Step 1: Creating the major chord scale
The major scale is diatonic which means that the octave is divided into 7 intervals. Two of these seven intervals are semitones (half-tone steps or minor seconds). In the major scale the semitones are found between the third and the fourth and between the sevenths and the octave. The major scale’s character is defined by the major third, the major six and the major seventh. For that it sounds cheerful and open. Before the term “major” appeared the scale was called the Ionian mode.
To make a chord-scale out of the major scale you have to stack up thirds upon each of the seven notes.
If you stack up another third you get triads, the basic chords of the major scale.
Step 2: Building chord progressions
Now we have the basic chords of the major scale. If you want to play in a different key than C-major use the circle of fifth to transpose the scale to the key you want. You can also take the root note you want to work with (for example A) and follow the intervals mentioned above to create the A-major scale. The chords stay the same relatively. The “I” will always be major and the “III” always a minor triad.
Exercise: Practice writing down the chords of the C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db major scale.
Building up chord progressions is all about relations between chords. How do two or more chords relate to each other?
The most important chords in the major scale are the chords on the first, the fourth and the fifth note. They define the scale and are called “tonic”, “subdominant” and “dominant” chord. If you wanted to tell a story with your music, the tonic ( I ) would be your home. The subdominant ( IV ) would be a familiar pathway way you walk along and the dominant ( V) something that makes you make to go home again. The dominant chord resolves to the tonic. The V is tension and the I is resolution, that’s all you need to know about music!!!
Exercise: Practice creating and playing chord progressions using I, IV and V in different keys.
Some Ideas: Come up with a rhythm yourself
What about the missing chords II, III, VI and VII? They also stand in relation to the tonic, dominant and subdominant chord and of course in relation to each other. There are different ways to see relations between chords.
1. Dominant function
V is the dominant chord of I. It has the dominant function which means that it leads to the tonic. Tension → resolution as I mentioned before. The dominant is always the fifth. So V is the fifth of I as said but the II is also a fifth away of the V and that is the interesting part. Even though, the II is a minor chord it can function as a dominant chord for the V. As II is a minor chord the tension, resolution part is weaker but still there. Here is a list of all dominant functions within the major scale:
- V → I
- VI → II
- VII → III
- I → IV
- II → V
- III → VI
- IV → VII
I explain it again in absolute note names: In C-major the G-major chord is the dominant of the tonic C-major chord. The D-minor chord though is the II of the tonic C-major chord but has a dominant function to the G-major chord as the D-major chord is the dominant chord of the G-major scale.
Exercise: Practice creating and playing chord progressions using the dominant function. Use varying keys. Check out my idea first.
2. Overlapping notes and substituting chords
Another way to see a relation between two chords within the major scale is to compare their notes. C-major ( C E G ) for example has two overlapping notes with A-minor ( A C E ) and E-minor ( E G B). These three chords sound really good in succession with each other but A and E-minor can also be used to substitute C-major. Here is a list of all chord relations with overlapping notes within the C-major scale:
Exercise: Practice creating and playing chord progressions using these chord relations in succession and as substitution. Also check out my ideas.
Step 3: Get inspiration
It is always good to look at some existing chord progressions to see how others are composing. Here are some songs that use the major chord scale to create chord progressions:
Axis of Awesome: I – V – VI – IV
Free – All Right Now I – IV – I – I – IV – I