Chord Families On Guitar
Chord Families are the cornerstone of learning and playing music. When you're trying to learn a song by ear, knowing these chord families narrows your chord possibilities. If you're just trying chord after chord until you find one that fits, you could be there for hours.
However, if you can find the key and you have a basic understanding of chord families, you've narrowed your possibilities to 3 or 4 chords.
What Are Chord Families?
Chord families are the chords that fit together in a particular key. Let's take a look at C Major.
The key of C Major has 7 notes. C-D-E-F-G-A-B, and then it starts over with C. Each of these notes is called a scale degree. In the key of C, each one of these notes also represents a chord. So you'll have a C chord, followed by a D chord, and so on.
Now, each of these chords will be either a Major or Minor. Actually, there are 3 Major chords and 3 minor chords. The 7th chord is a diminished chord, which we won't worry about right now. In a Major key, your chords will follow this specific order:
Every Major key has this same order, but of course the chords will change. So in the key of C Major, your chords will be:
This is the chord family in the key of C Major.
In the chart above you'll see that the top row has roman numerals. A common way to distinguish chords in a key, and whether they are Major or minor, is with roman numerals.
We use uppercase numerals when the chord is Major. And the lower case roman numerals are used to represent minor chords.
We also use roman numerals to identify something called common chord progressions.
Common Chord Progressions
Common chord progressions are...well, chord progressions that are common. It's a series of chords that sound so natural in Western music that 80% (or more) of Western music is comprised of just a few of them.
Let's look at one in our same key, C Major. A very common chord progression is called a I-V-vi-IV (one-five-six-four) progression.
We'll start with the C chord. Using the reference chart you'll see that C is the I (one) chord in the key. Next comes the V (five) chord. Take a look at the chart; what chord is that in the C row?
Right, G. Since it's an uppercase roman numeral we know it's a G Major chord. Next comes the vi chord. The vi chord in the key of C is Am (the lowercase roman numerals tell us it's a minor chord). And lastly, our IV chord is an F.
I-V-vi-IV or C-G-Am-F
Chord functions is a topic you can talk about for a long time. A very long time. But I want to go over just a couple of the basics.
Music is all about tension and resolve. One chord creates tension and another brings resolve. When you play a V chord, like G in the key of C Major, it's creating tension. Try this: Play a C major chord to adjust your ears to the key. Now, play a G Major chord. What does your mind instinctively want to hear after you play the G (or V) chord?
It wants to resolve that tension back to the C (or I) chord.
These two chords, the I and the V chords, are the most important in the Major key. Nothing resolves like the I chord, and nothing creates as much tension as the V chord. The I chord is called the Tonic in a key. The V chord is called the Dominant chord.
The other chords also have a place and do some lifting of their own in a chord progression. Let's add the IV chord. That's F Major in the key of C. We can also call the IV chord the Sub-Dominant chord (it comes right before the Dominant chord).
The IV chord (Sub-Dominant) naturally wants to point us back to either the I chord (C, or Tonic) or V chord (G, or Dominant).
Don't get too hung up on all this Dominant and Sub-Dominant terminology. Just file it away if it doesn't make much sense.
One thing that song writers do is extend the tension and build on it. You can play F to C (IV-I) all day long and it will sound great. But, if you play F to G and then C (IV-V-I) you're extending the tension before the resolve. This chord progression is another common chord progression.
Every chord in a key has a function. The minor iii chord leads beautifully into the IV chord. The V chord can also resolve to the vi chord (though not necessarily as powerfully as the I chord). The diminished vii chord really only resolves to the I chord. And it's a great tension and release when it does.
I should caution you not to take these descriptions of these chord functions too seriously. These are common uses, and are traditionally taught, but music is all about setting and breaking expectations.
How To Use Chord Families
Music theory is a way to understand music. Knowing what chords are in a key guides you to chords that work well together. Knowing common chord progressions (regardless of key) will help you learn that song you like by ear.
Can you use chords outside of a key? Absolutely. Can you use chords together that aren't considered common chord progressions? Definitely.
A lot of session players will only get a chart with a bunch of roman numerals on it. They'll then use that, along with the key and tempo, to play the song. I've done that before as what I like to call a hired gun (a session player hired for gigs). I got the call only a few days before the gig. Definitely not enough time to practice!
The band leader would call out the key and give me some direction like, "watch our for the flat iii", and I was able to interpret that and successfully get through the gig.
Just like everything else with guitar, all of this information is more tools to add to your tool box. The more you know and understand, the more you'll be able to do.
Did you enjoy this lesson? Would you like to see more lessons on music theory? Let me know in the comments either way!