Let's say a given key is given like: A major.

Is it better to know how to play the diatonic chords in your given instrument (like piano or guitar) by pattern. For example, in piano I could just know the scale. Then I could just pick out the I IV V etc of the scale, just by moving my fingers around without knowing (or bothering to know) what the names of the chords I'm playing. All I know is I'm playing the "V" as an example.


Is it better to memorize the diatonic chords of each scale by name. So the diatonic chords in A major would be: A major, D major, E major, B minor, C#minor, F#minor, G#dim. and then play these chords on the given instrument?

  • 3
    Are you sure this is an accurate dichotomy? It's hard for me to imagine someone knowing "this is V of A" without being able to make the connection to "this is an E major chord." – Richard May 12 '17 at 18:59
  • 1
    Well all I need to know is where the A note is. Then I know what the scale sounds like (just do re me fa so..) from there so I know the fingering, then I can pick the IV the V or whatever just by counting. and then I can play V because I just know the sound of a major chord, or the iii cause I know the sound of a minor chord. but I never take the time to care or figure out what chord I'm playing. like what the name of it, so I wasn't sure if I should or not. – user34288 May 12 '17 at 19:20
  • 1
    @foreyez So you have enough time to do all the steps in (1) "know where the A note is" (2) "know what the scale sounds like" (3) "pick the IV the V or whatever just by counting" (4) "play V because I just know the sound of a major chord" - I'm not surprised you "never take the time to care or figure out what chord I'm playing" if you are doing all that for every chord! Do you read English by counting out the alphabet from the beginning, to figure out each letter??? In any case, you shouldn't be aiming to play individual chords, but chord progressions, if you want to make real progress. – user19146 May 12 '17 at 19:32

That's like asking whether it is better to know words by sound or spelling.

You don't really get to pick one and forego the other if you are seriously working with music.

  • In laying out your example for the key of A major you have demonstrated an ability to, as @user40262 would put it, seriously work with music (as opposed to, seriously avoid working with music), so the time spent in assimilating this information for all keys will be well worthwhile. And after all, you are already 1/12th the way there. – Areel Xocha May 14 '17 at 4:06

There's a lot of difference in the 'patterns' between piano and guitar! On guitar, I find I'm changing chords automatically as I listen to what will probably come next - there's really no time to think 'I'm on F#m, and C#7 is coming next, where can I play it?' And that's probably easier on guitar, with not so many chord shapes to consider.

On piano, the same thing happens with the more familiar keys, but there's a lot more choice with voicings and patterns generally, and two lots of fingers to deal with as well! gain, the academic side really needs to be put away, and the fingers go straight to the next chord, i.e. if it's an A triad, root position, and the following is C#m, then I'd probably just drop r.h. thumb down to G#, leaving the others where they are, but not necessarily be thinking 'this is going to be C#m'. I reckon it's a bit of both, dependent on one's prowess on the instrument, and familiarity with both the key and the song.

  • yeah your example with the guitar is what I mean. so you do it by ear. so same with when you jam with people, you don't consciously think about the chord names I assume.. – user34288 May 12 '17 at 19:27
  • and if you don't consciously think about them.. then I imagine it would be hard to remember the names of them. Like if someone were to ask you out of the blue to name them? Because I don't. and I'm not sure if I should commit the effort to know them all by name. – user34288 May 12 '17 at 19:32
  • Don't need to actually quote names at that moment, but am well aware of what chord it is called, so, it's a bit of both...In the heat of the moment, the name is inconsequential though. – Tim May 12 '17 at 20:53

Disregarding needing to know the underlying scales of chords, it's better to know chords by name than by pattern/harmonic function if you plan on reading a lot of lead sheets. Lead sheets are often filled with chords labelled stuff like "C-Ab7-Bb9-C7-E7b5" with no regard for whether any of them are I, bVII, or are involved in a deceptive cadence.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy