Working out chords in a key
TIME TO COMPLETE: 15-20 minutes
WHAT YOU NEED: Understanding of the Chord Formulas and the Major Scale lesson
SKILL LEVEL: Beginner-intermediate
If you have ever heard a musician say something like, “let’s jam in E” and wondered what on earth that means, this lesson is for you. Learning what chords form part of a key and how to work out those chords is a crucial skill if you want to be able to play with other musicians. This lesson will walk you through finding the chords in any key.
Make sure you read and understand the lesson on Chord Formulas and the Major Scale. To be able to understand the theory in this lesson, you must be able to understand the basic theory of the Major Scale. Music theory can be hard to understand for beginners so don’t stress if it doesn’t make sense straight away. Bookmark the lesson and come back to it another time and it should make more sense.
What’s in a key?
When somebody says a song is in a certain ‘key’ or ‘key signature’, they mean that the song is formed around the notes in a certain scale. So if somebody says let’s jam in the key of C, what they mean is let’s jam using the notes and chords that are part of the C Major Scale. If you don’t know how to figure out the notes in a Major Scale, have a read through this lesson here. The notes in the C Major Scale are C D E F G A B C. So a song based on the key of C will (generally) use the notes C D E F G A B C.
What chords are in a key?
If you can figure out the notes in the Major Scale for the key you want to play, then there is a simple formula you can use to find out what chords you can play in that key.
The formula is:
1 Major, 2 minor, 3 minor, 4 Major, 5 Major, 6 minor, 7 Diminished, 8 Major.
We have 8 chord types to match up with the 8 notes in the scale. Note: Remember that the eighth and first note of the scale is the same. Think of it as completing a full circle.
So if we match up the notes in the C Major Scale to this chord formula, we get the chords:
C Major, D minor, E minor, F Major, G Major, A minor, B Diminished, C Major.
By following this simple formula, you are able to figure out the chords in any key if you know the notes in the scale. For another example let’s figure out the chords in the key of G.
First, figure out the notes in the G Major Scale. For instructions on how to do this, check out this lesson here. The notes in the G Major Scale are: G A B C D E F# G.
Next, we simply match up the notes in the scale to the chord formula above. So the chords used in the key of G are:
G Major, A minor, B minor, C Major, D Major, E minor, F# Diminished, G Major.
After you try this process out a few times it will be obvious how easy it really is. Here are a couple exercises for you to try out. After you write your answers down you can check them with the answer key at the end of this lesson.
What are the chords in the key of A?
What are the chords in the key of E?
What are the chords in the key of F?
What are the chords in the key of D?
How can I use all this?
You may be thinking to yourself, “What can I do with all this theory?” There are countless times when this skill will come in handy. Here are a few things you can do when you can figure out the chords in a key:
- Write a song
- Jam with other musicians
- Figure out chords and keys from other songs
- Come up with good sounding chord progressions
1) In the Key of A:
A Major, B minor, C# minor, D Major, E Major, F# minor, G# Diminished, A Major.
2) In the Key of E:
E Major, F# minor, G# minor, A Major, B Major, C# minor, D# Diminished, E Major.
3) In the Key of F:
F Major, G minor, A minor, Bb Major, C Major, D minor, E Diminished, F Major.
4) In the Key of D:
D Major, E minor, F# minor, G Major, A Major, B minor, C# Diminished, D Major.
Having the basic understanding of the above theory will have a huge impact on what you can do on guitar. Take your time to understand all of this and if it doesn’t make sense now you can come back another time and it will hopefully get easier. Don’t be put off by the words ‘music theory’ as a basic understanding of it can have incredible benefits to your playing.
Check out more lessons here.