Primary Chords in Major and Minor Keys (I IV V Chords)

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Primary chords, are the first type of chords that you should learn as a beginner. In every key, there are 3 chords which are the most important chords. You absolutely have to know these chords. In fact, many songs can be played with just these 3 important chords. So this is where you should start. Start with primary and after you have learned them, only then should you move to other chords. You can start with primary chords in the easier keys like C major, F major, G major, and their relative minor keys, A minor, D minor and E minor.

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Primary chords are also called I IV V chords (say “one four five”) because of the fact that they are based on the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of a major or minor scale.

In this piano lesson, we will take a look at major and minor I IV V chords in all keys: 12 major and 12 minor keys.

Primary Chords in a Major Key

How are these chords formed? Let’s start with major keys. As long as we know the major scale, it’s easy to know what the I IV V chords are. A major scale has 7 notes, simply pick notes, 1, 4 and 5 to form your chords. Each chord has to be a major chord.

Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes of the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A and B. The first note is C, the fourth note is F and the fifth note is G. C major, F major and G major are therefore your primary or I IV V chords. It’s that simple.

Let’s try another example. The notes of the F major scale are F, G, A, Bb, C, D and E. The I IV V chords are therefore F major, Bb major and C major.

You can do this with any key as long as you know the notes of the major scale. The major scale is easy to form. All you do is use the formula, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Also, a major chord is easy to form, all you do is start on a note, play the note that is 4 half steps higher, then the one that is 3 half steps higher.primary chords in a major key

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Primary Chords in a Minor Key

How about minor keys?

To form primary chords (I IV V chords) in a minor key, you need to work with the harmonic minor scale and not the natural minor scale. In other lessons on piano scales we took a look at the harmonic minor scale. We saw that the 7th note of the harmonic minor scale is raised by a half step. In other words, to form a harmonic minor scale, you take the notes of the natural minor scale and raise the 7th note by a half step. For instance, in the key of A minor, the notes of the A natural minor scale are A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The notes of the harmonic minor scale are A, B, C, D, E, F and G#. The 7th note, G has been raised by a half step and is now G#.

Why do you need to know the harmonic minor scale? It’s because one of the primary chords in a minor key, chord IV, is a major chord and that chord makes use of a note which is not part of the natural minor scale. It is part of the harmonic minor scale. In the key of A minor, that chord is E major whose notes are E, G# and B. G# is part of the harmonic minor scale.

The primary chords in a minor key are based on notes 1, 4 and 5 of the minor scale. In the key of A minor, these notes are A, D and E. Chord I is a minor chord, chord 4 is a minor chord and chord 5 is a major chord. The primary or I IV V chords are A minor, D minor and E major. You can also play E7.

Let’s try another minor key or scale. Let’s try D minor. The notes of the D harmonic minor scale are D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The three notes which will be the root notes of our primary chords are D, G and A. Since chord I is a minor chord, chord IV is a minor chord and chord V is a major chord, the chords are D minor, G minor and A major. You can also play A7.

The formula for a natural minor scale is whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step. As we’ve seen, for the harmonic minor scale, you simply raise the 7th note of the natural minor scale by a half step. To form a minor chord, you start on a particular note, then you skip 2 keys, then 3 keys.

As a beginner, focus on major keys like C, F and G and their relative minors, then move on to other keys like D, A and E. After you have mastered these, you can move to the other keys.

Primary chords in a minor key

Primary Chords in Minor Keys and their Notes

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Primary Chords in Every Major Key and the Notes of Each Chord

The chord names are in bold letters and the notes are in parentheses. Every chord is a major chord.

  • Key of C : (C-E-G), (F-A-C), (G-B-D)
  • Key of D: (D-F#-A), (G-B-D), (A-C#-E)
  • Key of E: (E-G#-B), (A-C#-E), (B-D#-F#)
  • Key of F: (F-A-C), Bb (Bb-D-F), (C-E-G)
  • Key of G: (G-B-D) (C-E-G), (D-F#-A)
  • Key of A: (A-C#-E), (D-F#-A), (E-G#-B)
  • Key of B: (B-D#-F#), (E-G#-B), F# (F#-A#-C#)
  • Key of C#: C# (C#-E#-G#), F# (F#-A#-C#), G# (G#-B#-D#)
  • Key of Db: Db (Db-F-Ab), Gb (Gb-Bb-Db), Ab (Ab-C-Eb)
  • Key of Eb: Eb (Eb-G-Bb), Ab (Ab-C-Eb), Bb (Bb-D-F)
  • Key of F#: F# (F#-A#-C#), (B-D#-F#), C# (C#-E#-G#)
  • Key of Gb: Gb (Gb-Bb-Db), Cb (Cb-Eb-Gb), Db (Db-F-Ab)
  • Key of Ab: Ab (Ab-C-Eb), Db (Db-F-Ab), Eb (Eb-G-Bb)
  • Key of Bb: Bb (Bb-D-F), Eb (Eb-G-Bb), (F-A-C)

Primary Chords in Each Minor Key and the Notes of Each Chord

The chord names are in bold letters and the notes are in parentheses. Chords I and IV are minor chords and chord V is a major chord.

  • Key of C Minor: Cm (C-Eb-G), Fm (F-Ab-C), (G-B-D)
  • Key of D Minor: Dm (D-F-A), Gm (G-Bb-D), (A-C#-E)
  • Key of E Minor: Em (E-G-B), Am (A-C-E), (B-D#-F#)
  • Key of F Minor: Fm (F-Ab-C), Bbm (Bb-Db-F), (C-E-G)
  • Key of G Minor: Gm (G-Bb-D), Cm (C-Eb-G), (D-F#-A)
  • Key of A Minor: Am (A-C-E), Dm (D-F-A), (E-G#-B)
  • Key of B Minor: Bm (B-D-F#), Em (E-G-B), F# (F#-A#-C#)
  • Key of C# Minor: C#m (C#-E-G#), F#m (F#-A-C#),G# (G#-B#-D#)
  • Key of Eb Minor: Ebm (Eb-Gb-Bb), Abm (Ab-Cb-Eb) –Bb (Bb-D-F)
  • Key of F# Minor: F#m (F#-A-C#), Bm (B-D-F#), C# (C#-E#-G#)
  • Key of G# Minor: G#m (G#-B-D#), C#m (C#-E-G#),D# (D#-G-A#)
  • Key of Ab Minor: Abm (Ab-Cb-Eb), Dbm (Db-Fb-Ab) – Eb(Eb-G-Bb)
  • Key of Bb Minor: Bbm (Bb-Db-F), Ebm (Eb-Gb-Bb), (F-A-C)

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Here are the major and harmonic minor scales in every key. You can use these as a guide to help you form your chords.

Major Scales 

Here are the major scales in all 12 keys listed in Circle of Fifths order.

  • C major scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
  • G major scale: G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G
  • D major scale: D – E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D
  • A major scale: A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A
  • E major scale: E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D# – E
  • B major scale: B – C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A# – B
  • F# major scale: F# – G# – A# – B – C# – D# – E# (=F) – F#
  • Gb major scale: Gb – Ab – Bb – Cb (=B) – Db – Eb – F – Gb
  • Db major scale: Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db
  • C# major scale: C# – D# – E# (=F) – F# – G# – A# – B# (=C) – C#
  • Ab major scale: Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F – G – Ab
  • Eb major scale: Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D – Eb
  • Bb major scale: Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb
  • F major scale: F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E – F

Harmonic Minor Scales

  • C harmonic minor scale: C – D – Eb – F – G – Ab – B – C
  • D harmonic minor scale: D – E – F – G – A – Bb – C# – D
  • E harmonic minor scale: E – F# – G – A – B – C – D# – E
  • F harmonic minor scale: F – G – Ab – Bb – C – Db – E – F
  • G harmonic minor scale: G – A – Bb – C – D – Eb – F# – G
  • A harmonic minor scale: A – B – C – D – E – F – G# – A
  • B harmonic minor scale: B – C# – D – E – F# – G – A# – B
  • C sharp harmonic minor scale: C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A – B# – C#
  • E flat harmonic minor scale: Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – Cb – D – Eb
  • F sharp harmonic minor scale: F# – G# – A – B – C# – D – E# – F#
  • A flat harmonic minor scale: Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – Eb – Fb – G – Ab
  • Bb harmonic minor scale: Bb – C – Db – Eb – F – Gb – A – Bb

Learn more about piano chords here.

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