27. Primary and secondary chords

So like…do chords get separated based on their level of education now?

1. Topics of discussion

In this tutorial, we will be discussing the concepts of primary and secondary chords. So, let’s have some fun.

2. Defining primary and secondary chords

Way back in a previous post we discussed about scale and chord degrees. To recap, each and every note of a diatonic scale has a degree associated to it, as follows:

  • the I degree is known as the tonic degree
  • the II degree is known as the supertonic degree
  • the III degree is known as the mediant degree
  • the IV degree is known as the subdominant degree
  • the V degree is known as the dominant degree
  • the VI degree is known as the submediant degree
  • the VII degree is known as the leading degree

Of the 7 degrees above, 3 of them are of greater importance than the others: the tonic, the subdominant and the dominant degrees. And the chords which are formed on these degrees are known as primary chords. All the other chords of the diatonic scale are known as secondary chords.

As a result, when notating degrees, you’ll sometimes notice that the primary chord degrees are notated with capital roman numbers (I, IV and V) and the secondary chord degrees are notated with small roman numbers (ii, iii, vi, vii) if you will.

Why are these particular chords more important than the others? It’s because they can harmonize any and all notes of the diatonic scale. In other words, you can basically play any note of a diatonic scale on top of these chords.

The rules for defining primary and secondary chords are the same for both major and minor scales. For example, the primary chords of the overused C major scale are C, F and G, while the primary chords for the equally overused Am scale are Am, Dm and Em.

These primary chords come into play when one is attempting to build a chord progression. More often than not, chord progressions make use of at least one or two of these primary chords, mostly because chord progressions usually being with a tonic chord, in order to establish the key in which the progression is written. Furthermore, the dominant chord is also widely used because it can induce a state of tension in your progression, which is usually resolved by the tonic chord.

That about covers it for this tutorial. In the next one, we are going to take a look at one of the most commonly used chord progressions and understand how it function. See you then.

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