diatonic harmony / major tonality

The following ideas examine fundamental aspects of each of the seven diatonic triads of the major tonality as created from the equal temperament system. By definition, diatonic harmony is created exclusively from whatever melodic resource we choose to create within. We approach the study of harmony in this way to simplify the learning process. For within the creative process, rarely do we limit ourselves in such a way. Most often, a parent scale is chosen to provide a tonal center, a reference point to base our tonal gravity upon. Once established, it is not uncommon for artists to "borrow" pitches from other keys to enhance their work. These borrowed pitches are termed non diatonic, as they are not members of the parent scale or key of the music we are writing or performing. With this in mind, lets begin to explore the theories of diatonic harmony of the major tonality. Using C major as our tonal center and the C major scale as our parent scale, lets create a chart examining it's scale degrees, pitches and the spelling of the seven diatonic triads. Are you hip to spelling out the pitches of a chord? Example 1.

scale degree I ii iii IV V vi vii VIII
pitches C D E F G A B C
diatonic triads C E G D F A E G B F A C G B D A C E B D F C E G

Music theorists use Roman numerals to designate the scale degrees, very helpful when doing a written analysis on sheet music. The upper case numerals ( I, IV, V ) denote the scale degrees upon which major triads are created, the lower case ( ii, iii, vi, vii ) designate the scale degrees upon which the minor triads are created. Here is the sounds created by the above chart. Example 1a.

   I     ii  iii    IV  V    vi  vii    VIII

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Each of the following links examine the basic properties of each of the seven diatonic triads. Throughout these linked pages, the same two melodies are used to provide a central thread through the ideas, to place each of the triads in the same musical contexts. This melodic approach is for beginning theorists who is encouraged to start with the One chord and proceed through to the Seventh chord. Following this sequence, while using the same lines through all of the examples, will potentially help to show how each of the triads can be applied in simple diatonic music. Additional examples on each of the pages place each of the seven diatonic chords in harmonic situations where they are commonly found within the various styles of American music. Each of the following choices all contain additional links to expand your search. Do try to browse through the numbered chords from One to Seven at least once to gain a sequential perspective of the resource.

One chord / tonic
Two chord / supertonic
Three chord / mediant
Four chord / subdominant
Five chord / dominant
Six chord / submediant
Seven chord / leading tone

One chord / tonic. Upon the first degree of the major scale is built the One chord. Termed "tonic" by music theorists of equal temper, the tonic is basically the center of diatonic tonal gravity, it provides the strongest sense of being at "rest." In any of the styles of American music, the term tonic defines the key center by its pitch and is the focal point to which the other diatonic chords gravitate. Using a familiar winter holiday melody from another time gone by, bring joy to your world by creating harmony. Lowell Mason's "Joy To The World", in C major. Example 1b.

   I   I   I   I

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In the above example, we simply harmonize the melody using a tonic triad. Nothing too heavy here. Two other classic tunes, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Christmas Song", have a strong tonic to tonic diatonic nature similar to the above idea. 

Probably the most common use for the One chord is as part of the One / Four / Five chord progression. These three chords are the only three major diatonic chords created within the major scale, so no wonder they're always hanging out together. These three chords also form the the basis of the 12 bar blues, which is quite arguably at the core of American music. Example 2, One / Four / Five in C major using a popular triadic theme. Example 1c.

    I   IV   V   I

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Oh ah oh ah ooh aah, Oh ah oh ah ooh aah... ( just singing the bass line ). Are there a gillion tunes written with these changes? The cool thing about this chord progression is that in just four bars, the music tenses up then releases. It is a complete cycle. Can you feel this gentle tension / release dynamic? The release is created by the sounding of the tonic pitches. Another chord progression used to establish a sense of a stability and often used in jazz standards is the Two / Five / One chord progression. Example 1d.

  ii min 7   V 7   I maj 7    %

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So, the One chord is basically the center of the major tonality. It contains the greatest weight of all of the 7 diatonic chords within the major scale and creates the gravity that impels the other chords to move toward it to release artistic tension. What skillful composers do is recognize this sense of tonic / tonal gravity and create cool ways to approach it. They can play on the listeners expectations, create surprises by how they set up their chord progressions and create musical climaxes which oftentimes emulate the story they are telling. Cool with this? Like the sun in our own universe, the One chord has such a position in the diatonic harmony of the major scale.

Can we extend past the three pitches of the triad to color our One chord? Of course, click chord type / tonic harmony to explore this concept. Is there a church mode created on the first degree of the major scale?

Two chord / supertonic. Upon the second scale degree of the major scale we create the "Two" chord. Known as the "supertonic" triad among music theorists, the Two chord is a minor triad and is often times used as a passing chord between other diatonic triads in the major tonality. Here's our holiday melody enjoying the added color and support of the minor Two chord in measure 19. Example 2.

    I   I   ii   I

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Can you hear the warmth of the minor color in measure 19 above? That's part of the magic of using the minor color within the major tonality. A close relationship between the minor Two and major Four chords should be noted. Here we use our second triadic theme and simply sub out the Four chord with the Two chord in measure 22. Example 2a.

   I   ii   V   I

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Bars 22, 23, and 24 create the all important Two / Five / One chord progression, so essential to the jazz artist. In a more jazzy Swing or BeBop groove, the Two / Five / One harmonic motion generally moves as follows. Note the added sevenths to each of the three chords. Example 2b.

   ii min 7  V 7   I maj 7   I

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The Two / Five / One chord progression creates a warm and expansive degree of tension which is released upon articulation of the tonic in bar 27. The list of jazz standards that use this harmonic motion is very vast. This harmonic cell is a very malleable character and can undergo a tremendous amount of manipulation, creating many important and exciting variables and pathways of tonal convergence. Oh, ever hear of the Dorian mode?

Three chord / mediant. Upon the third degree of the major scale we create the minor triad, known to the music theorist as the "mediant" chord. Its function and chord type are in many ways similar to its neighbor, the Two chord, mainly used as a passing minor chord color between the principle major triads, I, IV, and V. In the following example we add the minor Three chord in bar 30 to Mason's timeless melody. Example 3.

      I   I   iii    ii   I

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What does adding the color of the Three chord do to overall sound and color and feel of the music? Does it broaden the warmth, depth and majesty of the melody? Increase the tonal gravity towards the resolution to the tonic?

As a passing chord, the Three chord provides a crucial link in many different directions within the major tonality. The following example is a very basic vamp that creates an important cell in many styles of American music. Using our second theme, simply moving up then down by step using the first three chords of the major scale, adding the seventh chord degree to each of the three triads for color. Example 3a.

   I   ii   iii        ii

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Sounds almost like an intro huh? Read through Alan Brandt's and Bob Haymes' jazz ballad "That's All" to hear the lushness of these three chords knitted beautifully together. Another very common motion is to place the Three chord before Four, in the common One / Four / Five chord progression. Example 3b.

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We see this motion a lot in Gospel and pop tunes. A totally cool and important property of the Three chord is that it can provide a resting place in the minor tonality, within the overall major tonality. We oftentimes term this shifting in tonality as to modulate, the temporary changing of the tonal center within a piece of music. Does this modulating of tonalities help us present multiple perspectives of our core theme or motif within the piece? Yes it does. Lets modulate from the tonic to Three via the Seven chord, creating a shifting from the major to the minor tonal environment. Example 3c.

   I   vii   iii      

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Moving between tonalities is a common compositional technique. Many songs have different parts, using the two tonalities to contrast between these parts creates some beautiful music. A cool cadential motion extending the last idea is simply to continue moving by perfect fourth back to the tonic. Example 3d.

  I     vii   iii   vi   ii     V 7   I

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This harmonic cycling of diatonic fourths is very common. Are you beginning to get a sense of how chord progressions oftentimes start out on the "restful" tonic, move away by various designs creating tension, then move back to the tonic, which when sounded, releases the tension? Cool with this? Elementary but essential, potentially a rather important understanding and perspective. Do we always have to start on the tonic? Nope. Look to common chord progressions and modern chord progressions to expand this harmonic horizon. And of course, most importantly, the music you love to listen to and play will perhaps always be the best source for ideas. Oh, have you ever been to Spain?

Four chord / subdominant. Oh ... you mean the "Gospel" chord ... ? Yep. Of all of the wonderful harmonies, colors and combinations we usually take for granted in our theories of American music, they all pay homage to Four, for without which the true "Gospel" feel just never really shows up. All of the American styles have a bit of Gospel tucked in somewhere. Ready to emerge when proper testimony is in order, all players love to create it's essence for the joy it brings to all who are near. Need a bit of Gospel in your thing ...? Maybe try Mr. Ray Charles for starters.

As it's theory name "sub dominant" implies, the Four chord is a sort of "sub commander" in terms of tonal gravity within the major tonality. It can suspend the motion of tonal gravity and create the illusion of holding it in place without the loss of artistic direction and forward motion. How? Well, the Four chord can play the important role of providing a secondary stable resting point within the major tonality, with similar aural and theoretical properties to that of the tonic / One chord. In many ways, One and Four can be the exact same chord. Really? Yep. Hear the subtle sense of temporary rest provided by the Four chord in 2nd bar of the following idea. Example 4.

   I  IV   iii    ii   I

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In the more basic forms of American music, folk, rock, pop etc., the harmonic motion of One to Four is probably the most popular harmonic motion for writing songs. Oftentimes the melodic idea used over the tonic is simply transposed over Four. Here is a tonic / subdominant "carnival" vamp. Example 4a.

   I   IV   I   IV

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Many great tunes use the above vamp to great effect, dancers love it too. Just a simple, rocking motion between One and Four, does it get any simpler? This last idea places the One, Two, Three and Four chords into a 4 bar gospel vamp. Example 4b.

   I    I  ii iii  IV   iii  ii    I    ii iii  IV   iii ii

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The pop / gospel tune "Lean On Me" uses a similar motion. Do you know that tune? The chords go by pretty quick, try to get these changes under your fingers at the piano. All ready got it? Try running this lick through the other 11 major keys. Oh, what does the term Lydian mean to you?

Five chord / dominant. 

Upon the fifth scale degree of the major scale we create what theorists commonly term the dominant chord. Although often found as a triad in the music, the dominant chords gets really dominant when we add it's diatonic 7th degree. Let's do that right now. Adding the seventh to the triad built on the fifth degree of the major scale. Example 5.

    G triad   G 7   G triad   G 7

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Easy one eh? As the name implies, the dominant chord really runs the show harmonically, both in regards to the creation of artistic tension and where the music goes tonally ( key and colorwise ). Between the third and seventh degree of the dominant seventh chord is the tension creating tritone interval. We use this tonal tension to aurally create a sense of tension ( dissonance ) which resolves when the tonic is struck ( consonance ). Termed authentic cadencing, the Five to One motion is among the most common and handy harmonic motions on our palette. Adding in the Five chord in harmonizing our first theme. Example 5.

    I   IV   V 7   I

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Can you sense the tension / release dynamic between bars 67 and 68 from above? This basic ability is what makes the dominant chord the dominant chord.

Here is our second theme using the Five chord as part of the One / Four / Five chord progression. Again, a very common harmonic motion. Example 5a.

    I   IV   V 7   I

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Being the dominant chord imposes a great amount of harmonic responsibility. One among many of these responsibilities is to smoothly move from one tonal center to another. This changing of keys is termed to modulate and one common and theoretically correct ( ? ) way to do it is to simply present the Five chord of whatever key we want to move to. Lets set up C major as the tonic then modulate to F major. Both tonic chords are preceded by their dominant seventh chords. Example 5b.

  G 7   ( V 7 )  C major   C 7  ( V 7 )   F major

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Sound familiar? We hear this sort of thing all the time in American music. All we are doing here is to put a word labeling a particular sound, creating a vocabulary of musical terms. Basic guide tone line melody through the 4 bars above, the Bb in measure 75 is diatonic to the key of F major yes?. And of course, being dominant, the dominant color also gets to create its own style of American music, independent of the other harmonies within the major scale. Any guesses as to which style? That's right, the blues has a major tap root into dominant harmony. And dominant is tapped into the Mixolydian mode?

Six chord / submediant.

Upon the sixth scale degree of the major scale we build the Six or "submediant" chord. This important minor triad is an important passing chord in the major tonality as well as the home of relative minor tonality. The harmony built on Six provides a very stable minor tonal center within the major tonality. This important component of the equal temperament system allows us to view our themes from both the major and minor perspectives without leaving a particular tonal center or key. Depending on your artistic directions, this simple idea can become very important. Major and minor tonality from within one group of pitches. In terms of the music of the spheres, the Six and One chords are equal. Both are the "leaders" of their respective tonal environments. 

Oftentimes simply a passing chord in the major environment, lets add the Six chord to Mason's "Joy To The World." Example 6.

   I  IV  vi   V 7   I

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Using our second theme, lets add the Six chord to create the common rock and pop chord progression. I usually call these the "teenager in love changes." Example 2.

       I    vi   IV   V 7

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This last chord progression was a big time hit during the emergence of rock in the 50's and into the 60's. "Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love" as well as many other "hits" are based on this One / Six / Four / Five harmonic motion. Lets take one melodic idea and view it in the two tonalities, the major and relative minor tonalities. Example 6 in C major / A minor. 

    I   vi   I   vi

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Here the similarities? Sort of sounds like an introduction to a song, which is a common use for the above pairing of harmonies. Read through George Gershwin's "Summertime" from the Broadway musical "Porgy and Bess", a classic American song which pairs the major / relative minor tonalities together to great effect. Check it out when time permits.

The Six chord is a popular cadential destination if modulating from the major to minor tonalities within one composition. Theorists refer to this cadencing to the relative minor from the relative major color as being "deceptive." Here we insert the deceptive cadence into both our themes for this section. First into our winter holiday theme. Example 6a, C major to A minor.

    I  iii  IV     V   vi

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Cool sound eh? Yes, very common but effective eh? Almost sounds as if we are using the above motion as a mini vamp to take the tune out. Well, that just about totally thrashes this tune eh? Well almost... Here is the second theme, which we now deceptively cadence. Example 6b.

   I    IV   V   vi

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The Six chord is a big player in many advanced and complex chord progressions. Also, did you know that the Aeolian mode is related to the Six chord? How?

Seven chord / leading tone.

The Seven chord, known as the "leading tone" triad among theorists, is generally a passing chord "pulled" gravitationally upwards by the strength of the tonic and generally resolves there. The leading tone is the very powerful directional persuader of our tonal, modulating world. When the seventh degree is developed then struck, our ears start thinking, "ok, gonna release the tension and resolve by half step upward to the tonic." Basically minor in color, the Seventh chord minor triad is further distinguished by a diminished fifth. And when the seventh chord degree is added, we create what is commonly called the diatonic half diminished chord, a very big player in the minor tonality and a common and important color for jazz artists. Lets use the Seven chord in Mason's "Joy." Example 7.

   I   IV   V    vii   I

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The Seven chord is so much like Five they seem to blend together as above in bar 95. No wonder in that the pitches of the Seven half diminished chord are the 3rd, 5th, and 7th of the Five chord, thus very closely related in both sound and function. Lets use the Seven chord in the manner just mentioned above, as a substitute for the Five chord with our second theme. Example 7a.

    I   IV   vii   I

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Sound o.k.? Perhaps just a 2nd inversion Five chord? Lets put all seven of the diatonic chords together in a very simple ascending manner. Example 7b.

      I     ii  iii   IV  V       vi  vii    I

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An interesting way to rearrange these chords is to basically place them in the cycle of fourths. This format is used in many jazz tunes and basically covers all the diatonic harmonic ground associated with the major scale. Example 7c.

  I       IV   vii     iii   vi    ii   V     I

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A bit of a tonal extravaganza eh? Like Pachelbel's canon In D? Try running example 7c through the 12 major keys, that ought to feed the bulldog for the day! Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" is a jazz bebop tune which follows similar guidelines and is oftentimes referred to as the "granddaddy of them all." Check it out when time permits. Is there a church mode created in the seventh degree of the major scale? Of course, we have everything here! But you knew that right?

Add a 7th degree to each of the triads? Easy one. Example 8.

scale degree I ii iii IV V vi vii VIII
pitches C D E F G A B C



So, cool with how we did this? Other related topics to diatonic harmony of the major tonality?

spelling chords
chord function / families
chord substitution

"To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." Elbert Hubbard