In the last newsletter, I showed you how you can play a I – IV – V song in five different keys. Today I’d like to introduce you to the four other members of a chord family. At the end of this lesson, you should be ready to transpose a simple song into a different key.
But first, a song I wrote to the tune of “Theme From The Brady Bunch”:
Here’s a story
of a lovely ditty
whose chorus used three bright and cheerful chords.
They were named I, IV, and V,
and in their future,
they saw some Grammy awards.
Still, the chorus
woulda bored us
But for the minor ii – iii – vi chords in the verse
They were darker-sounding chords,
and with this contrast,
the song was better, not worse.
Now there was one more chord added to this ditty
By an overpaid producer named Henri.
It was called the vii chord and sounded jazzy,
And it doomed the ditty to obscurity.
That’s the way to guarantee obscurity!*
*Unless your name is Paul Simon
As you’ve gathered, there are seven total chords in a given chord family. For run-of-the-mill popular songs (in a major key using non-jazzy chords), these are the seven chords:
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii°
And here’s how to decode the roman numerals:
Capitalized = Major
Lower-case = Minor
Lower-case with a ° = Diminished
Your life will be easier if you take a moment to memorize this pattern. I often think of music in terms of colors, so try this: The I, IV, and V chords are major. They’re the blond girls in the chord family—like Marcia, Jan, and Cindy in the Brady Bunch. The other chords are minor, represented by the dark-haired boys. I know, I know, hair color has no bearing on personality. Sheesh, I’m just trying to teach a little music theory here….
This leaves the vii° chord, the oddball of the family. Remember Cousin Oliver, the little kid who came in for the last season of The Brady Bunch to boost ratings? He was cute but didn’t quite fit. Likewise, the diminished chord, with its dissonant, jazzy sound, doesn’t fit in most straightforward rock and folk songs (not to diminish diminished chords—they’re common in blues and jazz, and many songwriters like Paul Simon use them beautifully).
So to review, say this aloud a few times: “One, major. Two and three, minor. Four and five, major. Six, minor. Seven, Oliver. I mean, diminished.”
Now that you’ve memorized that pattern, figure out the seven chords in the key of C chord family. To do this, just run up the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B), turning each note into a chord. You should get:
C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim.
Now let’s try the key of G. This is little tricky, because once you deviate from the key of C, you need to know what “sharps” or “flats” are in your scale. For instance, in the key of G, you have an F#, not an F. Knowing this, can you figure out the chord family for the key of G?
G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim.
There’s a trick to memorizing the sharps and flats in all keys, and also an amazing little diagram called the Circle of Fifths that does it for you, but both of these are beyond the scope of this newsletter, so here’s a chart of the major scales in all keys (as a .pdf if you want to print, and here if you don’t). Read left to right.
Ready to try a practice activity?
Print out one of the following songs from my website. They’re all in the key of G. Next to each chord, write the roman numeral identifying the role that chord plays in the chord family. For example, you’re going to write “IV” next to all the C chords. Then choose a new key from the five most common guitar keys (C,A,G,E, or D), and transpose the song (change its key). Use that major scale chart to help you. For instance, if you wanted to change to the key of A, you’d write “D” next to all C chords, because D is the IV chord in the key of A. Now play the song in its new key to confirm you did it right.
Hungry for more? Try writing a song by picking a key (C and G are easiest) and using chords in that key’s family. It often sounds good to use primarily I, IV, and V chords, with an occasional minor chord thrown in to balance out the sweetness. There are no hard rules in songwriting of course—if you feel so compelled, start your masterpiece with a diminished chord. I’m sure Henri will be very impressed.