What is a diatonic chord?
Let’s dive into diatonic chords! Diatonic chords are the chords that are built using the notes of a certain key. Calling a chord a diatonic chord is just a fancier way of saying that a particular chord is made up of notes from the scale. In this article and the video below, we’ll show you what diatonic chords are and how to build them. We’ll also describe the difference between diatonic and non-diatonic chords, and how they function in major and minor keys.
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Why are they called diatonic chords?
In Ancient Greece, diatonic tuning was one standard method of tuning musical instruments. Today’s meaning derives from the word’s origins. When broken apart, the word “diatonic” is made up of two parts, which come from the Ancient Greek words for “through” and “tones.” Since diatonic chords are built through using the notes or tones in a given scale, the chords are built through the tones of the scale!
What’s the difference between diatonic and non-diatonic chords?
Diatonic chords in both the major and minor keys always use the notes that are in the scale. In the major and natural minor scales, there are no other accidentals that change a note from the sharps or flats that are part of the key signature. (Hint: it’s the same way we’ve been building chords when we practice scales and chord progressions!) To build a diatonic chord, all you have to do is pick a starting note in the scale, skip over the following note to the third, and then skip over the next note to the fifth! To build the diatonic I chord in A major, start with the first note of the scale, A, then find the third degree of the scale, C#, and then the fifth degree of the scale, E.
In contrast, non-diatonic chords use sharps, flats, or naturals to raise or lower the pitch of the note in the chord, changing it to a note that does not occur in the scale. This changes the ‘quality’ of the chord – it can make a major chord into a minor chord, or make an augmented or diminished chord. For example, if you are in the Key of D Major, and an accidental natural sign changes the pitch from F# to F, the new chord – a D minor chord – is not diatonic to the key of D major. It’s been borrowed from the parallel minor by changing the third scale degree with chromaticism. Chromatic chords can be made with flats, sharps, or naturals to change the root, third, or fifth scale degree of the chord to make new non-diatonic chords. They might be diatonic chords in a different key, but they are taking a vacation away from their home key to visit a new key.
What are diatonic chords in a major key?
The diatonic chords in a major key are as follows: major I, minor ii, minor iii, major IV, major V, minor vi, and diminished vii. Musicians write diatonic chords with Roman numerals instead of letter names because the numbers help share how a particular chord (C Major) relates to the scale (I because it’s the chord built on the first tone of the scale). Because they are built from notes in the scale that create a major chord, the diatonic chords with a major quality are I, IV, and V. As an example, the diatonic major chords in the key of C that have a major quality are the I chord, or C-E-G, the IV chord, or F-A-C, or F major, and the V chord, G-B-D, or G major.
Perhaps it seems odd that major keys would have minor chords, but this happens because scales are made up of half and whole steps. Because musicians build chords by skipping, chords end up with a different amount of half steps between their notes, which tells us if they are major, minor, or diminished. The minor diatonic chords – ii, iii, and vi – are the diatonic chords in every major key. In the key of C, the minor ii chord is made from D-F-A, the minor iii chord from E-G-B, and the minor vi chord from A-C-E.
Using diatonic chords in major scales helps us make chord progressions that sound great! Perhaps the most used chords in any given major key are the I chord, or tonic chord, and the V chord, or dominant chord. With those two chords, you can play entire songs!
What are diatonic chords in a minor key?
The diatonic chords in a minor key can be based off of the natural minor scale or the harmonic minor scale. The chords based off of the natural minor scale are: minor i, diminished ii, major III, minor iv, minor v, major VI, and major VII. The chords based off of the harmonic minor scale are: minor i, diminished ii, augmented III, minor iv, major V, major VI, and diminished vii. Because they are built from notes in the scale that create a major chord, the diatonic chords in the natural minor scale with a major quality are III, VI, and VII. The diatonic chords in the harmonic minor scale with a major quality are V and VI. For example, the diatonic major chords in the key of D minor that have a major quality are the III chord, or F-A-C, the VI chord, or Bb-D-F, or Bb major, and the VII chord, C-E-G, or C major.
We hope this video and article help you understand the nature of diatonic chords and how they relate to keys and scales! Since they use notes from a particular key, many of your favorite pop songs that use chord progressions (like this chord progression tutorial here) use only diatonic chords from the key.
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