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What Are Major Scale Diatonic Chords?

Get Ready

Before you begin studying this lesson block on diatonic chords, you should know or review the following:

This lesson block will tie all of these together. If you're uncomfortable with them, you're going to get lost. If this is all new to you, I suggest starting from the very beginning.

You're Ready, Let's Go!

In the lesson block Beginning Diatonic Harmony from StudyBass Fundamentals Two, we began discussing the diatonic chords of the major scale. As far as harmony goes, this set of chords will be one of the most important things you learn. In this lesson block, we're going to dive much deeper into them. Let’s review what we’ve covered before, and let me go into more detail.

The Major Scale and Major Keys

It's important for me to remind you that when a song is in a major key, it means the song revolves around the notes of a particular major scale. That means if a song is in the key of G major, it is based on the notes of the G major scale.

There are 12 major scales and, therefore, 12 major keys.

What Does Diatonic Mean?

Diatonic means coming from or derived from a scale or key.

If our key is C major, then the notes of the key are C, D, E, F, G, A and B. While in the key of C, playing or using any of those seven notes is considered diatonic. Notes outside of the key, such as C# or Gb, would be called chromatic.

Many songs are purely diatonic. That is, all of the notes of the song stay within, or come from, the seven notes of the key.

What are Diatonic Chords?

A chord which is diatonic is simply a chord built from notes of the key.

In the key of C again (C, D, E, F, G, A and B), the chord C major (C, E, G) would be diatonic to the key of C because its 3 notes are part of the C major scale.

The C minor chord (C, Eb, G), however, would not be diatonic because the third of the chord (Eb) is not in the key of C major.

As another example, the chord Em7 (E, G, B, D) would be diatonic since all four notes are part of the major scale. If you played an E7 chord (E, G#, B, D) while in the key of C, it would not be diatonic because G# is not in the key.

What are the Major Scale Diatonic Chords?

There are 7 notes in each key. Each note of the key can be a root for a chord.

If we build chords on those roots with only notes from the scale (that is, staying diatonic), we get a set of 7 diatonic chords.

In C major it would look like this:

Key of C

Root

3

5

Chord

Harmonic Analysis

C

C

E

G

C major triad

I

D

D

F

A

D minor triad

ii

E

E

G

B

E minor triad

iii

F

F

A

C

F major triad

IV

G

G

B

D

G major triad

V

A

A

C

E

A minor triad

vi

B

B

D

F

B diminished triad

vii

In the chord column above are the seven basic diatonic chords in the key of C major.

Roman Numerals and Harmonic Analysis

When chords are described by their number position in the scale, we use Roman numerals to describe them: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and vii. When we study chords and number them this way, it is called harmonic analysis.

Notice the pattern of uppercase and lowercase Roman numerals. Uppercase numerals represent major-type chords, and lowercase numerals are used for minor- and diminished-type chords.

In every major key, the type of chord falls the same way. That is, the I chord is always major, the ii chord is always minor, etc. (In upcoming lessons you'll be memorizing this pattern of chords and how to play them.)

On the next page, I'll answer some common questions students always have about the diatonic chords...

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