The idea of “primary chords” is not new around here.
But today, I want to talk about just how powerful primary chords are.
To recap, every scale has what we call diatonic chords. These are chords that are naturally formed off every tone of the scale.
So if you took a basic C major scale:
C D E F G A B C
…and you formed chords by skipping every other note, you’d get:
C E G (C major)
D F A (D minor)
E G B (E minor)
F A C (F major)
G B D (G major)
A C E (A minor)
B D F (B diminished)
We call these the diatonic chords of the scale. “Diatonic” literally means “pertaining to the scale.”
Now, not all of these chords are created equal. In this group, we have primary chords and secondary chords.
If you numbered these chords, here’s what you’d get:
1st tone – C E G (C major)
2nd tone – D F A (D minor)
3rd tone – E G B (E minor)
4th tone – F A C (F major)
5th tone – G B D (G major)
6th tone – A C E (A minor)
7th tone – B D F (B diminished)
The primary chords are ones that fall on the 1st, 4th, and 5th tones.
C major, F major and G major.
In music, the 1-4-5 is one of the most popular progressions you’ll play.
The term “primary chords” are reserved for these because of their high level of consonance and stability in the current major key.
That’s not to say C major, F major, and G major are very harmonious in all keys. It’s all about “roles.” In one key, a chord can be primary. In another key, it may take the backseat role.
FYI – Since the 1, 4, and 5 are primary chords, that leaves the remaining ones (D minor, E minor, A minor, B diminished) as “secondary chords.”
The versatility of primary chords
We know the 1, 4, and 5 tones are primary chords.
But what if I said you could go to any key and by only knowing these 3 chords, you could play all the others?
Sure, you eventually want to know all your chords in all 12 keys. But what if you just got started and wanted a shortcut to remember all the other chords outside of the primary ones in a key?
Here’s how you do it…
Remember these “chord pairs.”
In music, there’s this concept called relative minor. I’ve written about this in the past. I can’t explain here but basically every major chord has a counterpart minor chord to go with it. And for that matter, every major KEY has a minor KEY that tags along.
For all intents and purposes, they share the same notes in their scales, draw from the same pool of notes for their chords, the same makeup, the same number of sharps and flats, EVERYTHING.
You can go to that separate lesson on your own time (see above) but basically if you want to know this “relative minor counterpart,” simply go to the 6th tone of whatever major key or chord you’re playing.
Pairing primary chords
If I’m playing a C major chord or scale, the 6th tone is A. That means A is the relative minor of C.
If I’m playing an F major chord or scale, the 6th tone is D. That means D is the relative minor of F.
If I’m playing a G major chord or scale, the 6th tone is E. That means E is the relative minor of G.
So if you were playing a C major chord (C E G) and you wanted to form an A minor 7 chord, just add “A” (which is the relative minor of C) to the bass on your left hand.
Bam! Now you have an A minor 7 chord.
A minor 7
Same thing is true with F major and D minor 7.
F major is F A C. Add the D to the bass as lowest note and you get D F A C (D minor 7).
D minor 7
And of course, same with G major and E minor 7.
E minor 7
Now, you may have noticed we have one more diatonic chord left (B diminished).
This one is achieved with a similar concept. Except you’re taking the relative key of the D minor chord (which we formed by knowing the F relative major chord)… and you’re doing the same thing. B is the relative of D so the same concept is at work… just slightly different implementation.
B half diminished 7
*All chords are major
Primary chords of C:
Primary chords of F:
Primary chords of Bb:
Primary chords of Eb:
Primary chords of Ab:
Primary chords of Db:
Primary chords of Gb
Primary chords of B
Primary chords of E
Primary chords of A
Primary chords of D
Primary chords of G
Primary chords are covered extensively in my home study course, “The Secrets To Playing Piano By Ear.” I recommend you check it out by clicking here.
In a future lesson, I’ll talk about how these chords can be substituted and swapped with each other. That means, instead of going to a “C major” chord, you can often times get away with going to an “A minor” chord. Same with F major… instead of going there, you can go to a D minor. Even for G major, you can get away with substituting a turnaround progression starting on E minor. But we’ll cover this later.
For now, learn your primary chords in all 12 keys and these relationships and see just how flexible and versatile you’ll become.
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