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The 1-5-6-4 pop chord progression we all know and love sounds great, but what if you want something more? What if you want something moodier, or just a tad different to spice things up?

In this lesson, we’ll look at three different ways to add personality to your chord progressions: diatonic chords, passing diminished chords, and slash chords. If these are new words to you, don’t worry! I’ll explain the theory behind them all.


Step One: Use Diatonic Chords

Diatonic chords are chords built on every note (degree) of a scale. Let’s use G major as an example.

How to Find Diatonic Chords

G major has one sharp (F#) and its notes are:

If we build a triad (three-note-chord) on each note of the G major scale, we’ve found all of G major’s diatonic chords!

Building triads like these is easy. All you need to do is shift the same claw-shape across the keyboard. Just remember to sharp your Fs.

In standard notation, this is what those diatonic triads look like:

Diatonic chords of G major on the treble staff with note names and Roman numerals.

This method of finding diatonic chords can be used in any key. All you have to do is keep track of how many sharps and flats are in that key. If you need help with that, refer to the Circle of Fifths.

🤿 🎹 DIVE DEEPER: Why do we use Roman numerals to symbolize chords? Well, they help musicians transpose and visualize chords. Capitalized chords are major; lowercase chords are minor. Learn more about the number system here.

How to Mix and Match Diatonic Chords

Many pop and classical songs use some semblance of the 1-5-6-4 (I-V-vi-IV) progression. In G major, that would G > D > Em > C.

But what if we mixed this order up a bit? And try other diatonic chords outside of 1-5-6-4?

In the video, I try out these progressions:

I – iii – IV
G > Bm > C

A short variation on the 1-5-6-4 progression.

iii – vi – IV – V
Bm > Em > C > D

A moodier progression that starts on chord iii (daring!).

ii – I – V – IV
Bm > Em > D > C

Another progression that starts on a minor chord, but ends on a more hopeful, major note!

When you first start learning diatonic chords, you may have to count on your keyboard to know where the V or IV or vi chord is. That’s normal, and once you get used to the concept, you’ll become faster at spotting where these chords are. So be patient, and practice lots!

More Ways to Make Diatonic Chords Interesting

Remember, you can play these chords on any octave of the piano. You have 88 keys — use ’em! You can also play the notes of each chord in any order. In fact, once you get comfortable, we suggest you start learning inversions to spice things up even more!

And if you feel your ear being pulled to the Is and Vs, you’re on to something…

Piano keyboard diagram with G (I) and D (V) labelled. G has a house icon and D has a location pin with a dashed arrow pointing from the pin to the house.
V-I is a chord progression that feels like coming home. (Art credit: Twemoji)

The I chord always feels like home. And the V chord naturally pulls your ear back home to the I.

Last tip in this step: if you ever need to get out of a rut…

Don’t start on the one!

Lisa

Step Two: Surprise Your Listener With a Diminished Chord

You may have noticed that chord viio has a little “o.” This is the diminished symbol.

A diminished triad is a stack of minor thirds. Take the note you want to build upon, count up three half-steps, then count up another three half-steps.

Diminished chords sound crunchy, but they work well as a “passing” chord when moving from one chord to another. They pull your ear into the next chord and make things sound more interesting.

piano keyboard diagram with E and F, F# or Gb and G highlighted in red to show half-steps🔥🎹 HOT TIP! Two keys on the piano keyboard directly next to each other (black key to white key or white key to white key) are a half-step apart.

Step Three: Add Slash Chords

A slash chord is when you switch out your bass note for another note. So, if you’ve been matching the triad G-B-D on your right hand with a G on your left, try using a B instead.

Slash chords are useful for adding a little punch of color into your playing without totally changing the character of a chord. So, experiment with slash chords and hear where your ear takes you.

Slash chords explained! Also visit our lesson here.

Singing notes out loud will also help guide you.

If this lesson inspires you, go sit down at the piano and let your imagination run wild. If you run into a cool progression, share it with us in the YouTube comment section. We might play it!


Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others.

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