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Diatonic Harmony

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Bass., Apr 4, 2006.

  1. Bass.


    Jan 23, 2006
    San Diego
    Hello. I am relatively new to this forum but had a question while reading a magazine and thought this would be a great place to ask it.
    The magazine refrenced to diatonic harmony, it actually got quite into it, but it did not get into how it could be applied. I understand the idea of the I, IV, and V chord being major and the II, III, and the VI being minor. But how would I go about using those, the notes that they encompass and so forth, in a song/jam/practice?

    It, the article, also touched on how to decipher which key the music was in based on diatonic's. And once again how could these be applied?

    Thank you,
  2. DickMcgilicutty


    Mar 9, 2006

    That question is a difficult one to answer because of all that it encompasses. Diatonic harmony is just any harmonic motion that is based on the construction of the major scale (which is to say it includes the modes and alterations of them (harmonic and melodic minor scale)). A large majority of Western art music (commonly referred to as classical), pop music from the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, and even other world musics are based on the diatonic system of harmony. In the most basic sense this means that they are built around a chord center (Maj I chord/min i chord) and move away from this chord center through progressions and modulations to create tension, and more often than not returning to this chord center to create a release. The best way to learn as much about diatonic harmony as possible is to take music theory classes or buy books on music theory.
  3. DickMcgilicutty


    Mar 9, 2006
    I realize I didn't really answer your question in my last post, but the basic point of it was to show you that this forum is too limited to really give you an insightful answer because of everything that is involved in music theory.
  4. mje


    Aug 1, 2002
    Southeast Michigan
    You might pick up a copy of Jerry Coker's classic little book, "Improvising Jazz". A great, simple explanation of jazz and jazz harmnony.

    Or check out Mark Sabatella's pages:


    A great- and free- explanation of jazz harmony.
  5. Bassist4Life


    Dec 17, 2004
    Buffalo, NY
    I love that little book! I was just reading through the Functional Harmony section today. I always pick up a little something new each time I read it.


    Your question is, "How would I go about using major and minor chords in a given key?"

    Most pop tunes only use a few chords. Have your teacher at school, or a musician friend pound out "Wild Thing" or "Louie Louie" on the piano for you. At the very least, you'll get to see how the I IV and V chords are used in a song.

    I'm not trying to be sarcastic. I'm not sure of your current level of understanding. I wanted to keep it simple and not swamp you with too much info. At least not yet. ;)

  6. ToR-Tu-Ra


    Oct 15, 2005
    Mexico City
    Seems to me you already have a grasp of diatonic harmony so I don't really understand the question :confused:
  7. Andy Allen

    Andy Allen "Working Bassist"

    Aug 31, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    +1 on that.

    I am presently reading my way through a sort of companion volume to that - "Hearin' the Changes."

    From the Aebersold site: "This is the definitive study of chord progressions of hundreds of carefully chosen tunes from the jazz musician’s repertoire, comparing them, linking them together by commonalities, and codifying harmonic traits that will clarify the reader’s understanding of how progressions "work"."

    It's a very interesting book - and now that I have a piano in the house I'm able to feel my way around the examples a little too. My only criticism is that it's not a 'little' book - it's 100+ pages of legal pad size - not easy to tuck in your pocket (unless you happen to be wearing oversize trousers :eek: :D ).
  8. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I'm with you - diatonic harmony is the easy stuff - it's just the chords in the key. I don't see what is being asked - you pick a key and each tone in the scale has an associated chord, with notes from within the key - so ...what's the question? :meh:
  9. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I don't agree that diatonic harmony is easy at all, but will admit that it's easy to get a very superficial understanding of diatonic harmony pretty quickly. The real trick to diatonic harmony in practice is understanding how, while you are playing within one large "parent tonality", each note within that "parent tonality" plays a different and changing role depending on which diatonic chord is sounding at that particular time.

    One really useful approach is to learn to hear the guide tone lines of any given progression first. "Guide tone" is a common term for the third and seventh of a chord; often, stringing these together will create a stepwise line that sounds very centered in the changes.

    For example, consider the guide tones of the following chords:

    Emi7 --> G and D
    Ami7 --> C and G
    Dmi7 --> F and C
    Cma7 --> E and B

    Stringing these together in stepwise fashion leads to the following guide tone lines for this simple progression.


    (line 1) D--> C--> C--> B
    (line 2) G--> G--> F--> E

    Understanding the intellecutal aspect of this concept is moderately useful, but learning to hear these lines as an underlying part of the harmony is an incredibly useful thing when you want to "center" your lines in the changes. Eventually, this type of hearing becomes second nature, and just becomes another implicit aspect of any set of changes. I find that when my students are able to sing both sets of guide tone lines for any given progression, they tend to play the changes in a more confident manner, as these lines serve as a kind of aural "safety net/point of departure".
  10. Noam Elron

    Noam Elron

    Apr 14, 2005
    Haifa, Israel
    Chris, how do you go about teaching this? What exercises do you use?

  11. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Noam - I use a process called "change mapping", which is kind of hard to explain; but in essence, it's about the various "gravities" of the tonal centers going on within the harmony of the tune, and thinking of the overall key as the center of gravity for the entire tune. Basically, if a tune is in C, you'd write a C scale on the staff for each measure of the entire tune, then add accidentals as the specific chords demand throughout. Then you would highlight the two main guide tone lines throughout like two streams throughout the chord scale relationships. The whole idea sounds kind of crazy in words, but in actual practice I find in an effective way to get away from the whole standard "root jumping" chord-scale approach, and an inroad toward more linear melodic hearing practice.
  12. ToR-Tu-Ra


    Oct 15, 2005
    Mexico City
    That's an interesting aproach, thanks Chris! I find this to be more helpful when trying to come up with a melody for a given progression. Instead of thinking of each chord separatedly and playing the scale for each one. Following those guide tones is an easier way to sound more musical. For example, playing thru a progression in C:

    You can play G as the fifth of CMaj7, the third of Emin7 or the seventh of Amin7.

    Its the same note but it plays different roles on each chord, thus giving a different feeling.

    Plus, I'm not really fast fingered so I prefer to play fewer notes. I find it more musical also. Or maybe I'm plain lazy :rollno:
  13. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I still don't know what question was asked and whether or not it has been answered....:meh: ?
  14. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I wasn't really saying that - just that it seemed the original poster was confused by the word "diatonic" - i.e. thinking that such a long word must mean something weird and wonderful - whereas I just think of it as meaning the ordinary, normal stuff of keys and chords that are the basis of simple music like folk music and other native music ....

    So the harder stuff is when you get thing's like Mahler's concept of Progressive Tonality" ...etc. etc.
  15. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    Folk and native music is simple.

    Mahler's big idea is not simple.

    Ergo, Mahler could not have been any kind of native.

    Ergo, Mahler was an alien.
  16. Andy Allen

    Andy Allen "Working Bassist"

    Aug 31, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    That's Damon's concept of Progressive Logicality...

  17. A lot has been said in response, but what the heck, I'll throw in my two cents.

    As has already been stated it's hard to really get into any of this on a forum like this, because it really covers so much.

    As far as the chords go, the way you use them doesn't necessarily depend on if they're major or minor. It depends more on what FUNCTION they play in the music. This can go very in depth, but there are 3 basic functions.

    Dominant Preparation

    Tonic is the I chord. It is usually where everything comes back to, like at the end of a piece of music.

    Dominant is the V chord. As far as basic diatonic harmony goes, this usually comes before the Tonic (I) chord.

    Dominant Preparation is just what it sounds like... it comes before the dominant... serves as a way of getting from I to V. DP chords can be ii, IV or vi.

    So, if you just take those chords and put them in the right places, it will sound very familiar. It's hard to describe it because there's so much more that goes to it (non-functional chords, apparent chords, appoggiaturas and suspensions...)

    So for now I'll go to the second question.

    Being able to tell where you are in a key with just a few notes can take a lot of ear training, or some people have a natural ear (I'm one of them. I don't have perfect pitch [thankfully] but very good relative pitch.) The main way of telling where tonic is (that's what key you're in, the first note in the scale) is by hearing a couple of differences in the scale.

    A major scale is made up of mostly whole steps, but there are two HALF STEPS in there, that sound different and can let you know where you are. These half-steps are between scale steps 3-4 and 7-8. I'm not sure how much of an understanding you have... but for example take C Major.

    C-D = whole step, cause there's C# inbetween them.

    but when you get to scale step 3-4, it's different

    E-F = half-step. There's no such thing as E#, because E# is F. Same thing with B-C. B# IS C.

    Please forgive me if this is hard to understand... I don't have much experience teaching/explaining theory. Plus, I'm only 18, my experience and knowledge are very limited. I do right now have pretty much a full understanding of diatonic harmony, but not much experience putting it to words.

    Hope I could help in even the smallest way!
  18. There seems to be a lot of discussion about diatonic harmony for no real reason... its just harmony; harmonies based upon the notes of scales (diatonic- of the scale). If you want to know about diatonic harmony, just do a bit of music theory- its basically the essence of western art music.
  19. fcleff


    Apr 22, 2005
    Austin, Texas

    Many folks may laugh at me but I have always found "Tonal Harmony" by Stephan Kostka and Dorothy Payne to be quite useful. They really lay out how to apply diatonic harmony to wester art music. Albeit through Bach, primarily, but IMHO that is a fine starting point.
  20. fcleff


    Apr 22, 2005
    Austin, Texas

    Please discuss. I am not familiar with this concept of Mahler's.

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