Chords are an essential element in playing any contemporary music style. Hence, a firm understanding and grasp of modern harmony is very important in order to be able to play a jazz or pop piece convincingly.
However, it seems like there are so many chords and chord types that it begins to get very confusing, if not difficult to remember and perform instantaneously. This is where the study of chord families comes in. We use chord families to categorize chords by their quality and how they function. Essentially, there are three main chord qualities, i.e. major, minor, and dominant, which are grouped into nine different families.
Major chord families contain all the major types that function as chord I in a major key. This also includes its substitutes, i.e. IIImi and VImi. For example, in the key of C, these chords are C, Emi and Ami. And, of course, the chord types can be anything from C major triad, Cma7, Cma9, to Cma7(#11).
The first minor chord family consists of minor types that function as chord II in a major key. This includes its substitute, i.e. IV. For example, in the key of C, the two chords are Dmi and F. Again, all types are included here, e.g. Dmi7, Dmi11, etc.
The first dominant chord family comprises the primary dominant of the major key and its substitute VII. So in the key of C, this will be the G7 and Bdim. The chord types can range from G7, to G7sus4, to G13.
The second minor chord family is made up of chord I in a minor key area and its substitutes, i.e. chord III and VI (chord quality depending on which minor scale). Hence, in the key of C Natural Minor, these chords are Cmi7, Ebmaj7 and Abmaj7. Chord types include anything from Cmi(add9) to Cmi13.
The third minor chord family consists of the minor chord that functions as the IImi7b5 in a minor key. This also includes its substitute IV. So in the key of C Harmonic Minor, the chords are Dmi7b5 and Fmi7. Again, all the chord types are available.
The second dominant chord family is in the minor key area and includes the dominant seventh with a raised 11th. Hence, in the key of C Melodic Minor, this will be the F7#11 chord, or F9#11, or F13#11, and even F7b5.
The third dominant chord family covers the dominant seventh with an altered ninth, i.e. V7b9 or V7#9, in a minor key. In the C Harmonic Minor key, this will be either the G7b9 or G7#9 chord and their other bigger types.
The final dominant chord family comprises the dominant seventh with all the altered tension notes including the flatted 13th. In the key of C minor, this can be a G7b13, or G7(#11,b13), or G7(b9,b13), etc. As long as the dominant seventh chord contains an altered 13th note it falls into this family.
And, finally, the diminished chord family contains the diminished seventh chords. This is closely related to the third dominant chord family as its upper structure. For example, the upper structure starting on the 3rd note of G7b9 forms the Bdim7. However, this particular chord always functions as a passing chord, so it does not have the prominence of the G7b9 family.
You will find that the nine chord families above will cover all the available chords in music. This makes the study of chords much easier to understand and relate to. Don’t worry about the hundreds of chord types and qualities. So as long as you can break a chord down to its basic function, it will definitely fall into one of the category of chord families mentioned above.
I have been teaching piano for more than 20 years. Although classically-trained, I have always loved contemporary music. I grew up in a household filled with all types of music, from classical to jazz, Pavarotti to Sinatra, Goldberg to Grusin, pop, rock, etc. Currently residing in Singapore, I conduct private piano lessons in pop and jazz music to students of all ages, ranging from music enthusiasts, piano teachers to professional musicians. I also write a blog especially for pianists who find themselves rhythmically and harmonically challenged, and also on other interesting music and piano-related stuff.