An Introduction to Primary Chords

There are at least 8,400 possible chords on the piano [1].

Musicians don’t worry about memorizing every single chord. Instead, they learn the mechanics that go behind creating them. When you understand the music theory of chords you can build them on your own.

In this article, we’ll explain the theory behind primary chords and how to pair them together. We’ll also explain the 3 main music chords you’ll need to start playing hundreds of songs today.

Theory of Primary Chords

Music consists of 12 distinct tones in each octave. The octave will have seven natural tones and five accidentals.

Look at your piano or keyboard, locate middle c and count each half step to the next c. There’s 12 distance between middle c to the next c, practice saying the names out loud while you count them.

In ascending order (moving up) the 12 tones are :

  • 1.C
  • 2.C#
  • 3.D
  • 4.D#
  • 5.E
  • 6.F
  • 7.F#
  • 8.G
  • 9.G#
  • 10.A
  • 11.A#
  • 12. B

In descending order (moving down) the 12 tones are:

  • 1.B
  • 2.Bb
  • 3.A
  • 4.Ab
  • 5.G
  • 6.Gb
  • 7.F
  • 8.Fb
  • 9.E
  • 10. Eb
  • 11.D
  • 12.Db

Your tonal center will be whatever note you start on. In the example above you are using C as your tonal center. You are playing all of the tones that occur in the key of C. It’s not the same as playing a C scale.

If you were playing a C major scale you wouldn’t play any sharps or flats.
However, for this exercise, you play every available tone, including the sharps and flats.

To practice further, choose a new tonal center. For example, after playing all of the C tones, try to start with F. Play every available tone as you move your tonal center (F) to the next F.

Scale Degree Chords

Now that you understand what tones are, we can explain the degrees.

When you play a scale you don’t play every tone within the octave. Instead, you play only the specific 8 scale degrees the key demands.

For C major there aren’t any flats or sharps, so it’s a great place to start learning. You can skip the black keys and will only be playing the white (natural) keys.

From your tonal center C to the next C, you have 8 degrees in a C major scale.
You already know all of the notes in a C major scale just by understanding that you will only play white keys.

Here are all 8 of the degrees found in the C major scale :

  • 1.C
  • 2.D
  • 3.E
  • 4.F
  • 5.G
  • 6.A
  • 7.B
  • 8.C

From C to C you have one full octave on the piano. C is the first degree and it circles back to make your next c the 8th degree of the scale. When you start to practice other keys, like D major, you’ll have to pay attention to sharps and flats.

Now you have a better idea of how a tonal center works to build a scale. Next, you can start to learn how to use a scale to create the 3 most popular musical chords.

3 Primary Chords

The primary chords are chords you will hear over and over in thousands of songs.
You can build these chords on notes 1, 4 and 5 of the scale. Take a moment and discover what those notes are for a C major scale.

Remember from C to C you have 8 total degrees. Locate what note is on degree 1, 4 and then 5 of the C major scale. For C major the 3 main chords are C, F, and G.

  • 1=C
  • 4=F
  • 5=G

The tonality (agreeable sound) of these chords make them excellent for composition. Locating the 1, 4, 5 scale degree is the starting point before you can begin to build the triad.

Practice locating the 1, 4 and 5 degrees on scales other than just C major.

Building a Triad

Now that you’ve practiced locating the degrees of different scales, let’s return to C major.

Once you’re comfortable locating C, F, G (1, 4, 5 scale degree) you can start to form your triads. Your goal now is to use the information above to play a C, F and G chord or triad.

You will build your triad off a root note. For this exercise, your root notes are C, F, and G. But you can apply this technique for any major triad you want to build.

3 parts make up a major triad; the root, a major third above the root and a perfect fifth above the root.

Major Triad:

  • Root
  • Major 3rd (above the root)
  • Perfect 5th (above the root)

Next, we’ll review the half-step or semitone counting method as a learning tool.

Half-Step or Semitone Counting Method

Do you remember what a half step is? A half step is a distance from one key to the next closest key. If you had your finger on C a half step up would be C# and a half step down would is B.

C is once again the perfect place to start your practice. See if you can create the major triad off of C (1st scale degree) using the half step formula.

Half Step Formula:

Root Note + 4 half steps + 3 half steps

Primary chords are 1, 4 and 5, so now move on to #4. For C major the 4 chord is F (four scale degrees from the root). Use the same half step formula to build a triad with F as the root note.

Finally, you can create the third primary chord, the 5th scale degree chord. For C major this will be the A chord and once again you use the half step formula again.

Practice Building Music Chords

Before we tell you what the full triads will look like, try to create them yourself. Create all 3 main chords for the key of C major. Keep in mind the following overview:

  • Each scale has 8 degrees (one full octave)
  • 3 Primary Chords in any key are 1, 4, 5
  • 1,4,5 will each be your root note for each chord
  • Build triads with the half step formula

For the key of C major you should have found the 3 chords to be:

  • I CEG
  • IV FAC
  • V GBD

We used Roman numerals since they are the common musical notation [2]. The roman numerals above still represent the same degrees of the scale (1, 4, 5).

Practice Makes Perfect

Learning about primary chords is an important part of your musical journey! Once you get them down it will open up a whole new world of musical opportunity! Here is an example try to understand the Dm chord.

Stephanie Su

Started learning music when she was four years old, Stephanie is a music teacher and a music therapist who is highly proficient in Piano, Violin, Guitar, and Ukulele. She likes to learn, teach, and share her music playing experiences.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 1 comments
Jocelyn Steward - July 2, 2019

I wasn’t trained on how to do chords. I was trained on traditional learn the music and that’s how you learn how to play the piano. When I started taking voice lessons, I learned about chords. I knew what the chords were and the principles but in fact played them quite often in music but didn’t get the connection. Today, I write my own songs and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without understanding more about chords. Great article.


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