Diatonic Chords – The Complete Guide
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Chords are a key ingredient in making music, and for pianists, they are essential! However, many beginner piano students struggle to gain proficiency with basic 3-note chords. When this occurs, it is usually because they have not understood how different chords are related. Today’s Quick Tip, Diatonic Chords—The Complete Guide, will help beginner pianists gain mastery in playing diatonic chords by exploring chord relationships in a memorable way. You’ll learn:
- What are Diatonic Chords?
- What Does ‘Diatonic’ Mean Anyway?
- Learning Piano Chords with ‘The Function Method’
- Beautiful Progressions with Diatonic Chords
- How to Master Diatonic Chords in 3 Months
This lesson is an essential reference for beginner piano students who want to truly understand how chords work.
Intro to Diatonic Chords
Too often, beginner piano students lack a mental framework to make sense of how basic chords are related. Perhaps they’ve learned to find notes of a chord by counting ½ steps as Jonny describes in today’s Quick Tip video. That approach is a valid way to classify types of chord qualities, but it fails to explain their most common usage.
What the beginner piano student needs is a system that explains how chords work together to make music. The study of diatonic chords provides students the necessary framework to quickly build chords and play them with musical syntax.
Syntax is a linguistic term that describes how words are arranged together to create meaning. Learning about chords without understanding diatonic relationships is like trying to learn a second language from a dictionary. At best, you’ll have some recognizable words. However, you will significantly struggle to communicate intelligible thoughts.
What are Diatonic Chords?
Diatonic chords are a family of chords that share a common parent scale. In other words, diatonic chords that are those chords that are indigenous to a particular key.
That’s it! Pretty simple, huh? However, let’s examine some implications of this definition:
- 7 tones in a major scale = 7 diatonic chords in a major key
- Diatonic chord progressions do not require any accidentals (♯,♭,♮)
- Diatonic chords have a tonal relationship to a tonic chord (the “1-chord”)
We should state at the onset here that while diatonic chords represent all the chords that are native to given key, they are not the only chords that composers can use.
What does ‘diatonic’ mean anyway?
The Latin prefix dia means “through” or “across” and tonic comes from the Greek word tonos meaning “tone.” Therefore, diatonic chords are literally the all chords through a given tonality—for example, C major. The opposite of diatonic is chromatic or chromaticism. The diagrams below illustrate how different types of chromaticism relate to diatonic chords. In the diagrams, the blue circles represents the key. Notice that the tonic chord, C major 7, is serving as the tonal center.
Did you notice that the chromatic chords are “outside” the key? In fact, most listeners can hear this. However, even chromatic chords are used in careful relationship to diatonic chords. Therefore, diatonic chords represents the first important category of harmonic consideration for the beginner pianist.
Types of Diatonic Chords
There are two main types of diatonic chords. The first type is diatonic triads. These are 3-note chords such as “C major” (C-E-G). However, diatonic chords can also contain 4 notes. These are called diatonic 7th chords, such as “C major 7” (C-E-G-B). Generally speaking, pop music draws on diatonic triads while diatonic 7th chords are commonplace in jazz, blues, gospel and R&B. Today’s lesson focuses on diatonic triads as a point-of-entry to understanding essential chord relationships.
Learning Piano Chords with ‘The Function Method’
Musicians commonly use numbers to indicate tonal relationships within a key. In this system, the primary tone and corresponding chord (a.k.a. the tonic) is given the number “1.” Then, each successive note is labeled according to its relationship to the tonic note. The great thing about this system is that each chord number has specific tonal properties and behavioral characteristics that are universal in every key. These behavioral characteristics, such as how chords are inclined to resolve, are referred to as their function. Trained musicians can recognize these functional relationships by ear in the same way that you recognize words in your native language.
While this may seem pretty advanced, it is actually a natural way to process musical sounds. Imagine the opposite scenario in which a beginner student performs a piece without ever giving consideration the harmonic tendencies of tension and resolution. That scenario, while not uncommon, is quite unnatural. Fortunately, you can learn the function method in 3 simple steps!
Step 1: Start with a Major Scale
The first step to learning diatonic chords with The Function Method is to begin with an ascending major scale. Next, number the notes from “one” to “seven” with the tonic note as number “one.” We call these numbers scale degrees. For the purposes of today’s lesson, we’ll use C major. However, you can easily transpose today’s lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music. Also, today’s lesson sheet PDF is downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Here is what the first step looks like.
Step 2: Stack 3rds on Each Note
The second step to learning diatonic chords with The Function Method is to stack 3rd intervals on each scale tone. This will provide the two additional chord tones needed to make a triad on each scale degree. What if you are unfamiliar with 3rd intervals? No problem—another word for a 3rd interval is simply a skip. In other words, as you build chords upward on each scale degree, make sure you skip one and only one scale tone. For example, the first chord is C-(skip D)-E-(skip F)-G. (When you’re ready, you can learn more about intervals in our Ear Training–Interval Crash Course.) Check out the example below to see all the diatonic triads in C major.
The Diatonic Chord Formula
In the example above, we have labeled the quality of each triad, whether major, minor or diminished. The chord quality is determined by the distances of each note within the chord. These distances affect the chord color—whether it sounds bright or dark. Even though all the chords are build from stacks of 3rds, it’s important to know that there are two types of 3rds. For example, the distance from C to E is four half-steps, or a major 3rd. On the other hand, D to F is only three half-steps, or a minor 3rd.
If you are a beginner, you don’t need to be overly concerned with the internal intervals of each chord at this point. Just know for now that the major scale produces three different types of chords—major, minor and diminished. However, it is important for you to memorize the chord quality for each scale degree. This is called the Diatonic Chord Formula. These relationships are often expressed in Roman numerals, with capital letters used to represent major chords and lower case letters used to represent minor chords and diminished chords. In addition, Roman numerals for diminished chords also feature the diminished symbol (° ) to differentiate them from minor chords.
It’s also a good idea to spend some time simply playing and listening to each chord to try to grasp how each chord quality sounds different. In addition, there is tremendous value in singing each note of the chord in an ascending and descending arpeggio (ie: “C-E-G-E-G”).
Step 3: Assign the Chord Quality to Each Root Note
The third step to learning chords with The Function Method is to assign the chord quality to each root note using the Diatonic Chord Formula. First, let’s explain what we mean by “root.” The root is the principle note of each chord upon which the others are built. Therefore, the root of 1-chord is “C” and it is a major chord. Similarly, the root of the 2-chord is “D” and it is a minor chord. In other words, we give diatonic chords a name based upon their root and their quality.
Remember to refer back to the Diatonic Chord Formula to obtain the chord quality based on the Roman numeral associated with each chord. The following example labels each chord with a chord symbol representing its name. A capital letter, such as “F” denotes “F major,” whereas a capital letter followed by an “m” such as “Em” denotes “E minor.” Diminished chords are indicated with the diminished symbol, as in “B° ,” which is read as “B diminished.”
Now that you understand how to build and name all of the diatonic chords in any key, let’s apply this knowledge to playing some beautiful chord progressions with diatonic chords.
Also, if you want an incredible exercise to master diatonic chords in all inversions, check out our Top Piano Chord Inversions Exercise (Levels 1–2) Quick Tip.
Beautiful Progressions with Diatonic Chords
In this section, you’ll play 3 examples of simple diatonic chord progressions for beginners that sound amazing! These examples are excerpted from our course on Contemporary Progressions & Improv (Level 2, Level 3). Be sure to check out the full-length course for more beautiful diatonic chord progressions.
Beautiful Diatonic Chord Progression #1
Beautiful Diatonic Chord Progression #2
Beautiful Diatonic Chord Progression #3
You may have noticed that each of the diatonic chord progressions above contains functional analysis. That’s just a fancy name for the Roman numerals you see in blue. You can use this information to transpose these progressions to any key. For example, if you know all your diatonic chords in F major, then you can play progression #1 (I–iii–I–iii) in F. The I and iii chords in F are F major and A minor. The is just one of the tremendous advantages to understanding diatonic chord relationships. In fact, the next section contains a practice plan which will enable you to master all of your diatonic chords in 3 months!
How to Master Diatonic Chords in 3 Months
By now you probably realize that understanding diatonic chord relationships opens up worlds of expressive potential. But do you also realize that as a beginner pianist, there are mainly just 24 triads you need to know? That’s right, you can play thousands of songs by simply learning the 12 major and 12 minor triads. In fact, this is should be a goal for all beginner piano students. Fortunately, Jonny has developed a solid plan that enables any beginner student to accomplish this goal in just 3 months!
Jonny’s practice plan for mastering all diatonic chords is simple. Just practice 1 key a week for 12 weeks! Each week, follow these 3 steps:
- Begin by playing the major scale. If you don’t know all 12 major scales, then simply refer to our All Major and Minor Scales Reference Smartsheet.
- Next, play the diatonic triads that come from the major scale (see below).
- Finally, try playing various broken chord patterns or one of the beautiful diatonic chord progressions from today’s lesson.
In just 3 months, you will have mastered diatonic chords in every major key! Now, here are the diatonic triads for each week. (If these are too easy, try substituting the 21 Inversion Exercise which includes diatonic chords in every inversion.)
Week 1: C Major
Week 2: D♭ Major
Week 3: D Major
Week 4: E♭ Major
Week 5: E Major
Week 6: F Major
Week 7: F♯ Major
Week 8: G Major
Week 9: A♭ Major
Week 10: A Major
Week 11: B♭ Major
Week 12: B Major
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on diatonic chord relationships. If you found this Quick Tip helpful, then be sure to check out the following learning tracks where you can dive into full-length courses on specific major and minor keys of your choice.
You may also enjoy:
- Pop Piano Accompaniment: The One Chord Wonder (Level 2)
- Easy Piano Improv–4 Steps for Beginners (Level 2)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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