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I'm a beginner at music theory and started learning it just about a week ago. The whole thing with the piano scales and chords is really difficult to understand, but I have a lot of fun learning it.

Now I tried to build a little chord progression with this knowledge. But I don't know how to start. Do I have to decide on what scale / scales my chord progression is playing and then find the right chords which fits together?

Or how do you start at making a chord progression?

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There's a lot of different ways to build chord progressions in a key, but since you are very new to this I suggest just sticking to building chords in the key at first and stick to basic triads or sevenths in the key. How you would do this is not that hard and I'll explain it for C major and A minor.

Typically chords are built in thirds (every other note) so if we were to build three note chords (triads) based on the C major scale C, D, E, F, G, A, B we would have:

  • C major (C, E, G)
  • D minor (D, F, A)
  • E minor (E, G, B)
  • F major (F, A, C)
  • G major (G, B, D)
  • A minor (A, C, E)
  • B diminished (B, D, F)

The A minor scale which contains the same set of notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G and likewise has the same chords:

  • A minor (A, C, E)
  • B diminished (B, D, F)
  • C major (C, E, G)
  • D minor (D, F, A)
  • E minor (E, G, B)
  • F major (F, A, C)
  • G major (G, B, D)

While building triads off these scales is the same the distinction is important as building chords of the C major scale implies that you are in the key of C major and building chords of the A minor scale implies that you are in the key of A minor. This becomes important when you want to establish a tonic (home note).

For now as a first step, just play with these chords, see what you like and what you don't. There is more thought you can put into these progressions, but just experimenting you should be able to hear some of them.

Once you get comfortable with the general idea of these chords you can start to focus more on functional harmony and building progressions with the function of each chord in mind. This answer goes into much more detail about this in major and minor keys:

Guide-lines for creating a simple chord-progression?

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Here are some tools that will aid in creating chord progressions. Some of these were extracted from sites geared towards guitar, but the theory applies equally well to piano. I do not own any of these images. The source is credited in the image (embedded into each image).

The charts below will enable you to immediately begin creating workable chord progressions without learning the theory behind why the chords are appropriate. If it is important for you to understand the theory behind these charts, I recommend continuing your study of music theory. These are shortcuts for folks who are too busy to learn theory, but want to create chord progressions that fall within the guidelines prescribed by music theory and sound good.

Below is a chart showing the chords you can use for each major key.

Major Key Chords

Here is another chart for some major scales which also shows the degree of each chord (ie I IV V are major ii, iii, vi are minor). This chart also includes the use of a flat seventh chord as a substitute for a diminished seven (not a seventh) chord.

Major Key Chords with degree

Here is a Chord Key chart which also shows the major key and the relative minor key for each major key.

Major and Relative Minor chords for each key

And last but not least - the circle of 5ths - also referred to sometimes as the circle of 4ths and 5ths. The circle of fifths progresses in 5ths if you go around the circle clockwise and in 4ths as you go counterclockwise. In the chart below - for any given major key, the two keys adjacent (one to the left and one to the right) correspond to the two other major chords that fit in that key. The three minor chords on the inner circle that touch any given key letter will also work with that major chord progression. The relative minor for each major key is directly below the major key. Outer circle = major key - inner circle = minor key.

Circle of Fifths

Hope this helps. Good luck!

  • @tim It's a common substitution. See this question for more link – Rockin Cowboy Oct 10 '15 at 18:38
  • Theory says it is from the parallel set of chords - as in not those associated with C maj. but C min. I see the dim. chord itself as the 3,5 and b7 of the dominant (G7 in C). – Tim Oct 11 '15 at 7:15
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It will be easier for you if you just start with a chord progression in C, based on the major scale on C. That way you don't have to worry about accidentals etc., and you can just focus on the progression.

After doing that I would recommend trying the same progression in other scales as well (progressions are scale independent), so that you don't get 'stuck' on just using the C major scale.

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I would think that for a newbie you can go pretty far by just sticking with the chords that have the notes of the scale and then just doing the old 1/3/4 pattern.

That is to say either go one letter name forward, four forward or just three letter names backwards.

For easy reference when I say chords that form part of the scale I simply mean that for instance you are in C Major and you just keep to the following chords which all have notes that fit in to the C Major scale.

1--> C Major (C - E - G)

2--> d minor (D - F - A)

3--> e minor (E - G - B)

4--> F Major (F - A - C)

5--> G Major (G - B - D)

6--> a minor (A - C - E)

7--> b diminished (B - D - F)

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