I'm struggling to understand how and why diatonic chords work and what their purpose is within played music.

To my understanding, diatonic chords are a triad on any degree, in any scale, where each triad note is 2 generic thirds apart.

If that's correct, it seems to fly in the face of how each scale defines chords. It seems like diatonic chords ruin the purpose of the established structure. I.E. why call it a major scale if we have a diminished chord in it. The diatonic chords can seem quite out of place.

  • What is the purpose/relevance of diatonic chords in music?

  • How/where they can be applied, I.E. what can be/has been done with them?

(Examples in written, visual, and/or audible fashion are very welcome. 😊)


[Edit] In review, the question was created out of a misunderstanding of what a generic 3rd was which gave the impression of diatonic triads being something different than your standard triad on a note from a diatonic scale.

Feeling very silly now understanding what a diatonic chord actually is...

Link to diatonic triads and generic 3rds intoduction page.

Thanks again for all the help on what was a pretty obvious topic! 😁

  • 1
    Scales and keys don't define chords, and you'll find that chords typically are built from the notes of the key. When they aren't, the purpose is to achieve a particular sound or feeling -- including but far from limited to "out of place". There is a lot more to music than keys, which are arbitrary.
    – user28
    Nov 9, 2015 at 23:38
  • The diatonic triad chords are a mathematical result of the notes in the scale and the harmonic series. To object to there being a diminished chord in a major scale would be like saying to a mathematician that you object to the existence of prime numbers, or resent the fact that Pi (3.14159...) is not a whole number. Music is mathematics and physics. It is art, but it also follows from science, and theory follows practice. The more you study as a musician, the more sense all of this will make to you.
    – user1044
    Nov 11, 2015 at 22:00
  • "How/where they can be applied, I.E. what can be/has been done with them?" The answer is they are used, constantly, in virtually all the music you have ever heard. All Western music, from the last 400 or 500 years up until today, is based on diatonic chords. If you are unaware of this, then you would benefit from studying some music theory.
    – user1044
    Nov 11, 2015 at 22:17
  • I have never heard the use of the term "generic third" before. Is that a term you invented? Conventionally, there are two different musical intervals labeled as "third": the major third and the minor third.
    – user1044
    Nov 11, 2015 at 22:20
  • I first heard of diatonic triads at the link below and misinterpreted them as being different from what I thought to be a normal triad. musictheory.net/lessons/43
    – xor7ommy
    Nov 11, 2015 at 23:23

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure I understand what you think a diatonic chord is, but I suspect you have a misunderstanding.

Diatonic chords are simply the seven chords that consist solely of notes that come from whatever key you are playing in (assuming you're in a major or natural minor key, or one of the other four or five diatonic modes). In other words, there are no accidentals in the chord. The purpose of a diatonic chord is to harmonize some note in a scale with other notes from the same scale. A large number of simple melodies (and even many more complex ones) can be harmonized completely, or at least mostly, with diatonic chords.

There are seven notes in a diatonic scale, separated from each other by whole steps and half steps, in some permutation of the pattern WWHWWWH. Since there are never two half steps in a row, skipping over one note will always give us two whole steps (a major 3rd) or one whole and one half step (a minor 3rd), hence the term "generic third" to describe either. If you count all the pairs of adjacent thirds (there are seven) you will notice that there are three major chords (a major 3rd followed by a minor 3rd) and three minor chords (a minor 3rd followed by a major 3rd). In addition, there is the one odd exception where there are two minor 3rds in a row, resulting in a diminished chord. To illustrate, I'll show the pattern you get starting on each of the first few notes in the major scale:

  • Starting on 1: (WW)(HW) = M3, m3 = major chord = I
  • Starting on 2: (WH)(WW) = m3, M3 = minor chord = ii
  • Starting on 3: (HW)(WW) = m3, M3 = minor chord = iii
  • Starting on 4: (WW)(WH) = M3, m3 = major chord = IV
  • and so on...

Because all diatonic scales have the same pattern (albeit rotated), all major and minor scales (and other modes) have this same basic inventory of 3 major chords, 3 minor chords, and one diminished chord. What differs is where these chords fall in the scale. In major scales, the chord that falls on the first note of the scale (called the tonic) will be major. In minor scales, the tonic chord will, of course, be minor.

  • Thanks heaps for the clarification on this, Caleb. I think my misunderstanding was with the generic 3rds. I'd misunderstoof the generic 3rd to mean something different which would create chords that were different to the triads built on each degree of a key. Theoretically, if there was a key which had two minor 2nds in succession, would the interval between the root and the second minor 2nd technically be considered a generic 3rd?
    – xor7ommy
    Nov 11, 2015 at 21:08
  • Glad I was able to help. An example of a scale where you might encounter two adjacent semitones would be the Phrygian mode with a raised 7th degree (for example, start on E and play all white keys, except replace D with D#). In this case, the interval D# to F is definitely still a third (any D to any F is some kind of third), but since it is a half step less than a minor third, it is called a diminished third. I believe the term "generic third" would still apply, since it is still a type of third. Nov 12, 2015 at 0:30


Your question seems to be about determining the tonality of music. Is it determined by the diatonic chords? Is it determined by the scale/key being used?

I think the thing to consider is this: if the music is truly in a major key - let's assume C major - then the tonic chord C major should have some special importance. Usually that importance is achieved by starting and ending the music with the tonic chord and ending many phrases on the tonic chord.

If the tonic chord was not emphasized in this way, I think you would get the result you suggest. The music would not seem to be in a major key. So again, using the key of C major, if we emphasized the d minor chord in our phrasing, the music could start sounding like it was not actually in C major, but rather in D dorian.

So, I don't think tonality is defined simply by which diatonic chords are being used, but which ones are being emphasized.

A few asides:

Composers like Satie, Debussy, and Ravel played around with the diatonic series emphasizing different sounds, not quite major or minor, but sort of modal.

A related term is "Pandiatonicism."

A fun experiment is to play only major chords over the roots of a major scale. So, in C major you would be playing chords: C major, D major, E major, F major, etc. This will definitely not sound like a major key. This sort of demonstrates that a major key is not comprised of only major chords.

Interesting topic!


  • Thanks heaps for your feedback on this, Mike! Thanks for reading into what I may have been asking. Looking back, the question is quite a silly one. Great point about playing only major chords over a major scale. My misunderstanding was with what a generic 3rd is and also, probably, that I'd wrongly assumed a major scale would have only major chords in it. Diatonic chords make so much more sense now! Thanks heaps for the composer suggestions 😊
    – xor7ommy
    Nov 11, 2015 at 21:15
  • I'm glad my answer was helpful. Also, another tidbit for theory terms: "interval class" for "generic" third. That is, interval class is third or fifth, specific intervals minor third, diminished fifth, etc. I learned this one myself a few months ago. Nov 12, 2015 at 22:30

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