Primary Chords: The “Family Chords” You Need To Know In Any Key!


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Primary Chords: The “Family Chords” You Need To Know In Any Key!

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me what it takes to be a good piano player relative to chords, and they say, “How many chords do you have to learn, anyway?” I think they’re thinking thousands and thousands, but while it’s useful to know hundreds of chords, and some of us do know thousands, but that’s not necessary to get started, certainly. You can get by by just knowing, say, a dozen chords. No, no, wait. That’s way too many. You can get by with three chords. Did you know that? You can get by with three chords, and those three chords are always the Roman numeral I, the Roman numeral IV, and the Roman numeral V chord.

Now, what in the world does that mean? Well, in every key that a person can play in, there are three primary chords. I call them the homeboy chords. They’re the family chords. Like if you came to an average family, you might see a mom and a dad and a child. Okay? Three people that live in that house. Now, there could be lots more people in that house. They could have a party and there could be 45 people, or they can have a few cousins, and there might be six people there, right? But there’s probably … Most of the time, every night at least, there’s going to be three people there, right? Three people sleeping there. They’re the homebodies. They’re the chords that you really can’t live without, and those three chords are always the same, of course, depending on what the key is.

In other words, if you’re in the key of C, the I chord is C, the IV chord is F, and the V chord is G. If you’re in the key of F, then the I chord is F, the IV chord is B-flat, and the V chord is C. If you’re in the key of G, the I chord is G, the IV chord is C, and the V chord is D. Now, does that sound complex? It’s really not. It’s really easy. All you need to do is count up from the root note, the scale note, the home-based note. In other words, if you’re in the key of C, you’re basing your playing on the scale of C, which goes like this, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. There’s eight notes in a scale. By the way, the word scale comes from the Latin la scala, which means the ladder of notes, and so you’re climbing a ladder of notes that goes from the root up to the octave note. Octavo eight … octopus, eight arms. Eight notes in a scale, okay?

So if I build a chord on the first degree of the scale, that’s called the I chord, Roman numeral I, right? If I build a chord on the second degree of the scale, that would be the II chord. If I build a scale on the third degree of the scale, that would be the III chord. If I build a chord on the fourth degree of the scale, that would be a IV chord. If I build a chord on the fifth degree of the scale, that would be a V chord, and so on, okay? And so I could have all those different chords, but I can get by with just I, IV, and V in the great majority of the cases.

Why is that? It’s because songs, the melody of songs, the tune of songs, are made primarily out of scale notes. They very rarely … In easy songs, that is, they very rarely use anything except scale notes, and I can harmonize any degree of that scale that we just talked about with the I chord or the IV chord or the V chord. There’s no melody note that exists in that scale that I can’t harmonize with one of those three. For example, if the melody note is A in the key of C, the sixth degree of the scale … If the melody note is A, what chord would I use to harmonize it with? Would it be the I chord? Probably not because A is not in the I chord in the key of C. The I chord is C, E, and G. How about the IV chord? The IV chord is F, A, and C, so the answer is what? The answer is yes because A is in the key of F. Okay?

All you need to do is match the chord to whatever the melody note is, and you can get by in the vast majority of simple songs. By simple songs, I mean folk songs, hymns, gospel songs, easy pop songs, and that sort of thing, so you can get by with that. Now, do I recommend that you stop there? No, of course not. You should go on and learn as many chords as you can, but you can certainly get by when you’re starting with just the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord. Okay, that’s it for today. Thanks for being with me, and we’ll see you again tomorrow. Bye-bye for now.

Here is the video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezNCa2IvRxo
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