What Are Primary Chords? Why You Need Them

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about why you must know your primary chords. What are primary chords? Well, I’m going to break it down for you today. I’m going to show you something called diatonic chords first, because that’s how you can discover what your primary chords are.

Diatonic chords, simply put, are chords built on every note of the scale.

The simplest chords are triads—three notes arranged in thirds. What are thirds? Thirds are every other note of a scale. If you play every other note of a C major scale, you have a C major chord. If you go up the scale, you can play all your diatonic chords. So D-F-A is also a diatonic triad. E-G-B, and on up the scale forming all the diatonic triads. This is essential to understand, and it can help you immensely in digesting a score if you’re reading or learning it. It’s also valuable just for listening to music.

I’m going to show you what are referred to as primary chords.

If you are vaguely aware of this now, this is going to be a revelatory moment for you. So let’s go through. We start with the one chord, and you notice that you have four half-steps on the bottom between the C and the E. That’s called a major third. Now on the top, there are three half-steps between the E and G. That’s a minor third. When you have a major third on the bottom and a minor third on the top, that is a major triad. This is really fundamental to music. We’re going to go up and discover where the major triads occur in Diatonic Chords. So far, we’ve established that the one chord is indeed major. That is the first primary chord. Where is the next one? If you go to the two chord, on the bottom, you have three half-steps between the D and F, which is a minor third, and you have four half-steps on the top between the F and A, which is a major third. So that’s a minor triad. So the two chord is not a primary chord; it’s a secondary chord because it’s not major. What about the three chord? I bet you can figure this out now that I’ve shown you the secret. You have three half-steps on the bottom and four on the top, so that is a minor triad again. The three chord is also a secondary triad. The four chord has four half-steps on the bottom and three on the top, so it is a major triad. So the one chord and the four chord are both major triads; therefore, they’re primary chords. Are there any other primary chords? The five chord has four half-steps on the bottom and three on top. So that’s another major chord.

The one chord, the four chord, and the five chord are your primary chords.

The six chord has three half-steps on the bottom and four on top; therefore, it’s a minor triad, another secondary chord. We have one more left. The seven chord has three half-steps on the bottom and also three on top. What the heck is going on here? That’s not a major or minor triad. Two minor thirds forms a diminished triad. It’s the only place where a diminished triad occurs in a diatonic chord. To recap, you have your major triads, which are your primary chords, the one, four, and five; you have your secondary chords, which are the two, three, and six, which are all minor; and you have your leading tone, the seventh chord, which is diminished.

Why is this so important?

Those basic one, four, and five chords are intrinsic to Western harmony. It’s a classic, authentic cadence and a great way to establish the key. You can go through all your keys this way. It’s a great way to gain comfort in all the major and minor keys. It’s a terrific way to have your primary chords literally at your fingertips! It makes reading music, understanding the harmonic underpinnings of your music, and learning music much easier.

You should know your primary chords in all keys.

It will really help you to have a good grasp of the harmonic structure of your music. From there, you can expand to your secondary chords and all sorts of interesting chords. But you should absolutely cement your primary chords. I hope this is valuable for you! Let me know in the comments here at LivingPianos.com and on YouTube! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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