Chord Construction : 1) Major Scale Triads
Bernard McDonagh

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Here's an interesting thing: chords come from scales. Let's begin a study of chords, starting with those from the Major scale. We can construct chords from any major scale and the chords formed give us the relevant chords for that ‘key'. ( i.e. Starting on C will give us C Major scale, and the key of C Major.) These chords occur naturally in a given key, and provide what we know as “diatonic” harmony. Let's look closer at this...

Where though, you may ask, does the C Major scale come from? Well, we start at C and apply the correct formula to create a Major scale. There needs to be a particular distance between the notes. These special distances are called “ intervals ”. The formula which will give us the correct relationships and intervals to create a Major scale is as follows:

Tone – Tone – S / tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – S / tone

If we begin at C, the first “tone”, or “whole-step” as the Americans say, leads from C to D. Then the next tone is from D to E. Then from E to F is the first semitone or “half-step”. The result of the whole formula applied from our C starting point gives us this scale:



















This is the C Major scale. Now that we have our C Major scale let's construct chords from it. Remember, we need at least three notes to form a chord, so we'll build these three note “triads” on each step or “degree” of the scale. On top of our starting note we add every ‘other' note. These intervals we are ‘stacking' in this way are called ‘thirds'. So on top of C we add E and then G, skipping degrees 2 (D) and 4 (F). Now this gives us C-E-G, which is a C Major triad; a ‘C' chord.

Now if we stack thirds on to each degree of the scale we will arrive at the diatonic triads for the key of C Major, and also it's relative minor key, A Minor.

Scale degree


Resulting chord

1 – 3 – 5

C – E – G

C Major

2 – 4 – 6

D – F – A

D Minor

3 – 5 – 7

E – G – B

E Minor

4 – 6 – 8

F – A – C

F Major

5 – 7 – 2

G – B – D

G Major

6 – 8 – 3

A – C – E

A Minor

7 – 2 – 5

B – D – F

B Diminished

The example used in this chord construction exercise is the key of C Major. However, these principles apply to every key and the results (chord type) will be the same, whichever key we may use. No matter which note is the starting point, each subsequent degree of that major scale will have the same type of chord built upon it as our example key of C Major.

For example, the second degree of the C Major scale is D, which gives us a D Minor triad. We say then that D Minor is the II (two) chord of the key of C Major. But more importantly perhaps, is that we can say assuredly that in any major key the II chord is a minor chord. It's quality will always be minor. e.g. In D Major the II chord is E Minor; In G, the II chord is A Minor, etc. We can also say the same things about each of the other degrees of the major scale.

This is why we refer to chords by their scale degrees and not just their name. For an example, we will often refer to chord progression like a “I – VI – II – V”. (One - Six - Two - Five.) In the key of C Major this is:





/ / / /

/ / / /

/ / / /

/ / / /

This stacking of thirds and forming chords from a scale is called the “harmonization” of the scale. The harmony for each Major key will obviously be the same then won't it? Because the intervals between the degrees of each major scale will be the same, so then will the chords built on each of scale degrees.

Our example key, C Major, has no sharps or flats. Along with it's Relative Minor key, A Minor, it is the only key that does not have sharps or flats. This is the only thing that does vary from key to key. Each other key will have sharps or flats; up to seven sharps and seven flats. However, the “quality” of the diatonic triads will always be as follows:


Scale Degree

Diatonic Triad
















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© 2004 Bernard McDonagh
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