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25: Using Diatonics

Detailed Contents


Lesson 25: Using Diatonics

This lessons suggests activities to help you use diatonic triads.

Before taking this lesson, you should know: diatonic triads (from Lesson 24: Diatonic Triads).

You can add these activities to your "writing exercises" (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting).

1. Experiment. Create short chord progressions (2, 4, or 8 measures long, 1 or 2 chords per measure) from these diatonic chords. Do this in different keys. Try different combinations of the diatonic chords. Keep the ones you like in an "idea notebook".

If you don't play a chord instrument or you don't have one handy, here's a web-page tool you can use to play these chords. Just choose a key and play the chord buttons:

Choose a key:


2. Play the sequence. Practice playing the sequence of diatonic triads (I - IIm - IIIm - IV - V - VIm) in several different keys. Eventually, you should learn to play this sequence of chords in all the major keys.

3. Analyze songs.
  • Look at a chord progression from a song you like.
  • Figure out what key the song is in (which pitch sounds like the "home" pitch).
  • Examine each chord and see if it's a diatonic triad in that key. Depending on the song, all, most, or very few of the chords might be major-key diatonic triads.
  • For the chords which are diatonic triads, label them with their Roman-numeral symbol. For example, here's a (simplified) short chord sequence from Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone", in the key of C:

    C  Dm   C  F   G  

    You would add Roman-numeral symbols like this:

    C  Dm   C  F   G  

    Important note: Make sure you label only the diatonic chords. For example: Say you're analyzing a song that's in the key of C, and you see a D (D major) chord. Well, you could go ahead and label this chord "II" ("two major"). But, "II" is actually not a major-key diatonic triad; IIm ("two minor") is. So, you should not label that D chord. Remember, the purpose of this activity is to recognize the diatonic chords, not to just slap a label on every chord.
  • When you've labeled the diatonic chords in some songs, look for patterns. For each Roman symbol (I, IIm, IIIm, etc.), how often is that chord used in popular songs? Are there patterns where certain Roman symbols often follow certain others? For each Roman symbol, do you notice certain "emotional effects" for that chord?

4. Learning by ear. When you're figuring out a song's chords by listening to the song—trying different chords, looking for the chords which "sound right"—it's a good bet to try diatonic chords in the song's key, because the diatonic chords are used so often in songs. With practice, you may get a feel for when a chord in a song "sounds diatonic" or not, even before you try to find which specific chord it is.

Finally, to learn more about the different effects of the different diatonic triads, go on to Lesson 26: Tonic Function.

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1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps
7: Whole-Steps
8: Steps Game
9: Scales
10: Major Scale 1-2-3
11: Major 1-2-3 Games
12: Major Scale 1-5
13: Major 1-5 Games
14: Chords: Major Triads
15: Major Triad Games
16: Minor Triads
17: Minor Triad Games
18: Major Scale 1-8
19: Major Scale Games
20: Scales Above 8
21: What Next
22: Keys
23: Roman Numeral Chords
24: Diatonic Triads
25: Using Diatonics
26: Tonic Function
27: Subdominant & Dominant
28: Diatonic Function Analysis
29: 7th Chords
30: 7ths Games
31: Treble Staff
32: Treble Staff Game
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Note Lengths
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Pitch & Frequency

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