Guitar Chord Families – How Chords Work Together

Published Categorized as Chords, Scales

Are you looking to get a better handle on the interrelated connections to be found between the different chords in a key? Are you wanting to understand these relations better to level up your composition and/or ability to improvise?

Then you are in the right place, for today we will be exploring some of the basic connections between relative points in keys and chords and how to refer to them.

Table of Contents

Introduction to Chord Families

This phrase instantly assumes that a group of chords will naturally occur in a given key no matter the alignment. We have all no doubt felt this, the way some chords just feel right to return to when approaching from other chords, how minor chords and major chords bear their own emotional baggage, etc.

This can be seen in the chord family in C major, a great key for demonstration since it is devoid of accidentals (sharps and flats):

C (root), D (major 2nd), E (major 3rd), F (perfect 4th), G (perfect 5th), A (major 6th), B (major 7th) & C (root).

When rendered into a chord family, it looks more like:

C major (I), D minor (ii), E minor (iii), F major (IV), G major (V), A minor (vi), B diminished (vii), & C major (I).

Chord families like this will follow the same pattern regardless of which key you are using, hence why these symbols are captured in parentheses and transposed to each different key.

Chords and Their Qualities

This pattern is respected in the movement of a major key where the scale degrees I, IV, and V are all major (with the perfect 5th being a dominant chord), the degrees of ii, iii, and vi are minor, and the scale degree of vii is a diminished chord.

If you were to use 4-note chords instead, the chord progression of the major scale would look more like:

C major 7 (I), D minor 7 (ii), E minor 7 (iii), F major 7 (IV), G dominant 7 (V), A minor 7 (vi), B minor 7 flat 5 (vii), C major 7 (I).

Learning how to apply this oft-occurring pattern to any key center will help you to automatically know the kinds of chords that are likely to be used in just about any song you are learning.

Chart for Major Keys

If you need any more help getting to know all of the major key patterns, then thank goodness for this handy chart that you can keep with you at all times:

KeyIiiiiiIVVviviiI
C majorC majorD minorE minorF majorG majorA minorB diminishedC major
Db majorDb majorEb minorF minorGb majorAb majorBb minorC diminishedDb major
D majorD majorE minorF# minorG majorA majorB minorC# diminishedD major
Eb majorEb majorF minorG minorAb majorBb majorC minorD diminishedEb major
E majorE majorF# minorG# minorA majorB majorC# minorD# diminishedE major
F majorF majorG minorA minorBb majorC majorD minorE diminishedF major
F# majorF# majorG# minorA# minorB majorC# majorD# minorF diminishedF# major
G majorG majorA minorB minorC majorD majorE minorF# diminishedG major
Ab majorAb majorBb minorC minorDb majorEb majorF minorG diminishedAb major
A majorA majorB minorC# minorD majorE majorF# minorG# diminishedA major
Bb majorBb majorC minorD minorEb majorF majorG minorA diminishedBb major
B majorB majorC# minorD# minorE majorF# majorG# minorA# diminishedB major

Chart for Minor Keys

On the opposing side, there is a similar chart but for minor keys:

KeyiiiIIIivvVIVIIi
A minorA minorB diminishedC majorD minorE minorF majorG majorA minor
Bb minorBb minorC diminishedDb majorEb minorF minorGb majorAb majorBb minor
B minorB minorC# diminishedD majorE minorF# minorG majorA majorB minor
C minorC minorD diminishedEb majorF minorG minorAb majorBb majorC minor
C# minorC# minorD# diminishedE majorF# minorG# minorA majorB majorC# minor
D minorD minorE diminishedF majorG minorA minorBb majorC majorD minor
Eb minorEb minorF diminishedF# majorG# minorA# minorB majorC# majorEb minor
E minorE minorF# diminishedG majorA minorB minorC majorD majorE minor
F minorF minorG diminishedAb majorBb minorC minorDb majorEb majorF minor
F# minorF# minorG# diminishedAb majorBb minorC minorDb majorEb majorF# minor
G minorG minorA diminishedBb majorC minorD minorEb majorF majorG minor
G# minorG# minorA# diminishedB majorC# minorD# minorE majorF# majorG# minor

Relative Major and Relative Minor

Anyone wondering why the minor chart began on A minor while the major chart began on C major might be wondering why. Well, because A minor is the relative minor of C major. What this means is that both scales share the same notes but start on a different root note, causing the harmonic basis for the entire key to shift.

Finding the relative minor of a major key by moving up a major sixth or down a major third – on a guitar this looks like going down three frets!

To Each Chord According to Each Function

Chords in any given harmonic field can be further grouped together according to their harmonic function which can then tell us what kind of role they typically adopt in terms of tonality. These three main varieties are crucial to playing the ii-V-I chord progression. Very often, three-chord songs are all you need, and don’t feel like they lack for it.

Tonic chords sound like home because they are the root chord, the very center of whichever key the song in question is in – I, iii, vi.

Subdominant chords are often used to help convey a sense of moving away from the center of the key, creating a sense of tension, especially when used before a dominant chord – ii, IV.

Dominant chords are also used to create tension in music composition. They can sound quite unstable because, more often than not, they are looking to direct attention back to the root – V, vii.

Harmonic Functions in Common Chord Progressions

These chord structures are readily evinced in these common chord structures used in Western music:

CadenceFunctions
ii – V – ISubdominant – Dominant – Tonic
I – vi – ii – VTonic – Tonic- Subdominant – Dominant
I – IV – VTonic – Subdominant – Dominant
I – V – vi – IVTonic – Dominant – Tonic – Subdominant
I – IV – VI – VTonic – Subdominant – Tonic – Dominant

Making yourself aware of all the potential functions of each chord in a given key can make you more able to creatively use them as substitutions on the fly. Similarly, though, being too studious in this regard can cause you to compose or improvise a little bit by the numbers, robbing you of your own natural impulses as a musician and songwriter.

The Modes

All of this learning can easily be transposed over to the modes, a concept that is altogether neglected by many prospective guitarists. The modes are variations on the major or minor scale from which they borrow their notes.

Ionian

For all its fancy titling, the Ionian mode is actually just the same as the major scale, so there isn’t much else that can be said for it really. For the purposes of cohesion, though, we will note down the chords family of the C major scale so that it can all be in one place:

C major 7 (I), D minor 7 (ii), E minor 7 (iii), F major 7 (IV), G dominant 7 (V), A minor 7 (vi), B minor 7 flat 5 (vii), C major 7 (I).

Dorian

The modern Dorian mode, the one that many are referring to when talking about the Dorian mode in general, is a strictly diatonic scale, eschewing any dissonances, able as it is to be played on just the white keys of the piano, D to D.

The Dorian mode is a little different and you can use the following formula to calculate it from the root note of the scale in question:

1st – 2nd – flat 3rd – 4th – 5th – 6th – flat 7th

When we look at this in relation to the corresponding chord family, then we can see it as:

Minor 7 (i), Minor 7 (ii), Major 7 (bIII), Dominant 7 (IV), Minor 7 (v), Half Diminished (vi), Major 7 (bVI)

In this way, we can see that D Dorian’s own chord family would look a little something like this:#

D Minor 7 (i), E Minor 7 (ii), F Major 7 (bIII), G Dominant 7 (IV), A Minor 7 (v), B Half Diminished (vi), C Major 7 (bVI)

In this way, it is often referred to as the natural minor scale, for the presence of a major chord or two and for the fact there is very little variation on the initial theme of the scale.

Phrygian

Where the Ionian mode, being the first degree/mode of the major scale, is simply a carbon copy of said major scale, the Phrygian mode is the third of these permutations. We would consider this a bass mode, and to be precise – a minor mode, one of three of them, because it features a flattened 3rd, characteristic of a minor chordal center and centers on the third degree of the harmonic progression of its key.

The Phrygian mode can be found with the following formula from the initial scale:

1st, flat 2nd, flat 3rd, 4th, 5th, flat 6th, flat 7th

You would visualize a Phrygian chord family by doing the following:

Minor 7 (i), Major 7 (bII), Dominant 7 (bIII), Minor 7 (iv), Half diminished (v), Major 7 (bVI), Minor 7 (bvii)

So, if we apply this logic to the E Phrygian, then we get the following chord structure:

E Minor 7 (i), F Major 7 (bII), G Dominant 7 (bIII), A Minor 7 (iv), B Half diminished (v), C Major 7 (bVI), D Minor 7 (bvii)

Lydian

The Lydian Mode is often referred to as the fourth mode of the major scale, conjured when the 4th scale degree functions as the tonic, and it is perhaps in this sense that it is best to think about it with regard to the guitar.

You can work out the Lydian with this formula in relation to the corresponding scale:

1st, 2nd, 3rd, sharp 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th

In this fashion, the chord family will be as follows:

Major 7 (i), Dominant 7 (bII), Minor 7 (bIII), Half diminished (iv), Major 7 (v), Minor 7 (bVI), Minor 7 (bvii)

Using this chord family in the key of F we get:

F Major 7 (i), G Dominant 7 (bII), A Minor 7 (bIII), B Half diminished (iv), C Major 7 (v), D Minor 7 (bVI), E Minor 7 (bvii)

Mixolydian

You might already know that the Mixolydian mode is considered to be the fifth mode of the major scale. And the way the notes connect to the major scale is simple. To find the notes in the scale, we need to find which major scale has E as the fifth note.

This mode is represented by the following formula in relation to the root scale:

1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, flat 7th

Through this we can see that the chord family is as follows:

Dominant 7 (I), Minor 7 (ii), Half Diminished (iii), Major 7 (IV), Minor 7 (v), Minor 7 (vi), Major 7 (bVII)

Relating to the G Mixolydian we are left with these chords in this order:

G Dominant 7 (I), A Minor 7 (ii), B Half Diminished (iii), C Major 7 (IV), D Minor 7 (v), E Minor 7 (vi), F Major 7 (bVII)

Aeolian

The Ionian has the first scale degree functioning as the tonic, hence why to our ears and minds it is no different than its major scale counterpart. The Aeolian mode, the natural minor scale, on the other hand, places the sixth scale degree as the tonic root.

This Aeolian mode can be found with the following formula:

1st, 2nd, flat 3rd, 4th, 5th, flat 6th, flat 7th

In this way, the chord family will read as follows:

Minor 7 (i), Half Diminished (ii), Major 7 (bIII), Minor 7 (iv), Minor 7 (v), Major 7 (bVI), Dominant 7 (bVII)

Related to A Aeolian, we are left with the following chords:

A Minor 7 (i), B Half Diminished (ii), C Major 7 (bIII), D Minor 7 (iv), E Minor 7 (v), F Major 7 (bVI), G Dominant 7 (bVII)

Locrian

In modern practice, contrasting with the ancient Greek usage of the term ‘Locrian’ (a word used to describe the inhabitants of the ancient Greek regions of Locris) the Locrian may be considered to be a minor scale with the second and fifth scale degrees lowered by a semitone.

The Locrian mode may also be considered to be a scale beginning on the seventh scale degree of any Ionian, or major scale, the seventh permutation of a simple major scale, with almost all of its intervals flattened.

You can calculate this Locrian mode with the following formula:

1st, flat 2nd, flat 3rd, 4th, flat 5th, flat 6th, flat 7th

Here, the chord family will look like this:

Half diminished (i), Major 7 (bII), Minor 7 (biii), Minor 7 (iv), Major 7 (bV), Dominant 7 (bVI), Minor 7 (bvii)

In the key of B Locrian, we are left with the following chords:

B Half diminished (i), C Major 7 (bII), D Minor 7 (biii), E Minor 7 (iv), F Major 7 (bV), G Dominant 7 (bVI), A Minor 7 (bvii)

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are now feeling ready and able to tackle this topic head-on with your new-found expertise!

FAQs Chord Families

What are the chord families?

More than a concrete thing, a chord family is simply a way to refer to the relations between the different chords in a key and the way that they interrelatedly communicate with one another in composition.

How many chord families are there?

Since chord families are not technically concrete things, then there are essentially infinite permutations and combinations of these chord families. More than solid things, a chord family is a way to think about the relationship between different chord patterns and structures.

What are the three families of chords?

The three main categories of chords in a key are referred to as the Tonic, the Subdominant, and the Dominant.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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