[THEORY] Primary and secondary chords

Andrei Moraru

Well-known member
Nov 11, 2019
Hello one and all and welcome to our latest installment in the realm of music theory. This time around, we will be talking about primary and secondary chords in a scale.
If you remember from the previous post, each and every note of a diatonic scale (major/minor scales) has a degree associated to it. The degrees are, in order:

the I degree is known as the tonic degree
the II degree is known as the supertonic degree
the III degree is known as the mediant degree
the IV degree is known as the subdominant degree
the V degree is known as the dominant degree
the VI degree is known as the submediant degree
the VII degree is known as the leading degree

Their names are not really important, apart from the I, IV and V degrees. The chords formed on these degrees are known as the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords. And these exact three chords are known as the primary chords of the scale. All the other chords are known as secondary chords.
The tonic, subdominant and dominant chords are known as primary chords because they can harmonize any and all notes of the scale. In other words, you can play and and all notes of the scale on top of them. They are also the chords which are used for the most basic of chord progressions, which is based on the principles of departure, anticipation and return, a topic for another day.
Note that the rules for primary and secondary chords are the same, regardless of the quality of the scale. For example, the primary chords of the C major scale are C, F and G and the primary chords of the Am scale are Am, Dm and Em. You will find that some musicians tend to use the E chord instead of the Em though, by making use of the harmonic minor scale (the one where the 7th degree is raised by a half-step, e.g. G becomes G# in the Am scale). It’s really up to you.
That about covers it for this post. A shorter one than others, but with a very important concept when it comes to building chord progressions. Until next time, feel free to visit any of the links below if you want more insight into music theory.
Previous posts:
Notes, pitches, semitones and octaves
Accidentals and enharmonic notes
Musical Intervals
Suspended Chords
7th chords and scale degrees
Want even more musical theory aspects? Then visit my website here

Jak Angelescu

Guitarist for Unknown. I Run This Joint
Staff member
Sep 24, 2019
Kansas City, MO
Guitar Experience (years)
Thank you SO much for taking the time to put together such an elegant, well laid-out post about this! I am writing this down in my little notebook 🙂