 6th, 7th and 9th notes at each of those already found harmonized chords and is there any other scales like the Melodic minor, Harmonic minor, Blues or any other that I can use to formulate more chords for my chord progressions?

Thank you

Yours sincerely


The Chord Hunt Begins

Chris, it sounds like you've done a lot of independent exploration of the fretboard, applying your knowledge of scales to discover related chords.

So you might call that the "scale approach".

But I'd like to show you another approach which takes each individual chord in relation to a tonic (in this case, E major) and either chromatically raises/flattens tones within that chord or chromatically raises/flattens the position of the chord itself in the scale.

Some examples...

Basic Chord Substitution

So we have our E major chord scale, as you helpfully noted for us...

Emaj / F#m / G#m / Amaj / Bmaj / C#m / D#dim

The first thing to experiment with is to change the minor chords to major and major to minor.

For example, change the minor ii to a major II.

F#m becomes Fmaj or F7 (major 7th chords don't really work so well in the II position).

While it still has the same function (as the supertonic), because we've raised that minor 3rd to a major 3rd, it gives it a completely different sound.

You could also change the major IV to a minor iv.

So Amaj becomes Am. You'll hear this in a lot of popular music (for example, if you know the fairly recent song Jar of Hearts, it uses a minor iv chord resolving to a major tonic).

Change the half diminished vii chord to a diminished 7th.

So the natural D#dim or D#m7b5 becomes D#dim7.

Many of these chords, such as the minor iv, are "borrowed" from parallel minor keys.

That leads on to the next suggestion...

Use Borrowed Chords

The easiest way to think of this is if you're playing in a major key, keep the tonic major, but make use of chords that would have been part of the natural minor key of that same tonic.

In other words, you're using chords from a parallel minor key.

For example, in the key of E minor, the chords would be:

Em / F#dim / Gmaj / Am / Bm / Cmaj / Dmaj

Simply change that tonic to Emaj and try borrowing chords from the minor key.

Here you can see where that minor iv chord, Am, comes from.

But we could also use Cmaj in relation to an Emaj tonic, Cmaj being the borrowed VI chord from the E minor key.

We could also borrow the subtonic VII, Dmaj in this case, from the parallel minor key.

This use of the subtonic "opens the backdoor" so to speak - see my lesson on the backdoor cadence.

These two methods alone should help you find new chords to use within major keys.

Remember to combine them with the "natural" major key chords in the scale. It's this movement between chords inside and outside the scale that creates interest.

Unfortunately, a lot of pop music plays it safe and stays firmly inside the diatonic key, which is a shame because music is so much richer when you draw from a number of different systems and scales.

There are of course more advanced forms of chord substitution which I'll be covering in future lessons.

Chris, let me know of any further questions using the comments link below. Hope it helped.

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