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23: Using Diatonics

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Lesson 23: Using Diatonics

This lesson offers activities to help you use the diatonic triads you learned about in Lesson 22: 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 24: Tonic Function.


1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Syncopation
43: Pentatonic Scales
44: Hook Melodies
45: Hook to Chorus: Rolling Stone
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Non-Root-Bass Chords
48: Embellishing Tones
49: Diatonic 7ths
50: Pitch & Frequency

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