Diatonic Chords and Rock Piano

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When learning to play rock piano one of the most important skills you can acquire is learning to play all of your major triads (and later minor triads) in each of the 12 keys. The major and minor triads that can be found within a particular key are referred to as the “diatonic” triads. This is a term that you may have heard before but perhaps not fully understood. In this article, we’ll do three things:

  1. make sense of the term diatonic;
  2. I’ll show you a great exercise that you can use to practice this diatonic major/minor triad concept; and,
  3. I’ll show you a couple of the most popular rock tunes of all-time that are built almost entirely on these triad exercises.


This term often confuses students but is actually quite easy to understand once explained. Think of any major scale (for example, D major). The notes contained in that D major scale are diatonic to D major (ie, the notes D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#). The notes not contained in the scale (ie, the notes outside of the key, meaning D#, F, G#, A#, and C) are called chromatic. That’s it. Pretty simple, right?

D major

Diatonic Chords

Diatonic chords refer to the chords which can be created within a key by following a few easy steps.

Step #1: Number each note of the scale in order.

Step #2: Stack 3rds on each note of the scale to build triads (3-note chords).

Step #3: Identify and play (and memorize) these diatonic chords.


Steps 1-3

Notice anything different about Steps 2 and 3 above? We switched from using regular numbers to Roman numerals when we labeled the diatonic chords. In music theory, we talk about individual notes by using regular numbers and chords by using Roman numerals. We also talk about chords by their Roman numeral name. So, if someone asks you to play a IV chord in the key of D, you would play a G major chord. (We also use upper and lower-case for major and minor, respectively).

Diatonic Chord Exercise

Here’s a great exercise that gets you playing through many (not all) of the diatonic chords in a given key. In your left hand you will simply play a descending major scale one note at a time. In your right hand you will play various inversions of the diatonic chords. Check it out!

Diatonic Chord exercise

This exercise gets you playing through many of the diatonic chords AND the various inversions of those chords. If this chord progression sounds familiar it’s because it’s the same chord progression that Billy Joel uses in his hit song “Piano Man” (although he plays it in the key of C major). This progression is also very similar to the chord progression used for the intro of Elton John’s song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It’s an often-used progression in rock music and an excellent exercise for learning your diatonic chords and their inversions. In order to get the most bang for your buck, be sure to practice this progression in a few different keys and use your metronome!

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Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit

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  1. Thanks Willie, it is really helpful information using these patterns in Roman Numerials as well as concentrating on only 3 note triad cords at a time instead of just getting overwhelmed by trying to use other notes of the major scale all at once.

  2. Wow. I took lessons for 10 years and have never received a simple explanation of diatonic and chromatic. I’ve never understood it. I just read the notes as written. Thank you!

  3. Thanks Willie for that. I’d mention the following as well.

    1. Diatonic scale tone chords are not just the basis for rock but for all tonal music – classical, country, pop, etc. Another useful term basically the same as this is “Nashville notation”. A guitarist friend of mine once mentioned to me “feel the chords”. I had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually I did which is for each key, play the living daylights out of it and get to “feel the changes”. So on stage for instance, you’re not at that point thinking numbers 1-7 but feeling and hearing those 7 chords. Takes a lot of practice to get there to accomplish this.

    2. Every music textbook in the world always mentions the triads. As a pianist, you also want to double the root note for each chord, turning them into tetrads. So usually, thumb and pinky in right hand. Doing this for each inversion is also very useful.

    3. The fun part! In actuality, then for each of the seven chords, you can really assume you have 84 chords as a minimum by adding to the left hand, the 12 chromatic tones. So 7 chords times 12 = 84. This produces awesome sounds that everyone has heard in pop/rock. Also, do the same process only 12 against all the inversions too including the 4 note tetrads.

    In closing: These steps separate the beginners and propel you into the pro-style of pop piano playing, the way the pros do it!

  4. It’s good to learn that this exercise is used in popular songs too. More fun to practice.
    The comment on it being used in other genres is good to know & the “Nashville Notation has peaked my interest too.

  5. you have a knack of making concepts simple in your articles. thanks willie

  6. Hi willie.you are a star.i would like you to explain to us as well the reharmonization.thanks

  7. David Seagal: I don’t quite understand point #3. Could you elaborate?

  8. Kirk, I’d reread #3, pretty straightforward. The left hand in essence becomes the bass line. If you have a C maj chord C E G over (left hand) a C that’s simply a C Major. Now put that Right hand CEG over a B in the left hand, it becomes basically a C major seventh now because of the B but you could also notate it in the sheet music as also C/B. Simply created by putting a B in the left hand, not a C which is the root for C major. Thing is there’s 12 tones in music
    C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B. Therefore, you have 12 tones that you can substitute for simply a C in the left hand to support that right hand C major chord. So 99% of beginners only put the root, in this case C, in the left hand. To derive very cool sounds try those other 11 choices. Some result in really nice sounds, some are dissonant! But this is what real pro pop pianists do! Plus, even an inversion in the right hand for C like g c e still gives you the opportunity to put any of the 12 tones in the left hand! By the way, we’re only speaking of single tones in the left hand but it gets more interesting when more than one tone is used, like root plus fifth tone!

  9. Excellent practice exercise and chord change inversion,dexterity.
    Thanks Willie.