Guitar Keys

The Most Important Chords In Any Key

The Most Important Chords in a Key

It’s easy to become lost within the unfathomable amount of options music theory offers us. If you don’t have some kind of direction to go in you may end up just kind of stabbing around in the dark hoping to piece together something cohesive.

This is where some general knowledge of keys, commonly used chords and progressions comes into play. After all, there’s a good reason why so many pop songs draw similar chord progressions, it’s because they work and are effective.

A Quick Summary Of The Most Important Chords In Any Key

The most important chords in a major key are: the I, IV, and V. In C major, that would be C, F, and G. In a minor key, the three most important are the i, iv, and V. In A minor, these chords are Am, Dm, and E.

Let’s take a closer look.

The I chord

The I Chord, otherwise known as the Tonic Chord

Otherwise known as the tonic. It’s the very first note of whatever key you’re playing in. It’s your ‘tonal center’, your ‘home base’, and the most stable and reliable chord available.

You’ll very commonly both start and end with this chord.

The V chord

The V chord or Dominant Chord

Otherwise known as the Dominant chord. This is your second most important chord. The dominant chord likes to resolve to the tonic, and the majority of chord progressions lean heavily into this chord.

The IV chord

The IV Chord or Subdominant Chord

Also known as the Subdominant. The IV chord allows you to get some distance from the tonic and build up tension before returning to the Dominant or Tonic.

Those are your ‘big three’. With just those three chords alone you can play quite literally thousands of songs including iconic classics like Amazing Grace and Silent Night.

However, if you wish to add just 2 more chords, your musical palette can be expanded exponentially.

The ii chord
Also called the Supertonic commonly follows the IV chord. Unlike the first 3 chords we mentioned which were all major, this is our first minor chord.

The vi chord
Also called the Submediant. Another minor chord that is commonly used to lead from the tonic to a strong pre-dominant chord such as the ii or IV

You can carry an entire career as a songwriter with just those 3-5 chords. Study them well and you’ll soon start noticing them crop up time and time again in the music you hear on the radio and television.

Digging a little deeper

Of course, you can simply Google ‘chords in X key’, find your I, IV, and V, and start having fun. But there’s great power to be had from gaining a deeper understanding of how these chords are constructed and how they can be used within different keys, scales, and modes.

So in this article, we’ll give you some good foundational knowledge on how to build these chords, how to find them with any key, and finally how to actually go about making some chord progressions with them!

The basics of chord construction (in a Major scale)

Finding yourself confused when you read something like an ‘I, IV, V’ progression

Let’s break down what this actually means and how you can go about finding these chords yourself.

We’re going to use the example of C major here as there are no sharps or flats, allowing you to focus more on building the chords. But, of course, this concept is easily transferred to any key you wish.

So if you didn’t already know, our notes of the C major scale are as follows:

CDEFGAB, easy!

When we use a plain roman numeral with no additional cymbals like a ‘7’ to describe a chord we are referring to a triad, which is a chord with 3 notes in it.

To find the 3 notes that make up a triad we just take any root note. So for this example, we’re using C or the 1st note of the scale. We then skip a note, which in this case is D, and play the next note which is E. We then do that one more time to get our 3rd note, so we skip the F and then play G.

Play one, Skip One

This leaves us with our C major triad using the notes C, E, and G, and we can also refer to this as our root chord, the I chord, or the tonic – they all mean the same thing.

We can apply this same formula of ‘play one, skip one, play one, skip one, play one’ to any note of the scale to find that triad.

So let’s now take the V chord, to find that we find the 5th note of the scale account across, so c1 d2 e3 f4 G5, so our fifth note is G, and simply apply this formula.
Play the G, skip the A, play the B, skip the C and play the D. This gives us G, B, and D, otherwise known as the V chord, or the Dominant chord.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet to make all the chords in C major:

Chord No.ChordNotes in Triad
ICmajC – E – G
iiDminD – F – A
iiiEminE – G – B
IVFmajF – A – C
VGmajG – B – D
viAminA – C – E
vii°BdimB – D – F

“Why are some chords major, minor or diminished?”
This topic is a little too deep to head into in this article. But the short answer is that the intervals (or difference in pitch between two sounds) are different. Depending on what intervals make up the notes of the chord will decide its ‘quality’, such as major, minor, diminished augmented, etc.

The main thing you should notice here is that the three most important chords we talked about, the I, IV, and V are all major chords, and the second most important ones, the ii and vi are both minor.

How does this apply to a minor scale?

Good news, these ‘important’ chords are the same for the minor scale too! What changes are the ‘qualities’ of the chords.

When we took a major scale our I, IV, and V chords were major while the ii and vi were minor. But when we play in a minor scale those I, IV, and V chords are all minor chords, with our ii being a diminished chord, and the vi is a major chord.

We spend a lot of time in minor keys (particularly on guitar) so let’s go through this same process using A minor as once again, it has no sharps or flats in it making the scale A B C D E F G.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet to make all the chords in A minor:

Chord No.ChordNotes in Triad
iAminA – C – E
ii°BdimB – D – F
IIICmajC – E – G
ivDminD – F – A
vEminE – G – B
VIFmajF – A – C
VIIGmajG – B – D

And once again just to stress this can be applied to any key you wish, we are just using A minor and C major here as they are the simplest keys to work with due to having no flats or sharps.

Scale Degrees and their Characteristics

Ok so at this stage we can find those super important I, IV, and V chords. This is all well and good, but we also need to talk a bit about their role in the progression, what they offer, and why it feels so good to use them.

We have a system within music theory that helps with this which we refer to as ‘Scale Degrees’.

Essentially, we associate a name with each of the 7 potential chords within the scale. These are independent of the scales key, so whether you’re in the key of C, D, F sharp, whatever, these scale degrees are the same.

They are also the same whether you are in a major or minor key too, so the tonic is always the I chord. The only exception to this is the VIIth scale degree which we call the ‘Subtonic’ if we are in minor, or the ‘Leading note’ if we are in a major scale.

So with that knowledge, here are the 7 scale degrees that exist within a major or minor scale in any key as well as a brief description of each of their characteristics:

I Tonic
The leader of the scale, everything revolves around this guy. It’s usually the place you’ll both start and end a progression. Offers a strong sense of resolution and feeling like ‘home’ when returned to.

II Supertonic
The next chord up from the Tonic is used to create tension and unease. Feels incomplete if left on this chord and calls out to be resolved to a more dominant chord.

III Mediant
Often used to reinforce the characteristics of the scale it’s being used in. If you’re writing a happy melody in the major scale this will project that, but on the other hand, if you are writing a sad minor melody, it will also stress that tonality.

IV Subdominant
Your third strongest note, while not as powerful as the Dominant (hence the name) can make a good alternative and variation and help to add intrigue to your progression.

V Dominant
The second strongest note outside of the tonic is going to help you write powerful melodies with a strong sense of purpose and resolution. Will be an essential part of your chordal arsenal.

VI Submediant
Falls into the ‘important but not as important as the I, IV, V’ category. Much like the mediant, it can help to reinforce the feel of the scale you are playing over and can often be used as a precursor to the dominant.

VII Subtonic/Leading Note
This is the only scale degree that changes whether you are playing a major or minor scale.

It can help make a sense of uneasiness or tension that calls to be resolved or ‘lead’ back to the tonic.

So as you can see, just knowing the chords is only half the battle. Your ability to utilize the important chords effectively comes from their scale degrees and what they can offer your progression. Study this list well and you’ll be able to effectively use these important chords.

examples of progressions that use these chords

So at this point, you understand that the I, IV, and V are your big daddy chords, with the ii and vi being great ways to vary things up a bit.

You also know how to construct them in any given key, and how they work in both a major and minor context.

That’s essentially everything you need to know! But before you go off and start playing with them yourself, let’s take a look at a few examples of popular songs that use ONLY these chords to give you some inspiration and direction you can take away and use in your music.

Great songs that use only the I, IV, and V chords:

Bad Moon Rising by Credence Clearwater Revival:
Progression: I, V, IV, I

Hound Dog by Elvis Presley:
Progression: I, IV, I, V

All Apologies by Nirvana:
Progression: I, IV V

American Idiot by Green Day:
Progession: V, I, IV, I, V, IV

Common People by Pulp:
Progression: I, V, I, V, IV

Of course, there are quite literally thousands of songs across all keys that will use some combination of these chords in both major and minor contexts.
And once you introduce the ii and VI to the mix, the possibilities are endless!

You can also utilize a website such as which contains a vast library of popular songs which you can analyze based on their chord progressions.

This can serve as a great resource to study how using these chords in a particular order can present a particular kind of feel.

Final Thoughts

There is a very good reason that such a staggering amount of songs will lean into these 3 ‘strong’ chords so heavily, and that’s because they just work and are monstrously effective.

However, they are just tools to help present the mood that the songwriter was looking for at that time. You shouldn’t come away from this feeling limited or tied down to these chords in any way. As with any area surrounding music, there are no rules and you are under no obligation to use these chords, nor feel you need to actively avoid them because they are common.

It’s all information that you can assimilate into your ‘musical boiling pot’ to use as you see fit.

One area I find these chords most helpful is to give me a running start when composing music. Often that ‘blank page’ effect can set in where you can’t even seem to get a song started, pulling on such effective chords to give you something to start with can be one of the best ways to jumpstart the songwriting process. Then you can deviate from these as you see fit.

We hope you have found the information shared today informative and next time you need a little help with your chord progressions you can head to these important chords to give you a head start.

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