Guitar/The major cadence - The great triumvirate

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The first major cadence or "The great triumvirate"


Key of D major
in the circle of fifths


A little harmony theory


You have now learned three chords: D, A and G major. Believe it or not, you can accompany hundreds of songs with just these three chords.

Many songs are played with just three major chords. The order of the chords can vary quite a bit, but within a key it is always the same three chords that you find together. Other major chords are rare in the key of D major and are then considered an exception.

Typical chord progression (cadence in D major)


Play the chord progression D G A D in exactly this order! This series of chord is called a D major cadence. A cadence is something like a standard chord progression that leads back to the basic chord. The D major cadence is used both for descriptions in harmony theory and for pure exercises of chords in the key of D major. It is something like a formula that represents all songs in D major that are only accompanied by the three chords D, G and A.

D - G - A(7) - D
  • D major is the start. (Tonic)
  • G major connects the previous chord with the next. (Subdominant)
  • A(7) builds up tension (dominant) that wants to resolve itself again after ...
  • ... D major as the final chord. (Tonic)

Tonic = calm
Subdominant = forwarding
Dominant = tension

As soon as you get to know several songs, you will probably find out for yourself which major chords usually appear together and which major chords are rarely or almost never found together. In the circle of fifths, which you will get to know better sooner or later, the major chords that are often found together are arranged nicely next to each other as neighbors, as shown in the diagram above. [1]

A few more minor chords are added later, but even then the triumvirate of the major cadence is usually retained.

Of course there are a few exceptions, but most of the songs we know in Western Europe stick to this simple division into a group of three.

The three functions of major chords


The calm tonic


is the root chord and also indicates the key of the entire piece of music. Unfortunately, you can't rely on it 100%, but a piece usually begins and ends with this basic chord.

As a mnemonic, remember: "The tonica indicates the ton."; and that a song should at least end with the tonic.

Of the three chords you have learned so far, the tonic is always D major. So always start and end your dry runs with D major.

The basic chord is almost always a kind of calming influence in the piece of music. How you change in between doesn't really matter. The main thing is that you come back to the basic chord D major.

D is the first note in the D major scale, and therefore the D major chord is said to be on the first degree of the scale, just like the note D.

The tension-filled dominant


It is typical for a cadence (formulaic chord sequence) that one of the three chords is responsible for the tension. Here in the D major key it is the A major chord.

If you pay attention when singing, you will notice that the melody progression in the dominant is often a little more tension-filled than in the other two chords. This might help you if you want to learn your songs by heart. The tension of the dominant can be increased even further if it is played as a 7th chord. So as an A7.

The A7 is actually quite easy to play (you just need to raise your middle finger), but until we learn and use the A7, remember the following:

Numbers in chords can usually be left out without any problems!

So if an A7 appears in your songbook, don't spend a long time looking around in a fingering chart, just play an A major. Whether the piece would sound better with A7 is another matter. For now, it's enough to just leave out the numbers (this will help you find a few more songs in your songbook straight away). But don't worry, you'll get to know all of the 7th chords. They'll just be pushed back a little.

A dominant or a dominant seventh chord (7th chord) triggers a tense auditory impression that we're used to resolving back to the base chord, i.e. the tonic.

A is the fifth note in the D major scale (D E F# G A), and therefore the A major chord is said to be on the fifth degree of the D major scale, just like the note A.

The forward subdominant


G major is the third in our small chord sequence. As a subdominant, it connects the calm basic chord (tonic) with the tension-filled dominant. It doesn't matter whether G major forwards from D major to A major, or whether G forwards from A back to D. The subdominant (G major) is not as tension-filled as the dominant (A major), but also not quite as calm as the tonic (D major). It doesn't normally want to be resolved, but only forwarded. This chord has something floating and driving about it.

G is the fourth note in the D major scale (D E F# G), and so it is said that the G major chord, like the note G, is on the fourth degree of the D major scale.

Chord degrees


The three chords D, A and G belong to the D major scale.

Notes of the D major scale
Chords of the D major scale

Chord levels are usually indicated with Roman numerals.


Vorzeichen D-Dur

Don't worry, you don't have to be able to read music yet. You just need to know how the chord degrees come about. However, even a minimal knowledge of music is helpful. If you have a songbook with music notes in front of you, such as, you can look for all the songs whose musical notation has two sharps. Then look at the chords above the notes. If there is an E minor (Em or e) then you will have to wait two more lessons. If there is a B minor (Hm, h in English songs also Bm or b) or an F sharp minor (F#m, f#) then the songs are not for you yet. We'll save the chords for the Rock diploma. But many songs are played with the three major chords D, G and A (A7). If you know the lyrics and the melody, you can try to play these. Paying attention only to the two ## (or one # in the next lesson) makes it easier to find songs that you may already be able to play.

Audio examples


The vocabulary itself often puts even experienced guitarists off. And yet this vocabulary is not much more difficult than the math vocabulary "addition, subtraction, division, multiplication" or the grammar vocabulary "noun, verb, adjective". There is actually not that much to it. You just have to make sure that the vocabulary is not dry, but that you also associate an auditory impression with the vocabulary. And to do this, you absolutely have to play the following explanatory examples. Then you will simply hear what is being talked about here.

The subdominant leads on


If the chord G major (subdominant) is heard in the key of D major, you can easily go back to the basic chord D major (tonic). The subdominant doesn't really care whether it goes back or on to A major. Perhaps you can remember as a mnemonic that the subdominant is "subordinate" to the other two chords. "Sub" means "below" - in this case the "lower dominant", because it is one step below the dominant.

D=1, E=2, F#=3, G=4, A=5...

Or also because it comes before and not after the tonic in the circle of fifths (which you will learn more about later). G D A ... (goes down and ends...)


You don't need to be able to read tablature yet. That comes a little later when you're plucking. This is nothing other than the chord sequence D major, G major and D major again, whereby each chord is accompanied for exactly one bar by the 4/4-pattern . It therefore corresponds exactly to the following beat pattern.


But if you're already interested in how to read a tablature, then take another look at the chapter Reading diagrams, tablatures and notes in the introduction. It's described there.

The two chords could also be played one after the other for a while...


The dominant pushes towards the tonic


We have already seen enough songs in the first lesson that are accompanied exclusively by the tonic D and the dominant A.

As soon as A major appears as the dominant, you get the impression that there has to be an end (or at least a stopover). Perhaps you can remember as a mnemonic that the dominant dominates the action. The dominant says: "Now it's over!"

D - G - D - G - A - D


As soon as A major (the dominant) sounds, you expect the end. It doesn't matter whether there is a G major in between. G major (the subdominant) can delay this end a little, but since you have heard the dominant A major before, you definitely want to go back to the basic chord.

D - G - D - G - A - G - D


You're finally happy to be back in D major.

The dominant as a stopover


It often happens that a verse ends with the tension-filled dominant (A major).

The end is withheld, although we expect it.

The section ends, but you have the impression that it has to continue somehow.

Such an incomplete part then sounds comparatively like a "yes, but" -

D - G - D - G - A - A (incomplete)
D - G - D - G - A - D (end)

The next verse, the next verse or the chorus is already prepared with the dominant as an incomplete end. The resolution of the dominant (A major) therefore occurs with the first bar (tonic D major) of the next verse.

The actual end then comes a little later. Either in the next verse or, if you're unlucky, the actual final chord comes right at the end of the song.


The cadence as a learning aid


Many verses and verses of a song are divided into manageable sections of meaning by the tonic-subdominant-dominant division. Even if you don't hear it right from the start, it is advisable to pay attention to these "functions" of the chords. The melody becomes more suspenseful: aha, a dominant is coming. The melody progression is continuous, floating: aha, the subdominant. We have arrived at a starting or landing point in the melody (and take a short break): aha, the tonic.


  • Try to pay attention to where the basic chord makes such a proper stop.
  • Listen to whether the melody in A major is a little more tense than in the other chords.
  • Can you hear a final turn A-D?
  • Does the melody in G major actually sound a little softer than in A major?

You often make mistakes, especially at the beginning, and that's completely normal. But with the simple songs with 3 chords, there are actually only 2 ways to proceed. You just try out one chord, and if it doesn't fit, you just use the other one.

You'll soon notice that you're making fewer and fewer mistakes. And after more or less time, you'll just hear what's coming (at least with the simple songs with 3 chords).

Even if it doesn't always work right away, it's still amazing that guitar students aged 10 to 13 were often able to do it after the fourth or fifth lesson. They could hear what kind of chord had to follow in simple songs. Admittedly, the hit rate was more like 80% to 90%. But with a 50/50 chance, that's still a good result! The students even outperform some guitar players with several years of playing experience who have never heard of the "functions" of chords. You just have to know what to look out for.

Or as my teacher used to say: You only see (or hear) what you know.

Chord changes from G to D
Campfire Diploma  
Western Strumming Pattern
The major cadence - The great triumvirate
  1. The circles here in the circle of fifths each correspond to a note. A long-term goal will be to be able to play a major, a minor and a 7th chord for each note in the circle of fifths.
    A medium-term goal (campfire and folk diploma) is to be able to play either a major chord or at least a major 7th chord for each note, as long as no barre chords are necessary. Since notes with accidentals almost always result in barre chords, these must be learned at a later point in time (from the rock diploma onwards). To make the medium-term goal easier to see, the "barre chords" have been crossed out for now.
    There are only three minor chords that can be played over five or six strings without barre, and are therefore dealt with quickly.