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Diatonic Chord Theory

Chords in Keys

Diatonic chord theory is about what chords are found in each key and how they work together. The 2 main uses for these rules are:


2)Understanding what keys chord progressions are in to know what scales to use.

We know there are 7 notes in every key. There are also 7 chords, one for each note. These chords can be put together in a Chord Progression. As long as only those chords found in the key are used the progression will be "in key". When soloing over those chords the major scale from that key will be the scale to use.

Songs can have as few as only 1 chord or as many as you can fit. Some will have just 1 chord progression, others might have a different chord progression for the chorus, some songs have endless varieties of different progressions. The best way to get a handle on how it is done is to take all the music you listen to and track down the sheet music or tab and notice what chords are being used and in what way.

In the last lesson I showed how to make the C maj chord. Now we use the same process on every other note. Starting again with the "C" note, we take every other note and get - C E G - which is the C major chord - C, E, G or 1, 3, 5.

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

Then starting on the 2nd note "D" we get - D F A - which is the D minor chord. If you're not sure why it's D minor (1, b3, 5) let's look at the key of >D Major:

D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D

In D the 1, 3, 5 (D major chord) is D, F#, A. The notes taken from the C major scale are D, F, A, so that F should be F# for it to be a D major chord. The F is the Flat 3rd of D so that makes it D minor spelt 1, b3, 5.

Here is a visual on forming all 7 chords.

So this formula is the same for EVERY KEY. The 1 chord in every key is Major, 2nd chord is minor, and so on. The terms for the chords in keys are - "one chord", "two chord", three chord", "four chord" etc....

This next chart will show every key and all 7 notes of each key. At the top is the type of chord/seventh chord that note would be.

For example if you look at the key of C, the 4th note is "F". From F look up to the top, it shows that the chords for that note are major or major 7.
So in the key of C, the four chord is F Major or if you wanted a seventh chord it is F major 7.

Key of Ab, 2nd note is Bb. From the Bb note look to the top, the chord is min or minor 7. so the "two chord" in the key of Ab is Bb minor.

With this chart every chord in every key can be found. This is one of the best charts ever! Originally created by my Jazz Guitar instructor - Joe D'Angelo.


The next step is to see how these chords relate to each other. Or how does one form a chord progression without just picking random chords?
First we can divide the chords into 3 groups.-

Tonic - Dominant - Sub-Dominant

There are 3 main chords in every key - the 1, 4, 5. also known as Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant.

The first group - Tonic has the main chord in the group - the 1 Chord. It also has the 3 and 6 chord. Those chords have notes in them that are very similar to the 1 chord, so they are all considered to have a "tonic" or root sound. Switching between these 3 chords does create movement but the real powerful or ear catching change comes when we use any chord that has the 4th note of the scale (F).

Subdominant and Dominant both have chords that all use the F note or 4th note of the key/scale. So switching from tonic (C) to subdom (F) then back to tonic (C) creates a classic sounding chord progression.
The classic movement that the chart shows is tonic to sub-dominant, which pulls to dominant, and that pulls back to tonic. That is where the old 1 - 4 - 5 (C - F - G) is represented.

So the chart shows the classic chord movement is tonic - subdom - dom. Or 1 -4 -5 (C- F - G). I should point out that the dominant chord G dom 7 has a very strong pull back to the tonic/1 chord (C maj). That is one of the biggest chord movements ever, G7 pulling to C maj. Also called "five" to "one".

Whenever looking for a way to get back to the 1 chord in a progression the 5 chord will work nicely.

That is not a rule, just a way to achieve a common pull sound between chords. You can return back to the 1 chord from any chord if it sounds right to you.

Following the cycle in reverse is great also. The chord progression C - G - F (tonic, dom, subdom) sounds just as nice. So rules are just suggestions!

If going for a classic sort of sound then follow these classic rules. Another way to is to analyze chord progressions of music you like to see how those sounds are being made. Blues, Bluegrass, Pop and Folk music often follow these guidelines.

All of these chords in any order will still be in the key of C. So when writing a melody or playing improv over the chords the C Major Scale will always work.

Now here are some common chord progressions. For now everything starts on the 1 chord - C or the 6 chord - A minor.
The 6 chord in every key is known as the "Relative Minor". When going for a darker/minor sound the chord progression will be revolved around relative minor. A minor in this key.

C - F - C
C - F - G
C - G - F
C - G - Am - F
C - F - Am - G
C - Am - F
C - Am - G - F
C - Am - Dm - G
C - Dm - G7
C - Em - F - G
C - Dm - Em - F - G
C - G/B - Am - G - F - C/E - Dm - G
Am - Dm
Am - G - F
Am - Dm - G - C
Am - C - F - G

With these progressions each chord will be played 4 beats but that can be changed to anything that sounds good to you.
Some chord progressions will follow movements similar to these but may go back and forth between chords before the whole thing repeats. For example - C-F-C-G-C-F-Am-G-C-G-C. That would be a variation on C-F-Am-G type thing.

Notice these common progressions use the 1, 4, 5 often but in different combinations, leaving out the 4 or 5 etc...

Now start analyzing your favorite tunes and write the greatest song ever.

Next - Major Scale

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The Major Scale
Diatonic Chord Theory

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