Part One

        The 6 Most Common Chords In Any Key

            Practice Guide - Issue 7 - Key of C Major

The first song that I ever tried to learn by ear was "Hey Jude" by The Beatles. I remember figuring out the melody fairly easily, but I have some very vivid, nightmarish thoughts of trying to figure out the chords. In fact, I never did get the chords.

Of course, if I had known the 6 most common chords in any key, I would have been able to get all of the chords for Hey Jude. Instead, I got frustrated and gave up -- at least for that moment.

In fact, knowing the 6 most common chords in any key will allow you to figure out over 80% of today's pop songs.

Coldplay to Jazz

I'm a big Coldplay fan. Coldplay songs range anywhere from 3 to 6 chords. I also like a lot of the old jazz standards, which can have a dozen or more chords per song...and many of them are anything but simple. 

However, knowing the 6 most common chords in any key would still allow me to figure out the basic chord progression to even the most complex jazz piece.

Basic Chord Progressions

I'll be talking a lot about chords in the next 4 issues of my Play Piano By Ear Practice Guide. In this issue I want to cover the 6 most common chords in the key of C major.

The key of C major has no sharps or flats, so it's the easiest key to start with. If you're really new to music theory, all you really have to know is that a scale and the key of a song are pretty much the same thing.

The C Major Scale & the I Chord

The C major scale is made up of 7 unique notes...8 if you count the C twice. Why would you do this? Because a scale starts and ends on the same note.

Here are the notes of the C major scale: C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

If you remember, I had you learn a few scales back in Part 6 of my practice guide. Knowing and understanding scales, even if it's on the most basic of levels, will allow you to quickly figure out the 6 most common chords in any key.

  • The 6 most common chords in the key of C major are the
    I, IV, V, ii, iii and vi chords.

The Roman Numerals represent chords built on a specific scale tone. For example, the I represents a one, and is the chord built on the first note of the scale, which is a C.

  • Therefore the I chord is a C major chord, which is obviously the most common chord in the key of C major.

For practical use, you'll use the letter name for the chord symbol instead of roman numerals, but the roman numerals will help for this specific lesson and are commonly used in any college-level theory class.

To figure out the notes of the C major chord, start with the C, which is referred to as the root note, and go every other note in the scale to figure out the other 2 notes of the chord, which are E and G.

  • We'll use this every-other-note method to figure out all of the chords once we determine all of the root notes.

The V Chord

The second most popular chord in the key of C major is the V chord, which is the roman numeral for 5. The 5th note of the C major scale is a G, which is the root note of the V chord -- or the G major chord.

Starting on a G and going every other note in the C major scale, the other 2 notes in the G major chord are the B and D.

The IV Chord

The third most popular chord in the key of C major is the IV chord, which is the roman numeral for 4. The 4th note of the C major scale is an F, which is the root note of the IV chord -- or the F major chord.

Starting on an F and going every other note in the C major scale, the other 2 notes in the F major chord are the A and C.

Hopefully you're still with me, because if you can understand what I'm teaching you in this issue of my practice guide, then the hardest part of playing by ear just got a whole lot easier.

  • If you're totally lost, don't worry, because understanding how we come up with these chords isn't nearly as important as knowing what the 6 most common chords are -- and by the time you finish this issue, you'll know the 6 most common chords in the key of C major.

Of course, if you are a little lost, it might be a good idea to take a break and then come back and reread Part 1 of Practice Guide 7 before continuing on to Part 2. 



Click Here To Go To Part 2 Of Practice Guide Issue 7