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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.


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:


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:


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:


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!


-Duncan Richardson - MU Columnist


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