Diatonic Chords – Figuring Out The Chords In A Major Key

In my last article we compared the difference between the Major and Natural Minor Scales and learnt that the notes of a Natural Minor Scale are referred to by their relative position to their corresponding Major Scale.

A Major Scale             A          B          C#        D          E          F#        G#

1st        2nd       3rd        4th        5th        6th        7th

A Natural Minor          A          B          C          D          E          F          G

1st        2nd       ♭3rd     4th        5th        ♭6th     ♭7th

Remember, as long as you keep the same intervals between each note, you can play these scales in any key. Just start from the note you want!

What else can we do with the Major Scale? Actually loads, but for this article we are going to concentrate on chords!

If we wish to write a song in a particular key, we can only use the notes that exist in that key, so how do we ‘know’ what chords we can play?

Let’s look at the C Major Scale again:

Note                1st        2nd       3rd        4th        5th        6th        7th

C         D         E          F          G         A         B         etc

A basic Chord is called a ‘triad’, and, as the name suggests, it is made up of 3 notes. A common triad is made up of every other note, the 1st, 3rd and 5th. There are some exceptions, but more of these at a later date.

The first chord we can use in the key of C Major would begin on the C.

This chord would be made up of the C, E and G – the C major chord.

We can then build chords starting on each note of the scale.

The next chord would start on the D and use every other note from there (2nd, 4th and 6th notes of the scale). This would give us D, F and A – the D minor chord.

If we repeat this process for each note we get the following:

Scale Degree   Starting Note   Notes in Chord            Chord Name    Chord Type

1st                    C                         C E G                            C                      Major

2nd                   D                         D F A                            Dm                   Minor

3rd                    E                         E G B                            Em                    Minor

4th                    F                         F A C                            F                       Major

5th                    G                        G B D                           G                      Major

6th                    A                        A C E                            Am                    Minor

7th                    B                        B D F                            Bdim                 Diminished

Because the notes in a scale always have the same gap (or interval) between them, it follows that the order of the chord types is always the same. These chords are referred to as Diatonic Chords or Triads. Try and remember the order – Major, Minor, Minor, Major, Major, Minor, Diminished – it will save you a lot of time in the long run.

Using this knowledge we can work out the chords in any Major key. We started the article with A Major, so to come full circle, the chords in A Major would be:

Note                Scale Degree               Chord Type                 Chord

A                     1st                                Major                             A

B                     2nd                               Minor                            Bm

C#                   3rd                                Minor                           C#m

D                     4th                                Major                           D

E                      5th                                Major                           E

F#                    6th                                Minor                         F#m

G#                   7th                                Diminished                 G#dim

Play these chords and you’ll always stay in key. This knowledge is very useful for writing your own songs or working out other songs. Most songs stay in a single key, so applying this small amount of music theory narrows down the chords you have to find.

In future articles we will explore this further, but for now, remember Major, Minor, Minor, Major, Major, Minor, Diminished!


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