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Week 20: Where Do Major Chords Come From?

Last week we discussed chord inversions and hinted a a relationship between chords and scales. This week we’re going to get a little more basic, and examine this scale to chord relationship more carefully.

We took a look at the C major scale (the old familiar Do Re Mi scale) and saw that it consisted of the following notes.


If we take the first, third, and fifth notes of this scale and play them together you get C E G which is the C major chord. In fact, if you play the first, third, and fifth notes from ANY major scale, you get a major chord with the same name as the scale you’re using. To borrow mathematical lingo, the first, third, and fifth notes of the X scale give you the X major chord.

Chords can be explained in other contexts too. But in my personal opinion, learning the chords as parts of a scale is absolutely the best way to learn them. Why? Because just about anything you need to know about the thousands of chords in music can be explained by using scales.

If you don’t already know your scales, please start learning about them. The information is readily available so I won’t repeat it here. But scales can be found in just about any beginning music theory book as well as from just about any music teacher.

As you study scales, it’s best to try to relate the notes of each scale to a numbering system. That way certain principles become obvious.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
G A B C D E F# G
F G A Bb C D E F

In the above table you find three major scales with the number of each scale tone at the top. Reading left to right, the first scale is C major. In the first, third, and fifth columns you find the notes C E G — the notes of the C chord. In the G scale the first, third, and fifth notes are G B D — the G major chord. In the F scale the first, third, and fifth would be F A C — the notes of the F chord.

This is just a start. We’ll be exploring the relationship between scales and chords further in weeks to come. In the meantime, it would be of value to you as a beginning music student to pick up some information on scales. And learn them. Ultimately, learn all of them. There are a total of 12 major scales.

Question: Is it a good idea to practice scales by playing them on the piano (like in the old days) instead of just reading about them intellectually? Answer: Yes it would. But if you do, be sure to keep your mind focused on the notes as you play them. Avoid the trap of having only your fingers play the scales while your mind shuts off. Scales are far too important to take them exclusively at the superficial finger level. If you do practice the scales on the piano with your hands, I suggest following a scale book so that you use intelligent fingering. You can find scale books in just about any music store. The one I used years ago was The Virtuoso Pianist, Vol. 2, by Hanon.

Question: I heard there are other kinds of scales. Minor scales for example. Should I learn them too?

Answer: Not now. The major scales are by far the most important ones you can learn. They may even be the most important THING you can learn. The other scales have much more limited and esoteric uses.

Further information about chords and scales can be found in How to Play Piano by Ear.

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