Have you ever noticed that the same chords show up together in songs?
G, C, and D.
E, B, and C#m.
If so, you’re already on the path to learning music theory. Whether you play guitar, piano, keyboard, bass, or whatever, this is your beginner’s guide to learn chord theory.
Luckily, it will only take you five minutes. Seriously. If you can count to 7, you can learn music theory.
The benefits are amazing. Once you learn theory, you will start seeing patterns in music. You’ll transpose chord charts more easily, and have a greater understanding what’s going on in a song.
Count To 7 To Learn Music Theory
Most western music is based on the major scale. That scale consists of seven notes.
Let’s look at the key of C as an example.
C, D, E, F, G, A, B
The key of C happens to be all white keys on a piano keyboard. This makes the key of C an easy example.
Lucky for us, each note in the scale can also be thought of as a number.
Most of the time, you will see certain “numbers” showing up when you play in a certain key: most often: 1, 4, 5. Next most often: 2 & 6.
“1” is the root chord, or the first note in the scale of that key. “2” is the second note, and so on.
We learned that 1,4, and 5 are chords you will see most often in any key. These are major chords. In the key of C, then, you will most often play C, F, and G major.
2 & 6 also appear quite regularly, and are minor chords. So, in the key of C, you will often see D minor and A minor. Here’s all that in chart form.
|C major||D minor||F major||G major||A minor|
There’s a popular song that will help you remember this: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. He talks about a “secret chord” that David played “and it pleased the Lord.”
It goes like this / the fourth the fifth
The minor fall / the major lift
If you were playing in the key of C, the 4th is F, the 5th is G. The “minor fall” is Am (6th) and the “major lift” is F again.
It takes a genius to give a nod to music theory in what would become one of the most recognizable songs ever written.
But I digress!
There are still two number left we need to talk about.
The 3 and 7 Chords
So what about 3 and 7? They are less common, but certainly can show up, and sound quite nice if placed correctly. When you see them, they are typically minor chords, with some exceptions.
If we put the whole scale together, it looks like this in the key of C. I’ll use a capital “M” for major and lower case “m” for minor.
|C M||D m||E m||F M||G M||A m||B m|
Are we at 5 minutes yet? Probably not. Yet you already know foundational chord theory with which you can play 95% of worship songs out there, and most pop songs too.
Now let’s look at some other keys, and you’ll see why you notice certain chords showing up together in many songs.
Chord Theory In All The Keys
Whether you play worship songs in church or are just learning chord theory to play pop songs, you’ll notice some keys are more popular than others.
Below are charts for all 12 keys, starting with the most popular. See if you notice certain chords that you play a lot, and why you think that’s the case.
Side note: check a song’s key before looking at anything else. Once you know that, you know most or all the chords that will appear in the song.
As practice, pull out some songs and try to figure out which key they are in using the below charts.
Key of C
|C major||D minor||E minor||F major||G major||A minor||B minor|
Key of D
|D major||E minor||F# minor||G major||A major||B minor||C# minor|
Key of E
|E major||F# minor||G# minor||A major||B major||C# minor||D# minor|
Key of F
|F major||G minor||A minor||Bb major||C major||D minor||E minor|
Key of G
|G major||A minor||B minor||C major||D major||E minor||F# minor|
Key of A
|A major||B minor||C# minor||D major||E major||F# minor||G# minor|
Key of B
|B major||C# minor||D# minor||E major||F# major||G# minor||A# minor|
Key of C#
|C# major||D# minor||E# (F) minor||F# major||G# major||A# minor||B# minor|
Key of D#
|D# major||E# minor||F## (G) minor||G# major||A# major||B# (C) minor||C## (D) minor|
Key of F#
|F# major||G# minor||A# minor||B major||C# major||D# minor||E# (F) minor|
Key of G#
|G# major||A# minor||B# (C) minor||C# major||D# major||E# (F) minor||F## (G) minor|
Key of A#
|A# major||B# (C) minor||C## (D) minor||D# major||E# (F) major||F## (G) minor||G## (A) minor|
Key of Db
|Db major||Eb minor||F minor||Gb major||Ab major||Bb minor||C minor|
Key of Eb
|Eb major||F minor||G minor||Ab major||Bb major||C minor||D minor|
Key of Gb
|Gb major||Ab minor||Bb minor||Cb major||Db major||Eb minor||F minor|
Key of Ab
|Ab major||Bb minor||C minor||Db major||Eb major||F minor||G minor|
Key of Bb
|Bb major||C minor||D minor||Eb major||F major||G minor||A minor|
HOW SCALES ARE “MADE”
You may be wondering why there are sharps and flats, and how those factor into chord theory.
In the key of C major, it’s a happy coincidence that there are no sharps or flats. Every note is a white key on the piano keyboard.
If you play guitar, you are less concerned about white and black keys, but you’ll notice that all the songs you play are probably in popular piano keys. The piano still has massive influence in worship music and all music today.
But no matter which key you play in, you can “construct” the 7-note scale with this method in which a whole step is equal to two half-steps. A half-step is one move to the very next note on the piano (white or black) or one fret on guitar.
Here’s how you construct a major scale:
- whole step
- whole step
- half step
- whole step
- whole step
- whole step
- half step (which brings you back to the root)
If we look at our piano keyboard again, we see that the C major scale is all white keys. Other keys have at least one sharp or flat (black key).
For this reason, you will run into chords like C#m in the key of E or, when playing in F, you’ll run into Bb quite a bit.
Let’s construct the key of D using our whole-step/half-step system.
- root – D
- whole step – E
- whole step – F#
- half step – G
- whole step – A
- whole step – B
- whole step – C#
- half step – D (root)
It’s easy to follow this sequence on this two-octave keyboard.
So, when you are playing in various keys, you will undoubtedly hit chords in sharps and flats, and now you know why.
So, we’ve talked about sharps, but what about flats? While sharps are one half-step higher than the “natural” note, flats are one half-step lower than the note for which it is named.
For instance, D# is the same note as Eb. Compare the below keyboard with the one above.
What the song “calls” the note a sharp or a flat depends on the key you’re playing in.
Here’s an easy way to remember when to use what, according to amateur musician Mike Richmond who explains it on Quora:
We write the key signature so that every note (ABCDEFG) in the scale upwards from it gets represented. So, for F major we go F,G,A,Bb,C,D,E, but not F,G,A,A#,C,D,E, which ignores the B.
Use Numbers To Construct Chords
Now that you know theory (by counting to 7), you also know how to construct chords.
For instance, a seventh chord means that the 7th note in that scale is added to the chord. A becomes A7 when you add a G to it.
Likewise, a D2 is a D major chord with an E added, since E is the 2nd note in that scale.
The typical major chord assumes 1, 3, and 5 in that scale. The C chord is C, E, and G. When you see numbers attached to a chord, just count up the scale and add that note to the chord.
So a C6 is a C, E, G, and A.
Now you can construct many of the chords you see in music just by counting.
Did You Learn Theory In 5 Minutes?
I hope this tutorial helps you grow in your worship ministry, or any reason for which you are learning music theory.
Questions? Leave a comment below, or sign up for my weekly email for more free resources.