Frazier Piano Studio

Guide to the Primary Chord Pattern

Published by Ryan Frazier

Most people already know a primary chord pattern that looks like this:

The primary chords
The primary chords

Usually they only know this pattern at a rote level at best but have no idea how to use it or what it means. So let’s start at the beginning.

How to use this guide

The following exercises are only presented in one key. It is up to you to transpose them into all 12 keys (24 if you count minor keys).

Roman Numerals

When we talk about chords we reference the chord by Roman numeral. When we say “the one chord”, we mean specifically the chord that is built on the first degree of the scale. The Roman numeral is upper case if the chord is minor and lower case if it is minor or diminished.

The diatonic triads
The diatonic triads

Primary Chords

The strongest chord progressions are those which move by 5th so we will want a cadence that uses the chords that are a 5th up from the tonic and a 5th below the tonic. These are the V and IV chord respectively.

Root position

The first exercise is to just play the primary chords in root position

The primary chords in root position
The primary chords in root position

Inversions

The next step is to connect the chords in a way that is smooth. This is called voice leading.

Let’s start by playing chord inversions. The notes of a C Major chord are C, E, and G. It doesn’t matter what order I play these notes it is still a C Major triad. So if I choose to put an E on the bottom but still have a C, an E and a G, then it still is a C major chord. This is C Major in 1st inversion. The inversion is always based on the lowest note.

All of the following chords are C chords in different inversions. The little numbers by the Roman numerals are figured bass symbols. Figured bass is a topic for another post, however right now you just need to know that “6” means 1st inversion and “6 4” means 2nd inversion.

C chords in inversion
C chords in inversion

Practice this next exercise first with the primary chords in a couple of keys. So in C I would practice the inversions for C, F, and G chords.

Chord inversions
chord inversions

We are now ready to put our chords together in a primary chord pattern. Start with C in root position.

The primary chords with roots highlighted
primary chord inversions with roots highlighted

Don’t stop there! We should also start this chord pattern with the other two inversions to really understand what is going on.

Primary chords starting with the first inversion
Primary chords starting with the 1st inversion
Primary chords starting with the second inversion
Primary chords starting with the 2nd inversion

Left Hand

Now we should complete this by adding a left hand. The right hand will just be the above inversions. Notice here that the inversions indicated in the figured bass are based on the lowest note, not the inversion of the right hand.

Primary chords with the left hand
Primary chords with the left hand

And to finish up we can swap the 3rd for the 7th in the V chord.

Added the 7th to the V chord
Added the 7th to the V chord

For reference here are the other two inversions.

Primary chords with right hand in first inversion
Primary chords with right hand in 1st inversion
Primary chords with right hand in second inversion
Primary chords with right hand in 2nd inversion

Practice these in all keys with the 3 different inversions in the right hand. Happy practicing.

Vocabulary

Here is some vocabulary used in this guide

  • tonic – the 1st degree of the scale.
  • dominant – the 5th degree of the scale or a 5th above the tonic.
  • subdominant – the 4th degree of the scale or a 5th below the tonic.
  • root – The fundamental note of the chord.
  • root position – An arrangement of a chord where the root is the lowest note.
  • 1st inversion – An arrangement of a chord where the 3rd of the chord is the lowest note.
  • 2nd inversion – An arrangement of a chord where the 5th of the chord is the lowest note.
  • 3rd inversion – An arrangement of a chord where the 7th of the chord is the lowest note.
  • primary chords – The I, IV, and V chords.
  • voice leading – How a line of music (i.e. tenor, alto, soprano voice) moves through a chord progression. Think about a tenor part in a choir. How smooth or jagged is their part? Good voice leading is easy to sing. It also sounds better too.
  • figured bass – Shorthand notation used especially in the Baroque era to specify notes above the bass note (i.e. chord inversions)
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