Chord Families (I)

 

This tutorial introduces the idea of Chord Families. To get the most out of this, you need to be comfortable with the theory behind chord construction. Make sure that you've read the following tutorials first...

...and this should make a lot more sense. You may also find that the introduction to the major scale modes is useful background reading as well.

I should point out that chord families go a lot further than we are going to cover here - this tutorial limits itself to the types of chords that have been covered in tutorials on this website to date.

Let's start by looking at a scale (for the sake of simplicity, we'll stick to C major) harmonised in triads.

C D E F G A B
C Dm Em F G Am Bo
1,3,5 1,b3,5 1,b3,5 1,3,5 1,3,5 1,b3,5 1,b3,b5
C, E, G D, F, A E, G, B F, A, C G, B, D A, C, E B, D, F

We can extend these triads to 7th chords, by adding a 7th degree to each chord, thus:

C D E F G A B
C7 Dm7 Em7 F7 G7 Am7 BÝ7
1,3,5,7 1,b3,5,b7 1,b3,5,b7 1, 3, 5,7 1,3,5,b7 1,b3,5,b7 1,b3,b5,b7
C,E,G,B D,F,A,C E,G,B,D F,A,C,E G,B,D,F A,C,E,G B,D,F,A

Another variation is to swap the 3rd degree if each triad with a 4th degree, which gives us suspended 4th chords. In particular, notice what happens with the IV (F) chord:

C D E F G A B
Csus4 Dsus4 Esus4 Fsus#4 Gsus4 Asus4 Bsus4(b5)
1,4,5 1,4,5 1,4,5 1,#4,5 1,4,5 1,4,5 1,4,b5
C, F, G D, G, A E, A, B F, B, C G, C, D A, D, E B, E, F

Alternatively, the 3rd degree could be swapped for a 2nd degree, whcih gives us suspended 2nd chords. This time, pay particular attention to what happens with the iii (E) and vii (B) chords:

C D E F G A B
Csus2 Dsus2 Esus b2 Fsus2 Gsus2 Asus2 Bsus b2(b5)
1,2,5 1,2,5 1,b2,5 1,2,5 1,2,5 1,2,5 1,b2,b5
C, D, G D, E, A E, F, B F, G, C G, A, D A, B, E B, C, F

The reason for sometimes using b4 or b2 degrees in the last two sets of examples is to ensure that only notes which belong to the parent major scale are used. Remember that for harmony to be present, only notes from the key (i.e. the parent scale) can be used in the chords. If you're familiar with modes, then you should notice that the formulae used to describe these chords relate directly back to the modes which appear on the respective degrees of the parent major scale. I know that this last point will be of particular interest to at least one person reading this - Erik, this is why you can't simply view sus2 chords as inversions of the sus4 chord: the relation back to the mode is too strong).

Now let's explore this idea a bit further, and try substituting 4th degrees into the 7th chords on each degree...

C D E F G A B
C7 sus4 Dm7 sus4 E7 sus4 F7 sus #4 G7 sus4 Am7 sus4 BÝ7 sus4
1,4,5,7 1,4,5,b7 1,4,5,b7 1, 4, 5, 7 1,4,5, b77 1,4,5,b7 1,4,b5,b7
C,F,G,B D,G,A,C E,A,B,D F,B,C,E G,C,D,F A,D,E,G B,E,F,A

...and 2nd degrees...

C D E F G A B
C7 sus2 Dm7 sus2 Em7 sus b2 F7 sus 2 G7 sus2 Am7 sus2 BÝ7 sus b2
1,2,5,7 1,2,5,b7 1,b2,5,b7 1, 2, 5, 7 1,2,5, b7 1,2,5,b7 1,2,b5,b7
C,D,G,B D,E,A,C E,F,B,D F,G,C,E G,A,D,F A,B,E,G B,C,F,A

All of the chord types which are built on a single degree of the parent scale can be viewed as members of a chord family. Each degree of the major scale has a formal name (which I'll quote here now, but don't worry too much about this if the names are new to you) and this is used as the name of the chord family. To summarise all of the above examples, here is a table of the some of the members of the chord families within the major scale:

Degree I ii iii IV V vi vii
Chord Family Tonic Supertonic Mediant Subdominant Dominant Submediant Leading Tone
(or Subtonic)
Basic Triads Major
1-3-5
Minor
1-b3-5
Minor
1-b3-5
Major
1-3-5
Major
1-3-5
Minor
1-b3-5
Diminished
1-b3-b5
Swap 4 for 3 Sus4
1-4-5
Sus4
1-4-5
Sus4
1-4-5
Sus #4
1-#4-5
Sus4
1-4-5
Sus4
1-4-5
Sus4 (b5)
1-4-b5
Swap 2 for 3 Sus2
1-2-5
Sus2
1-2-5
Sus b2
1-b2-5
Sus2
1-2-5
Sus2
1-2-5
Sus2
1-2-5
Sus b2 (b5)
1-b2-b5
Add 7 Major 7
1-3-5-7
Minor 7
1-b3-5-b7
Minor 7
1-b3-5-b7
Major 7
1-3-5-7
Dominant 7
1-3-5-b7
Minor 7
1-b3-5-b7
Half-diminshed
1-b3-b5-b7
Add 7, swap 2 for 3 Major 7 sus 2
1-2-5-7
Minor 7 sus 2
1-2-5-b7
Minor 7 sus b2
1-b2-5-b7
Major 7 sus 2
1-2-5-7
Dominant 7 sus 2
1-2-5-b7
Minor 7 sus 2
1-2-5-b7
Half-diminished sus b2
1-b2-b5-b7
Add 7, swap 4 for 3 Major 7 sus 4
1-4-5-7
Minor 7 sus 4
1-4-5-b7
Minor 7 sus 4
1-4-5-7
Major 7 sus #4
1-#4-5-7
Dominant 7 sus 4
1-4-5-b7
Minor 7 sus 4
1-4-5-7
Half-diminished sus 4
1-4-b5-b7

Of course, you can apply these principles to any type of key (e.g. major, natural minor, harmonic minor, etc.). Also, as I said earlier, the family members shown here are just a sub-set of all the possibilities - there are extended chords as well (which will be covered by a tutorial on this website sometime in the future).

The important thing here is to understand that there are a number of possible chords that can be played in place of the basic triads. You can mix and match these to vary the sound of a piece, rather than just plodding along using chords all of the same type.

Another useful idea is if you have to play a long passage using the same chord, to vary the type (i.e. family member) that you so as to stop the thing getting boring. For example, consider the two examples shown below and see think about which one you'd rather listen to:

This tutorial has covered some important theory, so take your time and make sure that you're comfortable with the ideas discussed. As a practical exercise, experiment by using different chords from each family in your playing; as an exercise in theory, try harmonising different keys and scale types and working out which chords exist in each family.

Good luck!


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