Guide to the Primary Chord Pattern
Table of Contents
Most people already know a primary chord pattern that looks like this:
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).
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 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.
The first exercise is to just play the primary chords in root position
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.
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.
We are now ready to put our chords together in a primary chord pattern. Start with C in root position.
Don’t stop there! We should also start this chord pattern with the other two inversions to really understand what is going on.
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.
And to finish up we can swap the 3rd for the 7th in the V chord.
For reference here are the other two inversions.
Practice these in all keys with the 3 different inversions in the right hand. Happy practicing.
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)