Understanding How Chords In Major Keys Are Made (+ Chords In Major Keys Chart)

Featuring the ultimate chords in major keys chart - find out what chords are in all 12 keys, and how these chords are built.

Chords in a major key chart diagram major key signature chord scale degrees
  • Discover what intervals and notes make up the major chords, minor chords and diminished chords found in major key signatures
  • Excerpt taken from Easy Peasy Guitar Music Theory book out soon in digital and print
  • Learn songs quickly on the fly and write your own songs using popular major key chord progressions using our reference diagram 'The Ultimate Major Keys Chord Chart'

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Developing a basic knowledge of the theory behind how chords are put together will go a long way towards developing your guitar playing skills. Learning songs you love on the fly, jamming, writing melodies and soloing will eventually become second nature once you know the formulas behind song keys and their respective chords. 

Let's get straight to it by getting down to the brass tacks of some basic need-to-know music theory.

Where the chords in major key signatures come from 

I'm going to break this down into some quick-fire facts. We don't want to get bogged down with too much complicated jargon that often seems to (unnecessarily) come hand in hand with music theory:

  • There are 7 chords in each of the 12 major keys.
  • These 7 chords are built from the seven notes of the major scale with each scale note becoming the root for building a specific chord type.
  • The 7 chords in a major key are known as 'diatonic'. A diatonic chord and chord progression simply means the chord(s) belong to a specific scale or key. A diatonic scale is a musical scale that consists of five tones (whole steps), and two semitones (half steps).
  • When you hear a chord described as being from a 'scale degree', this describes the location of a particular note in a scale relative to the first root/tonic note of the scale.
  • The seven diatonic chords in each major key signature which are shown in the chart coming up in the post, are known as 'triads'
  • Triads are created by assembling three notes which are intervals (distances) of a third apart. This simply means after the root note, you miss a note, then add the next one on, miss a note, add the next on.
  • A triad (chord) is identified by two characteristics: the root (key) and the sound quality. The quality (does the chord sound happy, sad, anticipatory etc) is determined by the interval between the root and other notes in the triad. 
  • There are three main diatonic triads in a major key: major, minor and diminished. Each triad is created from the interval sequences; 1-3-5,  1-b3-5, and 1-b3-b5 respectively. We'll explore this idea next.
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How major, minor and diminished chords are built 

So now you've learned the seven chords in a major key are created by  taking each note of the major scale and building a triad from it.

If we take a G major chord - that is the first chord in the key of G major - as an example, you'll see the chord is created by layering the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes from it's parent G major scale together, like so:

The 7 notes of the G Major scale = 

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7     

G - A - B -C -D -E -F# 

The 3 notes of the G major chord (triad) =

1 - 3 - 5

G - B - D = G major triad

Major triads, we now know, are constructed by combining the root, third and fifth note of the major scale. These notes are assembled in thirds.

Another way of describing the distance between the notes is that there's a major third between the root and second note ( G-B: major 3rd = 4 frets / semitones), and a perfect fifth between the root and third note (G-D: perfect 5th = 7 frets / semitones).

Minor triads are made from a minor third interval between the root and second note, and a perfect fifth from the root to 3rd note. Let's take a look at the chord that's built from the second degree in the key of G major, which is an A minor chord:

A minor notes = A - C - E

These notes are stacked intervals of 3rds like all the triads are in a major key. The only difference is, unlike a major triad, the first two notes (A-C in our example) aren't a major 3rd apart, but a minor third. Why is this? Remember your note interval basics: A-B are a tone (whole step) apart, but B-C are a semitone (half step) apart. So, the distance between the A-C notes is one and a half tones (steps), which equals a minor third interval.

B minor is the chord built from the 3rd note degree of the scale in our example key. It contains the B (root) - D (minor 3rd) - F# (major 3rd from the D and a perfect 5th from the B root).

Pro Tip: An interval of a minor third is also described as being a flattened (or flatted depending on who you're listening to) third. Be it a melody (single notes) or harmony (chords), whenever you see a minor third is involved (minor 3rd, flat third, b3, m3), you know the sound quality will have a sad, dark flavour.

The next chord built from the 4th note degree in the key of G major is a C major chord which comprises of layered thirds: C - E - G

The chord built from the 5th scale degree layers thirds starting on the D root note, creating the D major chord: D - F# - A

The chord built from the 6th degree is an E minor and contains the notes E - G - B. Here, intervals of a minor 3rd and major 3rd are stacked.

Diminished chord: The oddball

So, the chords 1-6 in a major key are a combination of three major chords (degrees 1-4-5) and three minor chords (degrees 2-3-6). The chord built from the last note in a major scale - the 7th degree - is a diminished chord.

In the key of G this is F# diminished: F# - A - C.

Diminished chords have the interval formula 1-b3-b5. That is, they contain a root note (1), a minor third (b3 = 3 semitones above the root), and a flat (diminished) 5th (b5 = 6 semitones above the root ).

The combination of stacking the minor third and diminished 5th intervals creates a chord that has been described as sounding unhinged, unsettling and even a little wrong. For this reason, diminished chords aren't common place in popular music, but used correctly as a leading tone, they sound cunningly clever.

Roman numeral system

Because there are different types of chords within a major (and minor) key, they are labeled in a way to identify their function within a key. Roman numerals are accordingly used to pinpoint the specific scale degree of each chords root note.

It's also common for the sound quality of the chord (if it's major or minor) to be indicated by an uppercase or lowercase Roman numeral like this:

I - IV - V indicate major scale degree chords 
ii - iii - vi indicate minor scale degree chords

If you see a Roman numeral like this: viiºor this; iiº, a diminished chord is in play. Augmented chords are represented by uppercase Roman numerals with a + sign next to them (for example; V+).

One pattern to fit them all

The brilliant thing about the formulas you've just learned is that they apply to all chords within all keys. That is so amazing to your musical learning journey I'll say it again: the chord and scale formulas are the same for all 12 major keys.

All you need to know are the notes that make up a key, then apply the major key chord formula. You'll instantly be able to play a humongous amount of chord progressions in every major key known to man in the Western music kingdom:

Chords in major key type scale degree major minor chart roman numerals

Fig 1.0 - The 7 diatonic chords found in a major key including 3 major chords, 3 minor chords and 1 diminished chord.

Major chords degrees: I - IV - V (1 - 4 - 5)
Minor chords degrees: ii - iii - vi (2 - 3 - 6)
Diminished chords scale degree: vii° (7)

Let's apply this to the key of C major: C - D - E -F -G -A -B. Attach these notes to the major key chord type sequence you've just learned, and you have a set of chords that sound lush together and are begging for you to tinker around with and create oodles of different chord progressions:

C Major - D minor - E minor - F Major - G Major - A minor - B diminished

If you want to find out what the chords are in every possible major key that sound good together, look no further. The Ultimate Major Key Chords Chart below shows you all you need to know. Use this chart as a handy reference practice and composing guide:

Chords in major key chart diagram major and relative minor scale degree chords poster PDF

Fig 1.1 - The Ultimate Major Key Chords Chart - music theory reference diagram perfect for musicians, guitar students, piano students etc.

What 'The Ultimate Major Key Chord Chart' shows you:

  • The order of the 7 diatonic chords in all 12 major keys. 
  • Roman numerals are used to express each chords position relative to the root (tonic) of the key known as degrees.
  • The 3 primary major chords are highlighted in red.
  • The 3 minor chords in each major key are highlighted in aqua green.
  • The single diminished chord that occurs in each major key is shown in lime.
  • The *chord scale degree names assigned to each chord; tonic is the first chord, dominant the 5th, and the leading tone is the name of the chord build from the 7th scale degree for example.

*The purpose of chord scale degree names is to identify each chords distinctive function within the key relative to the tonic chord. For example, the leading tone (7th degree chord) gives a strong sense of moving towards, and resolving, to the tonic. Tension and resolution is central to tonal harmony.

  • The order of tones (whole steps) and semitones (half steps) that create a major scale (T-T-S-T-T-T-S).
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Use the chords in a major key chart to help you:

  • Learn your favourite songs fast - when you know what chords fit together in a key, figuring out the next chord in a song becomes easy.
  • Write your own music - knowing how to build chord progressions will help you create your own musical arrangements
  • Improvise and jam - Wondering what the relative minor chord is in a key you're not familiar with such as F#? A quick look at the chart above and you'll know it's D# minor. Sorted.
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