UD#17 The Building Blocks of Songs

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UD#17 The Building Blocks of Songs
(Where to start in song-writing)
from Ukulele in the Dark
w/ Guido Heistek
“I’d like to write a song. I want to start with a chord progression but I don’t know which chords to pick from…


Diatonic chords are a great place to start when you are trying to create a chord progression for a song. What are diatonic chords?Diatonic chords are the chords created from one scale. Every scale has it’s corresponding diatonic chords.If we create a simple three note chord starting on each note of a C major scale we get this series of chords:C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, BdimThese are the diatonic chords from the C major scale. Or the diatonic chords in the key of C.

How are chords built? Please see UD#13 https://ukuleleinthedark.com/ud-13-ukulele-music-theory-abacus-ii

My friend Jill Binder has created a very cool little game that plays the diatonic chords in the key of C. You can play the chords and make progressions out of them. Play around and then read on:

About the Numbers:

I’m sure you’ve heard people referring to chords by numbers instead of the chord names. You might have heard things like:

“Play two bars of the 1 and then go to the 5”

In the key of C this would mean two bars of the C chord and then a G chord. Let me explain.

Diatonic chords are often referred to with numbers.

I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii˚

The numbers are usually written as roman numerals. We use upper case roman numerals for the major chords and lower case for the minor chords. The dim or diminished chord is referred to with a lower case roman numeral with a little bubble next to it.

I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii˚  =  C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim  in the key of C

The number refers to which note in the scale the chord is formed on. For example: The I chord in the key of C is C. The ii chord in the key of C is Dm. The V chord in the key of C is G etc.

Diatonic Chords in Action:

The most commonly used diatonic chords are I, IV, and V, which in the key of C are the C, F and G chords.

Here are some popular progressions from pop songs that use only I, IV and V. I’ve written them out first in roman numerals.Then I’ve written what the progressions would be in the key of C.

Louie Louie       | I    IV   |  V  IV  |      
key of C:  | C F | G  F |

The Lion Sleeps Tonight    | I        | IV       | I           | V            |  
key of C:   | C        | F        | C           | G           |

Jamaica Farewell        | I          | IV          | V             |  I             | 
key of C:   | C        | F        | G           | C          |

Here are some progressions which include the minor chords:

Blue Moon  | I     vi    | ii       V   |                   key of C:  | C  Am | Dm  G |

Like a Rolling Stone  | I     ii  |  iii   IV   | V           |  V           |     
key of C:  |  C  Dm  | Em  F | G     | G       |

We almost never see the vii˚ (seven diminished chord), so don’t worry too much about that one.

Go back to Jill Binder’s Chord Garden and play the progressions above as well as create some of your own:

What about G7?

You may have noticed that in songs that have C, F, and G chords that the G chord will often be a G7. This is very common. The V is often turned into a V7 because it creates more tension that resolves when we go to the I chord. Chord progressions are all about tension and resolution.

More on this another time. For today to keep things simple I’ve just used V chords without the 7.

What about other keys?

The diatonic chords in other keys are always the same types of chords in the same order built off the notes in the new scale.

For example the notes in the F major scale are F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E
So, the diatonic chords in the key of F are F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, Edim (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii˚)

The notes of a G major scale are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#
So, the diatonic chords in the key of G are G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim

Here is a little chart with the diatonic chords in three different keys:

Key of C:

Key of G:

Key of D:

Create your own original chord progression then play it in three different keys! Have fun.

All for now

See you next week.



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