Diatonic Chords: Your Key To Musical Understanding

Chord Progressions And How They Work

Instant Results = Enthusiasm

Contrary to what is normally introduced to a new student during a first piano lesson, my choice is to immediately expose that individual to the diatonic chord system. Why? Because once understood even to a small degree, anyone can sound good at the piano almost immediately.

I will generally introduce that person to the basic triads (three-note chords) in the key of C Major. Following that, we look at these same chords arranged in fifth intervals. Once a student’s two hands can somewhat comfortably play these chords around the diatonic circle of fifths, he or she experiences a sort of mystified delight that says, “Wow, I didn’t know I could be doing this so quickly!” It’s no surprise that this new student’s curiosity is aroused and he or she has a genuine desire to explore further.

It’s A Natural Musical Law

Gravity is a basic law that we all have to live by. If you hold a ball in mid-air and let go, the ball must fall downward. It’s a natural force. In a somewhat similar way, music has a “gravitational force.” I’m referring to the natural progression of chords that is most pleasing to the ear. Although there are many directions a chord can move, the strongest root motion that exists in music is “down a fifth.” As an example, a C Major chord is likely to be followed by an F chord of some kind more than any other chord (Going downward, C B A G F is a fifth since five letters are included). Is this always the case? Of course not. However, it is the strongest and most natural tendency.

Playing With Gravity

One of the most interesting harmonic characteristics of music is how a composer or improviser will play games with this “law of musical gravity” by defying it and returning to it. For example, that same C Major chord can move upward to a D minor chord… or to an E minor chord… or any other chord. So, this “musical gravity” is played with (or somewhat defied) but it usually gets revisited. Just take a look at a number of songs in any collection that you might have and look at the last two chords of the song. A good percentage of the time, you will find the second to the last chord of the song progressing down a fifth interval to the final chord of the song (which is usually the chord assuming the same name of the key the song is in). For example, if the song is in the key of C Major, the last two chords are often a G chord or some kind followed by a C chord.

Diatonic Chords

Let’s take a look at the key of C Major. Our scale consists of:

C D E F G A B C

If we assign each of these letters as being a “root” of a chord (or name of a chord), we will have a C chord, D chord, E chord, F chord, G chord, A chord, and a B chord.

We can easily build a chord on each of these roots by simply playing the root and two more tones that are each a third away from the previous letter. In simple terms, if you play C, then skip D and play E, then skip F and play G, you are playing C, E, G which is a C major chord. In effect, you are starting with the name of the chord and then playing “every other letter.”

If we took this a step further, we could add the B to the chord, creating a Cmaj7 chord (C, E, G, B).

We won’t get into all the theory here, but we could apply this same system to all the other notes in our C Major scale:

C E G B

D F A C

E G B D

F A C E

G B D F

A C E G

B D F A

All these chords are in the key or C Major because they are derived from the scale of C Major and ONLY notes from the C Major scale have been used… that’s what we mean by diatonic. 

You will note that the roots of the above chords simply follow the order of the letter of the scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B).

Let’s Put Them In A Circle of 5ths

However, if we start with the C chord and “move down a fifth,” we arrive at an F (like we did earlier). Taking it further, that F moves down a fifth to a B… then we move to E… etc.

Then this order of our new arrangement would look like this:

C E G B

F A C E

B D F A

E G B D

A C E G

D F A C

G B D F

Yes, we are playing the same chords but each chord “moves down a fifth” to the next.

Let’s illustrate this arrangement in the form of a circle:

Diatonic Circle Of Fifths

[You will often see this diatonic circle of fifths presented going in a counterclockwise direction instead. However, the root motion is still “down five.”]

You will notice that Roman numerals are used in the illustration to designate a chord built on the first letter of the scale (I), fourth letter of the scale (IV), etc. It is common for Roman numerals to be used when discussing chord functionality in music.

Let’s Hear This Diatonic Circle Of 5ths

This short excerpt from Chord Progressions And How They Work demonstrates how this progression of chords sounds so natural. This movement of fifths is quite appealing. Let it also be noted that no song was in mind while playing this. This was just a simple improvisation around the diatonic circle of fifths. That’s one of the terrific things about familiarizing yourself with this circle in the early stages of learning. For one, you are really getting a handle on how music works. Also, you have a guide that you can use to play in a way that sounds terrific instantly!

Undertanding This = Musical Mastery

You see, when you are completely aware of the scale or key that your music is centered on, you are in command, whether that be as an improviser or a composer. Mastering the diatonic circle of 5ths is likely to inspire you to both improvise and compose. We have just taken a look at the key of C Major. However, you will want to eventually explore this circle in all your keys. talk about musical confidence!

Playing Music By Ear

Would you like to master the art of playing by ear? Then you’ve just been handed the ticket! By having your antennae set to hear chords progressing around this circle, you will amaze yourself! Friend, your entire musical world will open wide once you tune into this.

Just a note: if you happen to take advantage of that video session, and your watching and listening leads you to having some questions, I would love to hear from you. I have a deep sense of appreciation for your wanting to really grasp this.

Happy circles!

 

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