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Building Chords from a Major Scale

  • 3 min read

Understanding how chords are derived from a major scale is a fundamental aspect of music theory. It enables musicians to navigate their instruments with more confidence, compose music, and improvise with a sense of direction. In this article, we will explore how chords are built from a major scale and the importance of this concept in music.

The Major Scale 

C major scale

Before delving into chords, it's important to understand the foundation of Western music: the major scale. A major scale is a sequence of seven different pitches arranged in a specific pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H): W-W-H-W-W-W-H. If we use the C major scale as an example, the notes are: C (1), D (2), E (3), F (4), G (5), A (6), B (7), and back to C.

Building Chords

A chord, at its most basic, is a group of three or more pitches sounded together. When we build chords from a major scale, we primarily deal with triads and seventh chords.

Triads are three-note chords built from a root (1st), a third (3rd), and a fifth (5th). Seventh chords add a seventh (7th) to the mix. We construct these chords by stacking thirds on each degree of the major scale. In other words, we select a note from the scale, skip the next note, take the following one, skip another note, and take the one after that. Basically, you build chords by selecting every other note in a scale. For example, in the C major scale, the triad starting on C would be C-E-G.

When we apply this process to each note in the C major scale, we get the following triads:

  1. C Major: C-E-G
  2. D minor: D-F-A
  3. E minor: E-G-B
  4. F Major: F-A-C
  5. G Major: G-B-D
  6. A minor: A-C-E
  7. B diminished: B-D-F

By adding another third to each triad, we can build the seventh chords:

  1. C Major 7: C-E-G-B
  2. D minor 7: D-F-A-C
  3. E minor 7: E-G-B-D
  4. F Major 7: F-A-C-E
  5. G Dominant 7: G-B-D-F
  6. A minor 7: A-C-E-G
  7. B minor 7b5 (half-diminished): B-D-F-A

These are the basic chords you get from each degree of a C major scale.

Harmony and Chord Progressions

Once you understand how chords are built from a major scale, you can start to understand the underlying harmonic structure of many pieces of music. Chord progressions, which are sequences of chords, are often built with chords derived from the same scale. For example, a common progression is the I-IV-V progression, which in the key of C would be C Major (I), F Major (IV), and G Major (V).


Understanding how chords are built from a major scale is an invaluable tool for musicians. This knowledge gives insight into how songs are structured and provides a roadmap for improvisation and composition. So whether you are a seasoned musician or a beginner just starting your musical journey, taking the time to understand and memorize this information will be greatly beneficial. 

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