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10 Tips for Understanding Chord Families

By Kathy Dickson

Have you ever tried to figure out the chords to a song and become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of chords available to you?

And have you noticed that some chords sound better together than others, while some sound downright dissonant together?

Although any chord may in principle be followed by any other chord, some combinations are just more pleasing to the ear.

That's because chords are related to one another, like a family and you can even jump from one family, or key, to another with some practice.

All the chords in a chord family will sound good together because all the notes contained in them belong to the same scale.

But how do we know what chords go with which family?

Luckily, there is a system for determining the set of chords that will best harmonize with the melody of a song.

The following are 10 concepts and how-tos for playing chord families:

1. There are different types of chords in every family.

A common mistake is thinking that all of the chords in a major scale are major chords, and all the chords in a minor scale are minor chords.

This isn't true.

There are three types of chords in a family—a major, a minor and a diminished.

You can use the Circle of Fifths to learn these chord types in each key very easily.

2. Musical alphabet.

The letters in the musical alphabet run from A through G then circle back around to A, where the cycle begins again.

You can start at any letter in the musical alphabet and go around the seven letters until you arrive back to the letter where you began.

3. Musical scales.

A scale contains the seven notes of the musical alphabet.

For simplicity's sake, let's work in the key of C, which is one of the most common and easiest keys to play in as it uses all natural notes (no sharps or flats).

The C major scale looks like this:


4. Name that key.

The first note of any scale not only serves as the name of that scale, but also as the name of a key and that key's root chord.

Key signatures are like a rule book that tell us which notes belong together and as a result, which chords do as well.

5. Roman numerals.

Now, let's assign a Roman numeral for each letter in the key of C:

I ii iii IV V vi viii°

The uppercase numerals represent major chords and the lowercase, minor chords.

If there is a degree symbol after the numeral, it indicates a diminished chord.

A '+' symbol indicated an augmented chord.

6. Identify all the major chords in the key.

Pull out all major chords in the key, which are I (C), IV (F) and V (G) in the above example.

7. Identify all the minor chords in the key.

Next, pull out your minor chords, which are ii (Dm), iii (Em), and vi (Am).

And there you have your chords for the key of C. (Again, to keep the chord theory to a minimum, we'll leave out the diminished chord for now.)

8. Apply this method to other keys.

Now that you know the chords that support the key of C, try finding the chord family for other keys using the scale for that particular key.

9. How many chord families are there?

There is one chord family for each note and there are 12 notes in total (A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G and Ab).

Of those 12, there are 5 that work particularly well on the guitar: C, A, G, E, and D.

10. You can use chords outside the family.

Chord theory for keys holds in most situations.

However, rules are made to be broken.

Things can get pretty dull if you use the same chords over and over and over again, like the I-V-vi-IV cycle (C-G-Am-F in the key of C).

An out-of-key chord thrown into an otherwise normal progression can add interest to a song.

Let your melody lead you, and let the chords back them up.

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