• How to take advantage of the power and versatility of primary chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    The idea of “primary chords” is not new around here.

    In fact, I talked about primary chords in this past lesson, over here, and even 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.

    Primary 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.

    C major

    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).

    F major

    D minor 7

    And of course, same with G major and E minor 7.

    G major

    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.

    D minor

    B half diminished 7

    Primary chords in all 12 keys

    *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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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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


    { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Eremasi C. Tamanisau

    Thank you for the most useful information.

    I’ve just got a question on how these notes (which are illustrated on piano) can be translated to Guitar.



    2 Fiifi

    Hi Jermaine, thanks for the great work you are doing. I’ve really seen myself improve since i started following your tutelage. I just have a question about songs in the minor scale. I always freeze when a song (eg. Our God is an awesome God) is or sounds like it’s in the minor scale. How do i master that? Also, i’ve seen a band transform a simple song in the major scale to minor scale and vice versa, and still sounding really cool. Just wondering how all that is possible. I’d be glad if you can throw more light on minor scales in one of your editorials. God bless!


    3 Emmanuel

    Hello Jermaine, God bless you for the great work you are doing. I’m a Nigerian and i play keyboard for nigeria church in italy which i play the same thing every sunday service, i don’t real know how to run diffrent types of scale, as in creating scales like a solo on my worship chords and i will like to know how to add more note to my chord. I will like if u can explain how to do that. Thanks, God bless you more


    4 Jermaine

    @Eremasi — Since I don’t play guitar, I can’t give you a definite answer. However, there are guitar chord finders all over the place. Go to google and type in guitar chord finder and you’ll find a number of sites.

    @fifi — I’d love to cover this topic in depth. submit it at http://www.hearandplay.com/askjermaine (same for you Emmanuel). Also search the blog for topics about minor playing. I’ve covered it extensively:






    5 sunfly

    Thanks again Jermaine weith another great post.The New Year ahead needs inspiration to continue my piano learning progress and Jermaine your blogs certainly do the job.Even if sometimes its only a refresher to something i may already know.The blogs are a joy to read with Jermaines gift of teaching shining through.In my early days of learning the piano Jermaines blogs were and still are a wealth of information put easily and joyfully to learn.Practise practise practise and dreams will e realised.Have fun stay blessed.Sunfly


    6 Fiifi

    Thanks Jermaine, that’s really great info you have here. I’ve posted the question on http://www.hearandplay.com/askjermaine Your explanation for the minor scale and chords make much sense to me now. I guess it applies to the other modes too. Just wondering when you decide to use the natural or the harmonic minor. What about the melodic? Is it just for running scales? What about the passing tones? Do you think differently when choosing passing tones and improvisation for these? Do progressions in this scale also flow like the usual 7-3-6-2-5-1? These are just some of many questions going through my head now. I’m glad you’ve considered covering it in depth, i guess most of these questions will be clearer. Thanks man!


    7 thywill

    please send this to my website,thanks


    8 thywill

    i need the techniques used in playhing tritone chords on piano


    9 Jermaine Griggs

    Please use search box in upper right corner. We have tons of info on tritones.


    10 Ade

    Hi its Ade here, am a young player and am 14 i just wanted too know just how many types of scales there are and which kind of scales i would need to progress as a Gospel player, i already understand all i need to about major scales and the circle of fifths and am now working on minor scales. i wondered if you could plz help me and i also think you are doing a great Job with your gift and this site, thanks .God bless


    11 Jermaine Griggs

    Ade, answered your question in today’s post:


    12 Irish Volcko

    Some genuinely fantastic info , Gladiola I observed this. “The past is a guide post, not a hitching post.” by L. Thomas Holdcroft.


    13 samuel

    hello jermaine,i jst subscribe 2 the free two hours videos.iv been ask to go check my email,which i have done.but i can’t find the password and username u opened for me.k


    14 benjamin haruna

    Jerm.this great sir.i have learnt alot.but sir can I get some material on my emaili wil love to have more deeper understanding.thank u sir


    15 Okwuchukwu Samuel

    Reali cul site


    16 Roger Larochel

    I really like this course. But I do have problem understanding your explanation regarding the 7th degree which is the diminished one.
    Please help !

    Roger Larochel


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