Diatonic chords are used in most genres such as pop, rock, country, R&B and more. Knowing them is basic knowledge for songwriters. Here you also get tips on how to create a different feeling by using the chord with the function tonic in different ways.
Diatonic chords, it sounds complicated – but it’s easy! There is nothing particularly remarkable about the chords themselves. These are “ordinary” major chords and minor chords. The finesse is instead what the chords have for relation to each other and to the key you are in. A key is a system of chords that is based on you basing your music on a scale, usually the major scale, or the pure minor scale (with its variations) . The major scale and the minor scale belong to a family of (7) scales called the diatonic scales. This is why the chords are usually called diatonic chords.
The walking method
Finding the chords is easy. From each scale step on a diatonic scale, you can build a chord by taking a four-step walk. Just skip every other note on the scale as you walk! Since the scales are seventeen, you get seven chords. Seven chords that fit together so smoothly that you can use them in almost any order. Very practical!
Example: The key E major is based on the scale e major. The scale contains the notes e – fiss – giss – a – b – ciss – diss. Let each chord become the root of a scale chord. Then you get chords that contain the notes:
No. 1 – e – giss – b – diss: the chord EMaj7
No. 2: fiss – a – ciss – e: chord F # m7
No. 3: giss – b – diss – fiss: the chord G # m7
No. 4: a – ciss – e – giss: the chord AMaj7
No. 5: b – diss – fiss – a: chord B7
No. 6: ciss – e – giss – b – diss: the chord C # m7
No. 7: diss – fiss – a – ciss – e: chord D # m7 (b5)
An asset – even in minor key!
Instead of trying all the chords around the world, you can now start with these. Since each major scale has a parallel minor scale that contains the same notes, it is easy to also calculate what chords you get in minor keys. You get a parallel minor scale of a major scale by starting on the sixth scale step in the major scale. Example: the scale e major has a parallel minor scale: the pure minor scale from the tone ciss. The chords become: C # m7 – D # m7 (b5) – EMaj7 – F # m7 – G # m7 – AMaj7 – B7.
How can you use the chords?
Here are some examples of songs that use diatonic chords. The songs also show some interesting differences in how you can create different emotions depending on how you use the chords. You probably know that the minor keys give a gloomier mood than the major keys, but there is more psychology in chord sequences than that. The chords in a key also create a different feeling due to the fact that they have different functions. The chord on the first scale step has the role of “home chord”. This is the chord you choose to end your song on if you want to create a feeling of rest and end. The function is called tonic. We can compare the sample songs and see how the tonic chord is placed.
You Should Be Here, by Cole Swindell and Ashley Gorley (performed by Cole Swindell).
The song is in major key, but still does not feel sunshine-happy. There is a slight restlessness built into the chord formula. Listen to the end. The song does not land on the tonic chord. There is no dormant “now we are at home” feeling. The song does not start with tonic either. In fact, none of the mold parts either start or end with tonics.
Listen to the chorus (0:42) which contains the chords C – G – D – Em. It feels as if the chord round could have spun on forever, because the dormant tonic chord (chord G) has been given an unstressed placement. When four bars are repeated in this way, the first and third bars are emphasized, but there we find chords that feel less dormant. They have no tonic function. What will be the feeling? The Durton type and the calm tempo as well as the rhythm give an overall / balanced feeling, but here there is still a touch of restlessness.
My Silver Lining, by Johanna Söderberg and Klara Söderberg (First Aid Kit). Since the song is in minor key, it does not feel particularly happy. Rather melancholy. The difference from the previous song is that My Silver Lining really gives the tonic chord a lot of space and emphasis. The whole intro is based on the tonic (F # m) and the chord rounds in the verse both begin and end with the tonic: F # m – A – E – F # m. The song emphasizes the tonic so much that it almost feels like it just reluctantly goes to other places. The feeling of movement and energy instead comes from rhythm and tempo.
The chorus (1:02) starts with the parallel major chord, which gives a slightly new and happier feeling. The feeling of a slight change of key to the parallel major key, one might say, but the chord turns land as usual in minor.
What will be the feeling? A beautiful melancholy atmosphere that still feels determined / strong thanks to the chord rounds resting steadily on the first step. The accordion has a tonic feel. Swedish indie / folk melancholy.
Domino, by Claude Kelly, Henry Walter, Jessica Cornish, Lukasz Gottwald and Max Martin (performed by Jessie J). This song is an example of energy and drive with direction further. The chord round (0:53) chord round (C (add9) – Am7 – Em7 – D7sus4.) Does not contain the tonic (G) at all.
The chords have a little more color than in the previous songs. Basic notes (1st scale step in an imaginary scale from the basic note), ters (3) and fifth (5) are chord tones that are included in the “basic version” Septima (7) must always be printed in chord symbols. If you continue to “walk forward” more chord tones, after passing the first scale step (the basic note of the chord) in a lighter position, you will reach the notes called 9 (second scale step), 11 (fourth scale step) and 13 (sixth scale step). As you can see, the first chord in the chorus contains an added 9a (hence “add”). In the last chord, the terse (3) is replaced by the neighboring note 11, which is then called 4. What will the feeling be? The Durton type gives a happy feeling. The rhythm, tempo and chord structure provide energy and restlessness. The chord colors make the accordion less tight / stripped. Party!
Hooray, you know the diatonic chords!
In addition, you know a bit about the function of tonics and chord tours. Now you can use these aspects of accordion in your own songwriting. More about chord sequences in our previous blog posts. More songwriting tips and knowledge can be found in the book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics.
More parts in the series
This is how you arouse emotions in the listener
This is how you get to a really swinging riff
Borrow the film director’s tricks when writing songs
The importance of the right key – a guide to the perfect sound
7 useful chords you need to know (this one)
- How to get an optimal workflow with the melody in focus
- 5 tips for the songwriter’s toolbox
About the article authors
The article is written by Johan Wåhlander and Jan Sparby, authors of the book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics.
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The article was originally published on 2018-03-19.