I've mainly been playing chords/scales based on patterns that I remember. But do you think it's worthwhile to actually remember/take time to commit to memory the names of each chord in each key?

So if one would ask, what's the diatonic chords of Ab? should I know "Eb major, Ab major, Db major, fminor, etc" right away?

I play both piano and guitar and I'm looking to be able to better move between them, so I'm thinking this might be an important thing to do. (?)


8 Answers 8


I think Todd's answer is right on: that memorizing these chords away from the music is only helpful to a point, and the real skill is your active creation of these chords on a musical instrument (in your case, piano and guitar).

But I want to add one thing: I do think it's helpful to mix the two. In other words, I've found it tremendously helpful for myself (and for my students) to be able, at any time, to tell me—without hesitation—what chord they're playing. Too many musicians can play music without really knowing what they're playing, to which I say they can hardly be called musicians at all.

So you may want to spend some time, as you practice, simply saying the names of the chords out loud. As you progress, you can say the inversions to yourself. If you're interested, maybe the Roman numeral in whatever key you're in, or the scale-degree name (this is "supertonic," this is "dominant"). And so on. In short, you can never know too much about what you're playing.

The added bonus is, over time, a connection between pitch names, the tactile feel of the chords, and the sounds themselves. This is one of the many ways that relative pitch is built over time. (This is what builds absolute pitch, too, but really that's for the malleable brains of youngsters.)

Doing this also makes it more clear what chords you think work well together, what chords progress into what others, what chords cannot move to what, etc.

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    You expect students to be aware of each name of each chord they're playing. Whilst it's laudable, I wonder if that's what actually happens in a real live playing situation.Many's the time I've busked songs I've heard, in keys that I've not played them in, and would have been hard pushed to call out chord names.I think auto-pilot takes over, and there's other things that are more important to consider.But, for students, at a different level, maybe it's different.Same with note names.I'm sure if I stopped a great player and asked what note he'd just played, the answer would be 'the right one...'
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 21:18
  • @Tim it's true. Although I think it's safe to say my approach to music is in general quite theoretical, I sometimes find myself playing stuff I have trouble naming, in particular when playing with keyboarders who like ridiculous keys. “What do you mean, I should play a B♭ here? No way! Hang on, what notes do I do before that... C♯, B, next I could perhaps play A♯ – oh *groan* I see...” Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 21:32
  • I also think "you can never know too much about what you're playing". also knowing the chord names is useful when going between instruments.
    – user34288
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 2:19

If I understand your question, my answer is "No". As in, "don't go through the trouble to memorize chord names". That seems like a waste of time.

I do recommend practicing in various keys and working through the process of finding and playing all the diatonic chords in different keys. If you can find and play the chords when you need to, it doesn't matter if you can name them off the top of your head. If you really need the name, find it and play it, then look at your fingers and figure out the name.

Being able to play the chords of a key when you want helps you write and improvise, and it will also help your sight reading. Mainly you want to imprint the patterns of the chords in your brain. For example, you want to know intuitively that the third of the V chord is the seventh degree of the major scale. If you're writing or improvising and you want to use the seventh degree as a leading tone back to the tonic, you want to know pretty quickly what your options are: the iii, the V, and the vii (dim) (for diatonic triads). Then you can determine what makes sense based on the chord you want before the leading tone (e.g., do you want to go stepwise up from ii or something).

Also, it helps if you play around with the diatonic chords enogh that you get "bored" with them and start exploring other options.

I guess I'm recommending you learn by doing, not by arbitrary memorization of names. The names won't help you, the finger positions on the keyboard will.

Note: I play and write for both piano and guitar and I learn shapes and finger positions and patterns for both instruments. I don't worry at all about names. Once you have the shapes and finger positions down, the names are dead easy. It doesn't work in the other direction, though. Also I have a relationship in my head between shapes on the guitar and shapes on the piano. So I know what frets are which piano keys. That's much faster and more intuitive than knowing that a fret is a C and then remembering which key is the same C. Again, the names will come easily once you have the direct shape and position relationships down.

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    I think I pretty much agree with everything here, but I do think that it is important to know the names of the chords you are playing, for the most part. In particular I am thinking of chords, like m6 and m7♭5 chords that have the same shapes, but different root notes in those same shapes, and different functions. You ought to know which you are playing when you play one of these shapes, I think.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 20:08
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    @DavidBowling I'm not sure how strong it is to say one "ought to know" something. It certainly agree it is helpful to know these things, but when playing and when composing, I find that I have to forget about music theory and that working with shapes and sounds produces pleasing results, and I've written several chord progressions that I love (and others seem to at least like) where I would have to spend a long time to fully analyze them. It's knowledge that is helpful to have, I just don't think anyone should go through too much trouble to have it. Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 21:09
  • Whilst agreeing with most of your answer, having worked with players who couldn't communicate what chord was in question, (even though they could play it), or had to be shown, one note at a time what a particular chord was, it's a great time (and sanity) saver. A hammer is a hammer, a chisel is a chisel. Isn't it easier to ask for the one you want by name? If you know it...
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 6:36
  • @Tim I think my interpretation of the question and my intention in my answer might be different from how some people are reading them. I agree it’s very helpful to know the names of the chords. What I was trying to capture in my answer is that it doesn’t make sense to me to make a special effort to learn the chord names in isolation, but rather to learn to play chords and also know the notes of the chords and know how to construct and deconstruct names from the notes. I’m recommending against specifically memorizing chord names and instead suggesting learning the names more organically. Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 12:20
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    Absolutely. 'Tis thus when people try to learn music theory (or most theory for that matter) without playing practically as well. Bones need flesh! +1.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 12:28

I have found it extremely helpful to know the function of chords in the keys they belong to. For example, a C Major chord is I in C major, V in F major, IV in G Major, III in A minor, and so forth. This comes in very handy when I am playing around, either figuring out a song I am learning by ear or trying out a new harmonization to something or writing a new piece. Knowing the functions of the chords is kind of like having a thesaurus handy. It allows you to have an idea of what chords can be tried out where without having to resort to the same exact vocabulary every time. Instead of thinking always about what chords belong to the key, I think more about all that I can do with an individual chord.


Should I remember the diatonic chord names of each scale?

Why not? It's a fairly straightforward exercise, not difficult - and will help you in situations like recognising the key of a song from a chord sheet and quickly transcribing songs yourself. It will be even more useful if you remember where (different voicings of) each chord are on the guitar neck - that should make it easy to relate the piano, the guitar, and the sheet music/chords/tabs that you are playing.

In fact, if I had to choose, I would say that learning where the chords/scales are on the guitar neck would be a more useful exercise than memorising the chords in each key. Partly, this is because many songs these days don't actually stick to the chords diatonic to the key the song is in - though it might help you in analysing harmonies if you can easily spot the difference between diatonic chords and chords from outside the key.


Why not? it's easy when you think in terms of the cycle of fifths. See the zigzag diagram below. Each diagonal step advances one fifth. It shows how the diatonic scale is built up from seven notes separated by consecutive intervals of a fifth. All the notes for a particular key signature are found together, three on one line (starting with the root note of the major key) and four on the other line.

Thus C major is CDE FGAB and Eb major is Eb F G Ab Bb C D.

Gb  Ab  Bb   C   D   E   F#  G#  A# 
  Db  Eb   F   G   A   B   C#  D#

Taking the key of C major as an example, the major chords are C major, one fifth forward = G major and one fifth back = F major.

This is followed by the three chords of the relative minor: A minor, one fifth forward = E minor and one fifth back = D minor.

Following the three minor chords we have B diminished.

Once I understood the cycle of fifths, I never had any trouble remembering which chord names went with which scale. As others have said, it is more important to be able to play them than name them, but I found it helped with that too.


For yourself, playing by yourself, it's not much of an issue. However, when you play with others, using a common language - music - is quite useful. So, communicating with others, naming particular chords - which are family related, as we know - makes life so much easier.

And here, we're only talking about the 3 majors, 3 minors and 1 diminished for each of the keys. Not a big deal, when we should know the circle of fifths - which is actually being half way there anyhow.

Yes, there are many guitarists who don't even know the names of notes played, and a lot of the time it doesn't matter a jot. One can use fret/string numbers and another will understand. It won't mean much to a sax or piano player, though.

Being conversant with chord families and their names isn't trivial. It's part of being a musician rather than a layman. Knowing that C>Em is the same as Ab>Cm is the same as G>Bm is important, especially when transposing. Maybe just knowing where to go is good, but what's wrong with having that extra bit of info?


IT's not worth learning them by rote. It's not worth learning much at all from a 'theory-out' viewpoint. Better to let your experience of playing and studying lots of music reveal patterns. A song in Ab will doubtless include lots of Ab, Db and Eb7 chords. And Fm, Bbm7, Gb (yes, that one keeps cropping up, despite being a bit 'off the grid'), Dbm... Don't use theory to suggest what chords MAY be played. Let it describe the ones you (and other, more experienced players and composers) HAVE played.


One way to remember the chords that correspond to a given key is that certain scale degrees always correspond to a major or minor chord in a diatonic scale.

For example:

In the key of C Major the diatonic scale is: C - D - E - F - G - A - B.

We can assign roman numerals to the scale degrees as follows: I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii

Here's the formula:

  • The chords that correspond to the first, fourth, and fifth chords are always major.
  • The chords that correspond to the second, third and sixth scale degrees are always minor.
  • The chord that corresponds to the seventh scale degree is always diminished.

Following this formula with the C scale, we get: C - Dm - Em - F -G - Am - Bdim

Hope this is helpful!

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