• An Exposition On The Primary Chords In The Key

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano,Theory

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    In today’s lesson, we’ll be focusing on primary chords.

    Primary chords are [chords that are] fundamental to the key we’re in [whether major or minor.] But before we get into all that, permit me to break down the concept of tonality or key.

    “What Is Tonality?”

    In music, there are twelve tones – seven naturals and five accidentals. If you do the math, seven naturals:

    …plus five accidentals:

    …is equal to twelve tones.

    These tones are neutral in every sense without the concept of tonality, which makes a particular tone the key (or tonal center.)

    When we musicians say “we are in the key of D”, what do we really mean?

    Being in the key of D:

    …simply means that we are making the key of D the tonal center, and then making the rest of the tones gravitate towards it.

    Attention: If you want to know the tones of a particular key whether major or minor, you need to take a look at its scale. The major scale is the traditional scale of the major key, while the natural minor scale is the traditional scale of the minor key. In the key that you are in, the major [or minor] scale will show you the tones of the key. The tones of the key create what music scholars call a tonal environment or key environment where the first note is the tonic or the principal tone.

    Scale Degree Chords

    Scale degree chords are chords formed on the tones of a scale. There are eight degrees of the major [or minor] scale starting from the first to the eight tone.

    In the case of the key of C major, we have C to C:

    …an octave (eight degrees.) Scale degree chords can be formed on every degree of the scale and there are technical names for each degree of the scale that we can’t cover in this post. Check them out…

    Tonic

    Supertonic

    Mediant

    Subdominant

    Dominant

    Submediant

    Subtonic

    Octave

    If you want to learn more about these technical names, read my post on technical names.

    Scale Degree Chords In The Major Key

    These scale degree chords can be formed from every degree of the major scale…

    From the first degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the C major chord:

    From the second degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the D minor chord:

    From the third degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the E minor chord:

    From the fourth degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the F major chord:

    From the fifth degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the G major chord:

    From the sixth degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the A minor chord:

    From the seventh degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the B diminished triad:

    From the eighth degree of the C major scale:

    …we have the C major chord:

    Now if we put these scale degree chords in tabular form…

    Scale Degree

    Chord Quality

    First degree

    Major triad

    Second degree

    Minor triad

    Third degree

    Minor triad

    Fourth degree

    Major triad

    Fifth degree

    Major triad

    Sixth degree

    Minor triad

    Seventh degree

    Diminished triad

    Eighth degree

    Major triad

    …we are talking about three major triads, three minor triads, and one diminished triad (aka – “the leading note chord”.) If you want to learn more about the leading note chord, you’ll need to read my post on active and stable tones.

    Summarily, we have three major triads and three minor triads in the major key.

    Scale Degree Chords In The Minor Key

    The simplest minor key on the keyboard to play is the key of A minor:

    …which comprises of all white notes on the keyboard, from A to A:

    Using the A minor scale, here are the scale degree chords of the minor key…

    The A minor triad:

    …as its tonic chord.

    The B diminished triad:

    …as its supertonic chord.

    The C major triad:

    …as the mediant chord.

    The D minor triad:

    …as the subdominant chord.

    The E minor triad:

    …as the dominant chord.

    The F major triad:

    …as the submediant chord.

    The G major triad:

    …as the subtonic chord.

    If you put these scale degrees together in a tabular form…

    Scale Degree

    Chord Quality

    First degree

    Minor triad

    Second degree

    Diminished triad

    Third degree

    Major triad

    Fourth degree

    Minor triad

    Fifth degree

    Minor triad

    Sixth degree

    Major triad

    Seventh degree

    Major triad

    Eighth degree

    Minor triad

    …you’ll also see three major triads, three minor triads, and one diminished triad.

    Primary Chords

    Primary chords are fundamental to the key and most importantly, note that they enhance the sense of tonality. Major chords are primary chords in the major key while minor chords are primary chords in the minor key.

    Primary Chords In The Major Key

    In the major key, major triads are on the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the major scale. Therefore, chords one, four, and five are called the primary chords in the major key because they share the same quality with the key.

    In the key of C major:

    …the three major triads on the first, third, and fourth. The relationship between these major triads gives a sense of tonality.

    Primary Chords In The Minor Key

    In the minor key, minor triads are on the first, fourth, and fifth degrees. In the key of A minor:

    …we have chord one:

    …the tonic chord, chord four:

    …the subdominant chord, chord five:

    …the dominant chord.

    Submission: If we are forming these scale degree chord using the harmonic minor scale, then chord five would have a major quality, instead of the regular minor quality, because the seventh degree of the harmonic minor scale is raised to create the leading note feeling.

    What would you answer if someone walks up to you and asks “what are primary chords?”

    “What Are Primary Chords?”

    Primary chords are chords of the first, fourth and fifth degrees.

    Irrespective of the tonality you’re in (whether major or minor), primary chords are chords of the first, fourth, and fifth degrees. Primary triads are major triads in the major key and minor triads in the minor key.

    In the key of C minor:

    …its primary triads are the C minor triad:

    …chord 1, the F minor triad:

    …chord 4, and the G minor triad:

    …chord 5.

    In the key of B minor:

    …its primary triads are the B minor triad:

    …chord 1, the E minor triad:

    …chord 4, and the F# minor triad:

    …chord 5.

    Final Thoughts

    Primary triads enhance the feeling of tonality. When we covered scale degree chords in an earlier segment, we came across three chord qualities – major, minor, and diminished qualities.

    While using major triads in a major key, it makes it recognizable that you’re in a major key, as opposed to when you are playing in the minor key where you need minor triads.

    Primary triads of the fifth, first and fourth degrees are important in music because the strongest chord progressions are usually in fifths.

    From the fifth tone of the C major scale (G):

    …to the first tone (C):

    …is a fifth.

    From the first tone of the C major scale (C):

    …to the fourth tone (F):

    …is also a fifth.

    Every serious pianist should know primary chords because chord progressions between primary chords are common in classical music and other modern styles like gospel and jazz.

    Thanks for your time.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Jaime

    Hi, Chuku:
    Images of Cm, Fm and Gm triads are not correct, as you can verify in this post. An when you say “From the first tone of the C major scale (C)”, and you highlight G, that is certainly wrong.
    Tell me if I´m not right.
    Best wishes,
    Jaime

    Reply

    2 Jaime

    Second request:
    Can you send me a corrected post?

    Reply

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