What Is Diatonic Harmony and Why Is It Helpful?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Have you ever heard the term diatonic harmony before? …..Some of you are probably staring at your computer or mobile device blankly, others may be like “ehhh isn’t that when a ship comes down and…” Just kidding. Some of you may know exactly what it is, but if you don’t or you need a better understanding then continue reading. It will greatly help you in your jazz journey as you continue to progress.

What is Diatonic Harmony

Diatonic harmony is a fancy way of saying chords or notes that relate to a certain key. For example, the note D is diatonic to the key of C because it can be found in the C major scale. As you might be thinking, “Well it can also be found in other scales too.” Yes it can, so it is also diatonic to those keys as well. Notes and chords can be diatonic to more than one key, only when you are not analyzing the degree of the note or chord. So what does that mean? If you analyze the note D as the 2nd degree of the C major scale, it will only be the 2nd degree of the C major scale. There will not be any other keys in which the note D is the 2nd degree of that scale. This holds true for chords as well. In the key of C, the ii-7 chord, ( D-7) is only diatonic to the key of C when it is analyzed as a ii-7 chord. If you are not analyzing the chords, then yes it can also be diatonic to other keys such as Bb and F. Make sense? Hopefully. Let’s keep going.

Diatonic Chords within Keys

We know that a chord can be diatonic to a couple of different keys only if it is not analyzed. When it is analyzed, it only belongs to one key. For each key, there are 7 chords that set a consistent pattern and always serve as the same quality in every other key. I’m almost positive I lost a lot of you just now. Let me show you an example. The notes from a scale are used to build chords so lets start in the key of C. We are going to use all the notes from the C major scale to build chords off of each degree of the scale. Here is the C major scale in case you forgot.
cmajorscale

In order to build a chord we are simply going to stack thirds from the scale on top of the 1st degree of the scale, ( the note C). Another way to think about it is, to use the 1st degree of the scale, then skip a note in the scale, then use the 3rd degree of the scale, then skip another note, then the 5th, skip, then the 7th. So we have the degrees 1,3,5,7. We just created this chord using the notes from the C major scale.
building-a-chord2

The 1st degree of the scale is the root of this chord so we will call this chord I Major 7. We will now move to the D in the C major scale and build another chord the exact same way, by stacking thirds, or skipping notes from within the scale, which ever is easiest for you to conceptualize. If we stack thirds on top of D, only using notes from the C major scale, we get D, F, A, C, which gives us a D-7 chord, or we also call this a ii-7 because it is built off the 2nd degree of the scale.
d-7-building-chord2

Now, I won’t type out all the rest of the chords because this would take forever and frankly I’m sure you would get bored, as would I, so here is a picture of all the chords in the key of C.

Notice how we analyze the chord based of the degree of the scale it is built from. In every key the chord qualities of each chord will be the same, meaning the 1 is always major, the 2 is always minor, the 3 is always minor, and so on. Obviously the notes will change because we are using a different scale now to build the chords.

Why is this helpful?

Alright so what is the point of knowing all this? When you are playing a tune, you need to know how a chord fits in with the harmony of the piece. What is it’s function? It’s like knowing how a verb works in a sentence or how a noun works. If you don’t know these things there is now way you’re going to be able to write properly. You might say, “I store the went to.” This makes absolutely no sense. It’s the same thing with music. If you can understand the function of each chord then you are going to be able to construct harmonies, take them apart, and have true freedom over the music.
allthe-things-analyzed

I don’t want to complicate things further so I will leave you just that. For practice see if you can find the diatonic chords in other easy keys such as F, or Bb. If you are brave, maybe try some keys like Gb or B natural. You’ll definitely have fun with those.

Happy Practicing!

If You Enjoyed This Post…

I would really appreciate it if you could like our facebook page and or share this post!
[widgets_on_pages id=”3″]

[Tweet “Never heard of Diatonic Harmony? Click here to see how it can help you. #jazzpiano #jazzpianoschool”]
Feel free to subscribe to our email tips and bonus content. Simply click below.
New-Email-Ad

Learn Jazz Piano Licks from 20 Great jazz pianists

Brenden Lowe

Brenden Lowe

12 Responses

  1. The value of diatonic chords is immediate when you see them in the context of how a chord progresses and then how that progression creates a song. Otherwise you just see them as an exercise in futility or Do re me etc….in each key. That is important to know but if you don’t apply it to one song in several keys it seems separate, disjointed, and disparate. I spent several years learning these skills with no concept of applying them to songs. I am certain that when we learn scales in context they will suddenly become music rather than the laborious and tedious do re me. I recall telling my musician friend that I was sick of playing scales and that I wanted to play music. He came over to me while I sat at the piano and whispered in my ear that,”The scales are the music”. I still have yet to realize that truth!

  2. Hello,
    ” so here is a picture of all the chords in the key of C.”
    I’m sorry but I do not see the picture.

    but maybe this will help others,
    here are the chords in the key of C:
    I ii iii IV V vi vii I
    CMajor – Dminor – Eminor – FMajor – GMajor – Aminor – Bdiminished – CMajor.

    All major scales follow this same pattern.
    Hope this helps

  3. I’m sorry,
    my roman numerals do not appear
    over the chords, the way I typed them.
    Anyway just picture the roman numerals
    over the chords I printed.
    Hope this helps.

  4. In your example above – ‘If we stack thirds on top of D, only using notes from the C major scale, we get D, F, A, C, which gives us a D-7 chord, or we also call this a ii-7 because it is built off the 2nd degree of the scale.’ Would this not be a D minor as the 3rd is flat?

  5. Of course it is Warren. You are all right but this is just the foundation of Jazz harmony or the very basic of music theory I would say. These are also what we call “The Medieval Church Modes” which are based on each of these. Also you can look at these chords and the relation between the notes and the chords or the scales(modes) from different angels and views, it is then we can start hearing different colors and find out what this whole subject is all about. So I would suggest you to take your time, relax and enjoy the ride one at a time.. it can easily be confusing if you forget from which angel we are watching a certain chord or a scale.
    Ionian (major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
    Dorian (minor) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
    Phrygian E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
    Lydian F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
    Mixolydian G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
    Aeolian (minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
    ..and so on

  6. Warren, it is written as D minor 7. The hyphen “-” indicates minor, aling with the lowercase Roman numerals. You may also see capital “M” for
    Major and lowercase “m” for
    Minor at times as well. Thus, Dm7, D-7, and ii-7 (in the key of C) are all exactly the same chord. I hope that helps clarify the notation for you. All the best!

  7. Warren, it is written as D minor 7. The hyphen “-” indicates minor, along with the lowercase Roman numerals. You may also see capital “M” for
    Major and lowercase “m” for
    Minor at times as well. Thus, Dm7, D-7, and ii-7 (in the key of C) are all exactly the same chord. I hope that helps clarify the notation for you. All the best!

  8. I love reviewing fundamentals. It reminds me I’m on the right track. I have found that when a creative project is underway, it fills every spare thought and moment. Until the Eureka moment. I love when the notes fall in place. The most important note in composing is the one that is heard without having been played. Perfect harmony. You will find it in bridge interludes, usually. It’s nothing, but it can be found. Bbm with Gm. Gm with Fm. BM with Cm. Desperado…F#m add D (second position).

    Slay the Dragon

  9. As I understand it, the Everly Brothers sang harmony in diatonic thirds. Does that mean that if one was singing a C note, the other would be singing an E? Do those notes together create a partial minor chord?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Free Resources

Recent Posts

Follow Us

About Us

Jazz Piano School is dedicated to providing structured and organized jazz piano education to any and all students who are interested.

Sign up for our Free Jazz Piano Education

We release a new, free podcast lesson every Wednesday, a new Lick of The Week, every Monday, and new blog posts through out the month. We’re dedicated to helping as many interested jazz piano enthusiasts as possible with as much free education as we can produce. :)

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!