There are a limited number of notes available in the Western musical scale. Twelve tones, repeated in octaves in a finitely audible spectrum; below and above a certain range, the human ear can no longer perceive them. What this means for us, as songwriters, is that we only have a certain number of colors on our palette to choose from. This could be a bleak and boring existence if it wasn’t for chords.
Chords are just clusters of individual notes, played together. Depending on which source you believe, there are 2048, 4017, or 8400 different playable chords. In short: there are a lot of them. But they often repeat notes, in different orders.
Because of this, most of the songs you’ve ever heard have all contained variations of the same handful of chords. This is great news if you’re just learning to play music! You can learn a C-major, G-major and a D-major, and play most songs! Neat! However, it’s not great news if you’re a songwriter, and you’re trying to create new music that doesn’t sound like anything else. Here are a few tricks to try, to make your chords sound more interesting.
You can spice up a simple major or minor chord by adding notes to it. If you add a B to a C-major chord, it becomes a C-major7 (named because the B is a major 7th above the root note of C). This is a fairly common chord in music, but significantly less common than the C-major by itself. You’ll also notice that the extra note changes the mood of the chord. Play around with adding notes that convey the type of mood that you’re trying to create. You don’t need to worry about the names of the chords you’re creating, or whether they’re technically “correct”– just whether or not they sound good to you.
You can also take notes away from a chord, to turn it into something else. This is especially effective on guitar, because the notes you’re removing are replaced by the notes of the open strings. One example is the D-major chord, which becomes a Dsus2 chord, when your finger is lifted to allow the high E string to ring out open. This chord gets its name from omitting the third, which gives it a “suspended” feeling. Removing different notes in each chord will give your song a unique feeling, and stray from the convention of typical major-minor compositions.
Move the Root
This technique is my personal favorite. When playing a C-major chord, the typical rule is to reinforce the root note in the bass part. Some classical composers deviated from this standard, and later, many jazz greats; but surprisingly, it was the Beach Boys and the Beatles who really took this practice to a new level in pop and rock music. Brian Wilson, in particular– a disciple of boogie woogie piano– began to compose melodies in the bass parts, his left hand doing most of the work on the keyboard, while his right held down the basic chords. When playing a C-major, allowing the bass to play a G or a D can give the chord a completely different tonality. Going from a C-major to a G-major, a pretty standard chord change in any style of music, can take on a new meaning when played this way:
C/D (a C-major chord with a D in the bass) → G/A (a G-major chord with an A in the bass)
If it helps you to visualize the chords, these are what they look like on the piano (red is the right hand, and blue is the left hand):
The most important thing, as with any creative endeavor, is to experiment and explore. Try combinations of chords. Play one chord with your right hand, and a completely different one with your left hand. See which notes sound good together. See which ones imply moods, and which ones suggest melodies. This is how things are created. Don’t be embarrassed or discouraged if the things you’re coming up with don’t sound great. Keep playing around with ideas until you find ones you like. There are infinite possibilities.