Playing Changes Part 4: Primary Chords

The Playing Changes series presents and expands on concepts from my book, The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony published by CMA Press.

Index of Playing Changes articles

Primary Chords

Countless folk, gospel, classical, blues, and country songs are based on primary chords: I, IV, and V.

“Amazing Grace” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” are two familiar songs harmonized with primary chords:


Here are simple piano voicings for the I, IV, and V7 chords:


  • Sing “Amazing Grace” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” and play the corresponding chords on piano. Listen to the character of each chord: I is the “home” chord and IV and V are “away” chords.
  • Play the treble clef voicings with your left hand and play the melody an octave above with your right hand.
  • Vary the texture of the accompaniment by arpeggiating the chords.
  • Play the piano voicings and improvise a simple melody with your voice.
  • Transpose the songs and voicings into a few other keys.
  • Sing the following melodies and use your ears (and trial and error) to find primary chords that fit:

“Auld Lang Sine” Traditional (melody begins on scale degree five)
“Hey Jude” (verse) by The Beatles, (melody begins on scale degree five)
“Oh! Susanna” by Stephen Foster (melody begins on scale degree one)
“On Top of Old Smokey” Traditional (melody begins on scale degree one)
“This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie (melody begins on scale degree one)

  • Next, compose a melody in C major and harmonize it with primary chords.

I Harmonizes scale degrees one, three, and five.
IV Harmonizes scale degrees one, four, and six.
V7 Harmonizes scale degrees two, four, five, and seven.

  • Listen to folk, pop, classical, and country music and try to identify I, IV, and V chords by ear.
  • Improvise along with I, IV, V harmonies. Play within the key and connect chord tones through voice leading.

Next in the series is “Playing Changes Part 5: More Diatonic Harmony.”

Index of Playing Changes Articles

Purchase The Living Jazz Tradition from Amazon

– ST

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