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I'm wondering how important it is to know the diatonic chords of a given key. Like, if a key is given to me like G# major, is it beneficial for me to know the I, ii, iii, IV, V, etc chords of this scale and know how to find them quickly on the piano.

And should I know this for all keys? Do people commit to learning all these to memory? And their inversions as well?

  • simply put yes, because anything can be a chord progression and there are more complicated chords – Lenny May 4 '17 at 1:49
  • The moment I step outside the keys I play in all the time, I become much slower, at both playing and analyzing. I recommend yes :) – Steve Clay May 30 '17 at 22:14
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The idea isn't necessarily to memorize all chords and scales, per se, but to understand them and make them second nature. In reality, becoming more aware of the patterns within each key and of each chord type will essentially force it into your memory. What you don't want to do is write out all of the notes of a given scale or chord type and read them back to yourself to try to memorize them. You want the memorization to be the result of playing and seeking to better understand the patterns behind them. You should find that there are a few patterns that become very obvious and you can play the correct chord without thinking about it.

You can try taking each interval from a chord type and playing that through all of the keys. This should familiarize yourself with the shapes necessary to play those chords. I would suggest starting with the perfect fifth (P5), since that is the most common interval between different chord types, specifically the most commonly used chords, major and minor. There are a couple ways to approach this and I would suggest using as many as possible. Perhaps start by playing a P5 in each hand, then moving it up through the octave, for example, play C and G, move up to C#/Db and G#/Ab, onto D and A, etc. The pattern that you should see is that in most instances, if you have a white note as the root, your fifth will also be a white note, and same for the black notes. The exception here is for Bb/F and B/F#. I would then try to work through other patterns, such as moving through the circle of fifths (C, G, D, A, E, etc., or C, F, Bb, Eb, etc.). This will allow you to become familiar with the shape of the fifth from each root when moving larger distances than a half step. I would then take this concept and apply it to thirds (major and minor separately). For instance, C and E, Db and F, D and F#, etc., then onto circle of fifths (C and E, G and B, D and F#, A and C #). As you progress as a musician, you should find this all coming more naturally and as you move onto more difficult/complicated chords, these patterns will be extensions of your previous knowledge and emerge more quickly.

As for scales, you will want to practice all of them and make sure you're using appropriate fingerings while doing so. This is a monotonous process for most people but it's pretty necessary to accomplish solid technique. Proper fingering encourages your hands to become more familiar with how to move from position to position smoothly, which will allow you to play more difficult parts, particularly faster lines, more easily. In this exercise, I would also encourage you to pay attention to the patterns within the different scales and different fingerings. You should find that there are some fingerings that are the same from key to key, such as C, D, G, A, E, and B.

Due to the boring nature of practicing in this way, it is a very good idea to have actual pieces of music you are playing as well. Try to notice the patterns within each piece of music as well. As you play the melody, you can notice how the scale patterns that you've practiced appear and how the fingerings are often the same but also that they are sometimes a little different based on the line in question.

The end goal is to know all of this stuff but to just know it instantly, not having to think it out. The way you choose to practice can encourage this. The important thing is to make sure that you find a way to make this enjoyable for yourself, especially if you're not the kind of person that will force themselves to do something they don't like. If you can't find a way to make these exercises enjoyable, then I'd recommend finding a way to force yourself to do it at least a little bit at a time. Choose 2 or 3 scales for that day's practice session, then go through each of them a few times for maybe 10 minutes, go play some music you enjoy, then come back to the boring stuff for another 10 minutes, and go back and forth throughout your practice session. The important part is that you are consistently practicing everything so that it actually gets ingrained. If you just do a couple keys once a week for a minute or two, it's not really going to stick; you really want this to be a daily exercise. You also want to make sure that you're covering all of your keys over time, so it's a good idea to keep a practice journal, where you can keep track of what you've done in previous sessions to make sure that you're not neglecting some. If you find that certain things are coming more easily than others, it's a good idea to try to more frequently practice the things that are more difficult but don't just stop the stuff that is easier.

This may not be the best regiment for you as an individual, since everyone learns differently, but it's the best general advice I can offer without knowing how you learn. I would ultimately recommend getting a private instructor because they will be able to cater the lessons and practice regiment to you specifically. The other important thing that a teacher can provide is more of the technique. There are tendencies that are unhealthy or inefficient that if practiced for a long time, will be incredibly difficult to reverse. Learning the correct technique early on will save you a lot of trouble, and potentially physical pain, later on.

  • Yeah, I tend to be a little long winded, which can be good and bad. I just prefer to get it all out there and if someone doesn't want to take the time to read it, then it's not my fault. Sounds like you took the time, so I'm glad I could provide all I did. I definitely encourage you to take what everyone else says into consideration as well. I'm certainly fallible. – Basstickler May 4 '17 at 18:05
  • yep thanks, I like the idea about the P5 and the 3rds – foreyez May 5 '17 at 0:47
  • too bad the 3rds don't have a pattern. or maybe they do I just haven't found it yet. (but the white to white, black to black on P5 was gold) – foreyez May 5 '17 at 0:54
  • There are patterns there as well, they're just not quite as singular. For M3, the three W to W are C/F/G, W to B are D/E/A/B, then all black keys except F# are B to W. If you're not going to get yourself a private instructor, the idea is that you want to seek out these patterns so that you can teach yourself. The patterns often feel abstract as well, so you don't always have to try to put it into words. I'm a big advocate for theory, so I would be compelled to put words on everything but it's not necessary. – Basstickler May 5 '17 at 1:57
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    I'm glad it has value for you. Another pattern to the M3 that is more interesting on the theory side is that the three W to W are the 3 major chords in C major and the W to B are all the other roots from C. This makes a lot of sense because any key will have three major chords and C major, being all white keys, should only have three. The other 4 white keys are all chords that have a minor third in them diatonically, so you would have to raise the third to a black key to get a major third. Lots of "fun" stuff in there! I hope your learning goes well and you know SEMusic is here to help. – Basstickler May 5 '17 at 14:53
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Yes, you should learn them all. But, try to break down what you actually need to learn. If you approach it like 7 chords x 24 major/minor keys x 3 inversions = 504 chords to learn, you will both overwhelm yourself and miss important patterns and relative relationships.

Consider this:

  • there are only 6 major triad "shapes" on the piano, on roots F#, G, Ab, A, Bb, B.
  • there are only 6 minor triad "shapes" on the piano, on roots b flat, b, c, c#, d, e flat

By shape I mean for example A major in root position is a white key, black key, then white key (see chart below.) The same same is used for D major and E major. The diatonic triads are limited to a fairly small number of shapes. (I'm glossing over diminished triads, because it's probably better to learn them in the context of harmony patterns.)

Piano 
chord 
shape   Major       Minor

WWW     F, C, G     d, a ,e
WbW     D, A, E     f, c, g
bWb     Db, Ab, Eb  f#, c#, g#
bbb     F#          e flat
Wbb     B           ---
bWW     B flat      ---
WWb     ---         b
bbW     ---         b flat

W = white key
b = black key

The second big consideration is moving between chords. Instead of memorizing all chord changes in all keys think of the relative movement of chord notes with common voice leading patterns:

  • two voices move a step
  • one voice moves a step
  • all three voices move a step

enter image description here

The critical part is to pay attention to the relative, step-wise movements. For example, when I moves to IV6/4 the top voice moves up a whole step and the middle voice moves up a half step. That is the pattern in all major keys. Learn the relative movement patterns. If you look up the circle of fifths and other harmonic sequences you will find patterns of common voice leading that will move through all the diatonic triads of a key.

So, I suggest you focus on a small number of piano chord shapes and basic harmonic sequences to get a handle on learning all the diatonic triads for all keys.

  • interesting comment about the shapes. I'll have to look into that. you have any links to shapes? if not I'll just type in 'major triad shapes piano' in google images – foreyez May 4 '17 at 21:19
  • @foreyez, I added a little chart of shapes. Maybe it will be helpful. Most of the chord shape or keyboard diagrams I have seen online do not group by shape in a clear, concise way. So I make my own. – Michael Curtis May 5 '17 at 13:59
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Basically, Yes. But there is no need to embark on a big "Memorisation" project. First spend some time thinking about C major, which is rather easy, because it's just the white keys. Then make yourself familiar with F and G, i.e. one sharp or flat. You can practice running up the scale on the keyboard with 1st inversion triads (so Cmaj goes: EGC, FAD, GBE, ACF, ... etc and down again). Then you gradually extend this up to three sharps or flats. For any note on the piano you should find that you can instinctively play (or just visualise) the notes a perfect fifth up and down, and at this stage if you find yourself in E (4 sharps), it's slightly unfamiliar territory, but you can just slow down and work out where the chords are. Eventually you will just be at home, until you are playing Scriabin and he wanders in to 17 sharps (in Op. 43-5 there's an E-double-sharp!)

Anyway, practice lots of sight-reading in not-too-difficult keys, and it will all become second nature.

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In direct answer to your question, yes. But before that, get used to the notes that belong to each scale. Then you can build chords from these notes.

You are already aware of the formula used to turn scale notes into chords - although there are far more chords to be used than just triads, but it's a good start. Initially, familiarise yourself with the 3 major chords that belong to each key - I, IV and V. You could even play 12 bar blues in each key using that information. Work out how to physically move from I>V, V>I, etc.

So, yes, eventually you'll find it extremely useful to be able to play any chord in any key - and don't forget that those seven chords are not the only ones that can be used in a particular key!

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You don't necessarily need to know all of the scales one by one, you just know the interval between any pair of notes. Once you know that you only have to learn each scale once, and then move the "shape" to wherever you want it to be. On a piano this takes a little practice because scales are visually so different in different keys. But for an instrument like a guitar, it's completely transparent.

Look up for materials to practise transposing music for this; eventually the thought process of moving things around becomes second nature.

Having said this, more common keys come quicker because I don't have to apply any thought process; everything's just memorised. If I was more disciplined I'd play in uncommon keys more often, and those notes would become just as familiar.

  • @DavidBowling I suppose I meant that in the sense that the relationships between keys are more transparent across guitar, in that transposing from say B to C# is visually very obvious on a guitar, whereas on a piano visually it doesn't "jump out at you" where all the scale degrees would sit. But you are of course correct in that guitar brings its own obfuscations to the table, especially when playing open chords in standard tuning. – Some_Guy May 4 '17 at 14:52
  • I still think it's fair to say that melodic transposition between keys is much more transparent on guitar than piano, even though playing the same melody at a different point on the neck isn't. Guitar has a few ways to play the same melodic pattern, sure. But those shapes are identical in all keys (just moved a little to the left or the right). It's fair to say if you know a melodic or scale shape in 1 key on guitar, you know it in every key automatically, whereas on piano that's not the case at all (without a bit of head scratching). – Some_Guy May 4 '17 at 15:04
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Yes, it's important, and yes, you should, because just as sure as rockets are pointy at the top, someday, somewhere, you will get caught out if you haven't learnt it.

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