Tips for Learning Chord Families

Here is a guest post from Marc-Andre Seguin (bio below) with some basic tips for learning chord families!





Tips for Learning Chord Families

After having learned a few basic chords and playing through a few of the first songs I had learned as a new guitarist years ago, I realized that some chords just sound better than others in different parts of the song and that the same chords kept showing up generally together with each other.

Why is this?  Why do some chords just have to be together, or why does that particular chord have to end that particular song?

These were some of the things that started to meld together for me at first just because they sounded right, but let’s take a look at why this is the case in an effort to improve our musicianship and writing skills so we know what chords to use by choice versus memorizing a series of chord sequences that somebody else organized.


Understanding the Basics

If we get right down to looking at the relationship of the individual notes in a scale we will be able to more fully understand the relationship of the basic corresponding chords.

Chord families or groupings of chords that sound right together revolve around the key signature of a song, which is the tonal center of the song.

Let’s look at an example in the key of C Major (M) to gain an understanding of this concept.  This is a great key to use as an example because it uses only the seven white keys on a piano (within an octave) to form what is called the diatonic scale.

Scale Degrees CM (Diatonic)

Note C D E F G A B
Scale Degree I II III IV V VI VII
Root 2 3 4 5 6 7

In the Western tradition of music, Roman numerals identify the scale degrees.

Notice that the note C is the root or tonal center of this scale because it is the 1st degree of the scale.  The note E is the third and the note G is the fifth and so on.

Having now named the degrees of the scale, we are now able to harmonize and apply these scale degrees to the appropriate chord.

Chords of CM Scale

Note C D E F G A B
Scale Degree I II III IV V VI VII
Chords CM Dm Em FM GM Am

M=Major chord        m=minor chord        °=diminished chord


Understand Triads

A triad is the most basic of chords consisting of the three fundamental notes required to create a chord.  Those notes are the 1st degree, 3rd degree and the 5th degree of the scale, so using our above example of CM, the notes of this triad (chord) are C, E and G.


Understand Chordal Relationships

There are seven notes in the scale and seven chords within that scale.

Using the table below as a guide for the major scale chords, we can see that there is a formula of sorts.

Major Chord Formula

Note C D E F G A B
Scale Degree I II III IV V VI VII
Chords C Major D minor E minor F Major G Major A minor B


So, we have; major, minor, minor, major, major, minor and the 7th is diminished.

For each scale degree there is a relative chord which will always be in this order for the major scale.  Please note that scales other than major will have their own sequence of chords.


Other Keys

Let’s see if the formula works in D major which uses D as the tonal center.

D Major Chords

Note D E F# G A B C#
Scale Degree I II III IV V VI VII
Chords D Major E minor F# minor G Major A Major B minor C#


Notice that the scale degrees stay exactly the same even though D is the 1st.

Also notice that the chord formula stays exactly the same.

However, in order to remain true to the scale degrees (1st, 2nd and so on) we had to alter some of the notes by sharpening them.  If you look at a keyboard you will note there is no black key between the E and F or the B and C.  These are only half steps apart unlike the other degrees which are a whole step apart. Therefore we alter the scale to stay true to the formula with sharps and flats. That’s why there are sharps and flats, so there can always be half steps on the three and seventh degrees.



I hope these few tips in learning chord families have helped you get started improving your skills.

About the Author

Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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