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Diatonic Chords - The Chords in a Key

Last week we revisited the Major Scale. This week we are going to investigate the chords that are built on that scale.

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 (scale degree) in the key of C Major would begin on the C. This chord is made up of C, E and G - the C Major chord. We can then build chords starting with each note of the scale.

The next chord (scale degree) 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:


As 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 saves a lot of time in the long run!!

Using this knowledge we can work out the chords of any Major key. For example the chords in the key of A Major (A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#) 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!!

So remember the order - Major, Minor, Minor, Major, Major, Minor, Diminished!!

Until next week, have fun!!



-Duncan Richardson - MU Columnist


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