Diatonic Harmony & Chords

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What is Diatonic Harmony?

Diatonic Harmony is the chords that use the notes of a particular major or minor scale. It is useful especially for pianists to know since it is easy to use these chords to, for example, add chords to a melody in major or minor. 

This lesson is not absolutely for piano beginners but for anyone interested in digging deeper into music theory and how to analyze chords.

Have fun!

Diatonic Harmony Explained

On each note in a major or minor scale, we can build three-note chords or triads by adding two additional notes (on top of the "scale-note") an interval of a third apart.

For example, see these chords built on the notes in a C major scale: 

Chords in a C major scaleDiatonic Harmony in a C major Scale

If we look at the first chord or triad, we can see an E and a G added on top of the scale note C. This creates a C major triad. The same is done with every note on the scale. In this way, we get chords that fit perfectly with the notes in a C major scale (in this case).

These chords are named Diatonic since they are using the notes through [Dia-] the scale.

Chord progressions that are using notes that doesn't belong to that scale are instead called Chromatic Harmony.

Even though there are 7 different triads on the scale, there are actually only three types of triads, both in the major and the minor scale;

  • Major Triad (major third + minor third)
  • Minor Triad (minor third + major third)
  • Diminished Triad (minor third + minor third)

These three types of triads each have a specific sound; major is often called happy, minor is called sad, and diminished is… well, mysterious :)

But, as you will see, the triads combined together in a chord sequence also create friction between them as they progress.

Some combinations will give a calm feeling, while others will create tension. This is what is really interesting about the study of diatonic harmony!

>>If you'd like to dig deeper into harmony, check out this resource.

Diatonic Harmony played on the piano

Diatonic Harmony in Major

Let’s look at where the triads are positioned in a major scale first. Here is a C major scale:

Steps on a major scale.

(The numbers under the notes simply show the scale degrees or the order of the music notes in the scale.)

From each of the notes in the C major scale, you can build triads, as you saw above.

For these triads, we use Roman numerals instead of regular numbers:

Roman numeral chords.

Analyzing these triads, we see that on the:

  • 1st, 4th and 5th step there are major triads (C, F, and G major)
  • on the 2nd, 3rd and 6th step, there are minor triads (Dm, Em, and Am)
  • And on the 7th step, there is a diminished triad (Bm dim.)

How are the triads used?

Diatonic harmony with its 7 different chords, is great to use to harmonize any melody in major or minor. But the most useful are the triads on the 1st, 4th, and 5th steps. They are also called:

  • Tonic (I)
  • Sub-Dominant (IV)
  • Dominant (V)

In a major scale, these main triads will be major, and in a minor scale, they will be minor.

What about the other 4 triads?

When adding chords to a melody, each of the 3 major triads may also be swapped (for a nice variation) with a parallel minor triad 3 semitones lower.

They are called:

  • Tonic-Parallel (Tp) or Sub-Mediant (vi),
  • Sub-Dominant Parallel (Sp) or Super-Tonic (ii), and
  • Dominant-Parallel (Dp) or Mediant (iii).

The last triad, the diminished triad on the 7th step, though it sounds weird, is great to stack together with (or even without) the Dominant.

This creates a Dominant 7th chord (four-note chord), and is like loading an already pushy chord with Red Bull! It becomes super-pushy and wants to go home to the Tonic, desperately!

How about other major scales?

The triads' functions will always stay in the exact same order in any other major scale, even if the name of the chord changes.

Diatonic Harmony in Minor

A natural minor scale will also have the three types of triads (major, minor, and diminished) as in the major scale, but in a different order.

Here is a natural C minor scale with triads:

Roman numerals in minor.

Now you can see that:

  • 1st, 4th and 5th step, there are minor triads (C, F, and G minor)
  • 3rd, 6th, and 7th step there are major triads (Eb, Ab, and Bb major)
  • And on the 2nd step, there is our diminished triad (Dm dim.)

The most important triads for harmonizing a melody in minor are the minor chords. They are still called the Tonic, Sub-Dominant, and Dominant. But since they are in minor, they are now written with lowercase roman numerals (i, iv, v).

Strengthening the Dominant:

Since the Dominant (v) in minor is weak and doesn’t pull back home to the Tonic as strongly as a major triad*, it is common to raise the third in the Dominant triad in minor.

This turns it into a major triad, and the scale has now become a Harmonic minor scale. (And yes, this is why it is called Harmonic minor, since the 7th step has been raised to accommodate for the Dominant (Harmony or Chord) to become major!)

*The reason for this is that the interval between the 7th and the 8th step (the root) in a natural minor scale is a whole step. This does not lead “home” so much as in a major scale, where the interval between the 7th and 8th step is a half step. That 7th step tone is also called the leading tone.

So, usually, you will see the Dominant chord in minor being major (V) instead, as well as having an added 7th for extra effect! (V7)

Functional Names or Diatonic Function

All these names are called Functional since they describe the diatonic function or role each chord has in the group. When you do a functional analysis of a composition, you try to find out exactly this.

Most people today use the Roman Numerals to describe these functions. But it is still important to know the “real” names to understand what they represent as a diatonic harmony.

Diatonic Functional Names and Roman Numerals in a ScaleDiatonic Functional Names and Roman Numerals in a Scale
  1. (I) Tonic= "Home base".
  2. (ii) Super Tonic = Is the parallel of the Subdominant (Sp).
  3. (iii) Mediant = Is the parallel of the Dominant (Dp).
  4. (IV) Subdominant = The Under [Sub-] Dominant.
  5. (V) Dominant = The Dominant is a strong chord leading back "Home" to the Tonic.
  6. (vi) Submediant = Is also the relative of the Tonic.
  7. (vii) Leading tone = The only diminished triad. Add the root of the Dominant (or not), and it turns into a strong chord (Dominant 7th) leading "home" to the Tonic.

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