Understanding, Creating, and Mastering Diatonic Chord Progressions

Diatonic Chords in C Major

“Diatonic chord progressions” – that may sound like an ugly theory term to you. Exploring this topic, however, leads to a deeper understanding of the larger musical phrases in your piano sheet music, and a more polished sound in your song writing. In this article we will understand and create diatonic chord progressions, and build a blueprint for how to master them.

What Are Diatonic Chord Progressions?

A chord progression is any sequence of chords. Diatonic chord progressions are chord progressions in which all chords are made from notes of the key. For example the following chord progression is diatonic to C major because all notes in any of the chords fall within the key of C major.

Dm G D - Example of a C diatonic chord progression

Compare that “pleasant” sound to the unsettling sound of non-diatonic chords.

To describe chord progressions, musicians use roman numeral notation. The chords are numbered I through VII and use capital letters if they are major, lowercase if minor, and a “°” symbol if diminished. For example, all C diatonic chords are indicated below with corresponding roman numeral notation.

Diatonic Chords in C Major
The C diatonic chords with roman numeral notation.

Diatonic chord progressions generally sound pleasant. That said, not all diatonic chord progressions are pleasing to the ear. For example:

Em F B°

Making pleasant chord progressions takes a lot of fiddling around. To shortcut the process consider the guidelines explained in the next section.

Tips for Creating Diatonic Progressions

Tip 1: Try Using the Most Common Chords

The most common chords in major are I, IV, V and vi and the most common chords in minor are i, iv, V. You basically can’t make a combination of these chords sound bad.

As “The Axis of Awesome” points out, way too many pop songs use the I V vi IV chord progression, but it could be a good place to start.

Tip 2: Try Resolving Up a 4th

Chords often resolve up a 4th (which is the same as down a 5th). The most common example is V->I, however ii->V and vi-ii in major are also common.

Tip 3: Try Mixing Major and Minor Chords

Playing just major I, IV, and V chords sounds bland; adding minor chords to the mix adds a broader depth of emotions such as ambiguity, sorrow, or a bitter-sweet quality.

Aaron Copland, one of the greatest American classical composers, said, “music which always says the same thing to you will necessarily soon become dull music, but music whose meaning is slightly different with each hearing has a greater chance of remaining alive” (Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music). By mixing minor chords with major chords, the music becomes more ambiguous thus capturing our attention for longer.

Tip 4: Explore Functional Harmony

Understanding your diatonic chords is a gateway into functional harmony, or the understanding of how chords relate to each other.

Functional harmony breaks up the chords into three main categories – tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant.

Tonic chords create a sense of resolution because they share at least two notes with the I chord. Tonic chords include I, iii, and vi chords in major and i, III, and VI chords in minor.

Dominant chords create a sense of tension. This tension can come from the interval of a tritone between two notes of the chord, as is the case in the B° or G7 chord. Or it can come from the 7th scale degree also called the leading tone. It is only a half step away from the 1st scale degree which creates an incomplete or unresolved feel.

Why dominant chords create tension
The reasons why dominant chords create tension – example in C major.

Because dominant chords create a sense of tension, it is pleasing to follow them with a tonic chord.

Sub-dominant chords create a sense of movement. These chords often sit in a middle ground between the stronger tonic and dominant chords. The subdominant chords are ii and IV in major, or ii° and iv in minor.

Knowing the flavor of these core groups of chords can help you make more informed chord selections. Read here for more advanced functional harmony explanations.

Master Creating Diatonic Chord Progressions

Now that you know what diatonic chords are and how to create palatable progressions, let’s move towards understanding what it would look like to master creating diatonic chord progressions. Two important skills come to mind.

  • Possessing an intuitive feel for each roman numeral chord. For example to me the I chord intuitively feels like “home,” the vi chord feels sad and grounded and IV chord sounds pleasant.
  • Be able to translate roman numerals into a key on the fly. For example, ii°->V->i translates to a°->D->Gm in the key of G minor.

Yikes! That is a lot to learn. Why would I want to do that?

I often use a language analogy in music. If you have slogged through learning letters (notes), and learning words (chords), that doesn’t mean you can speak until you know how to structure your sentences (chord progressions/functional harmony). Diatonic progressions unlock a deeper understanding of your chord progressions, allowing you to create and understand musical structures in the pieces you compose, or music you play. It is a sure way to bring your ability to the next level!

To build an intuitive feel for each roman numeral chord you need to learn them in context. How does a ii chord sound after a I chord? What does a V chord leading to a I chord sound like? One way to experience chords in context is by following online guitar instructor, Jake Lizzio’s, recommendations for creating progressions. For beginners he uses 3 simple rules to ensure that a progression sounds pleasant.

  1. Only use 4 chords
  2. Start on a I chord and end on a IV or V chord.
  3. For the middle two chords pick random diatonic chords, but exclude the funky vii° chord.

For example the following chord progressions both follow this rule.

I iii IV V -> C Em F G

I ii vi IV -> C Dm Am F

If you tried making a couple simple progressions like these in a new key each day, after a month you would have touched all 24 keys. You would be well on your way to being able to translate roman numeral notation into a key on the fly – the second piece of mastering creating diatonic chord progressions.

Enjoy Learning Your Diatonic Chords

On Find Your Melody I like to brainstorm learning piano in an enjoyable way – and I welcome any thoughts you have in the comments section!

In this article there were a lot of tips/guidelines/rules. For some learning rules is fun, for some rules are annoying or downright intolerable. I want to illustrate two ways to learn rules based off of two versions of a Picasso quote. Consider which variation works best for you.

Licensed under the Creative Commons

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
– Pablo Picasso.

Following this version of the quote, you follow the rules until you understand them, and only then start breaking them. This process works well for me since I enjoy understanding the nuances of abstract theories and rules (yay math majors!) Some, however, may prefer a flip of that quote.

“Break the rules like a pro, so you can understand them like an artist.”
– Picasso Pablo

In this process, you take each rule/tip from this article and intentionally break it to see if you like the sound. Then in the long run you have a nuanced and artistic understanding of the rules.

Conclusion

Understanding diatonic chords opens your eyes to big picture musical structures. At this point you should know what diatonic chords are and how to craft them. In addition, hopefully you have begun to brainstorm how you want to engage with diatonic chord progressions in a way that is specialized to your learning style and goals.

Next, you may consider diving into those 7th chords if you aren’t yet rock solid on them.

Citations

Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music. London; Printed in U.S.A., 1963.

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