A-1

C0

C1

C2

C3

C4

C5

C6

C7

Chords

Don't get it twisted.

So many chords, so little time.

The idea of the ‘chord’ is one of the most fundamental concepts in music theory, upon which we base so many other more complex ideas. If you can understand and internalize the concepts behind chords and how they work, then you will have a much easier time finding your way through them as you compose. The concept of a ‘chord’ has turned out to be a very useful abstraction for the human mind, as it enables us to group notes together and learn these groups as single units of information. Suppose I wanted to explain a ‘chord’ to someone else, but the concept does not exist. I would have to tell them to play certain notes in succession on a keyboard. This would not be ideal, as it would be cumbersome, potentially confusing, and certainly prone to error. By abstracting particular groups of notes into ‘chords’ we give ourselves the ability to not only understand, but to master, a wide variety of harmonies, which we can utilize in our compositions to create music that is rich and varied in tone and impact.

Definition

The word ‘chord’ is derived from the French word ‘accord’, which translates into ‘agreement’. The idea is that if two or more notes are in agreement, they are said to be in ‘accord’, so they are a ‘chord’. Chords are also what we could describe as an ‘abstraction’, as mentioned previously. They are not a thing that exists in the material world, but rather an idea that only exists in the mind. The idea is that when two or more notes are played together they create harmony, and we can then analyze and understand particular pairings of notes that exhibit certain relationships between them that are consistent as ‘chords’. We can then internalize these relationships and utilize them in a more efficient manner when composing and/or playing music. In this way chords are immeasurably useful and aid us in our understanding and manipulation of notes in a myriad of ways.

The Basics

Let’s figure out how these chord things work. Here is a group of notes on a keyboard:

C

E

G

The notes are C, E, and G, from left to right. We can also think of these notes from bottom to top, in terms of pitch. This means that the left most note will be the lowest note in terms of pitch, while the rightmost note will be the highest note in terms of pitch. If we play these notes on a keyboard then we will hear that they have a nice, pleasant sound. But they are still just a group of notes, and we have not defined what this group of notes is. The way chords work is we take a look at a group of notes then we look at the intervals between the bottom note and every other note in the group of notes. Let’s focus on the first two notes, C and E.

C

E

The relationship between these two notes is defined by the concept of intervals. In this case, the interval between C and E is called a Major 3rd. We can illustrate this through the use of color, in which the ending note of the interval is altered to reflect it’s quality.

C

E

Now let’s consider the relationship between the notes C and G:

C

G

The interval between C and G is a Perfect 5th, and when we combine this interval with our major 3rd from earlier, we get a clear picture of the intervals that combine to create this chord. We call this particular chord a Major Triad.

1

C

3

E

5

G

Tertiary Harmony

Tertiary harmony is harmony that is built using the interval of a 3rd. This means that every note that we add to a harmony will be a 3rd away from the previous note. This 3rd could be Major, or it could be Minor. In some instances we will replace the 3rd with either a 2nd or 4th, which is the case with suspended chords, but most of the time the intervals used to construct a chord using tertiary harmony will be either a Minor 3rd or Major 3rd.

Diatonic Chords

What we will now do is learn how to build tertiary chords from the simplest combination to ever more complex and nuanced harmonies. But we are going to initially limit our scope to chords that are found inside the Minor and Major scales only. This will help us focus our energy on the chords that will most likely give us the best return on our investment and pay dividends for years to come. Following our exploration of diatonic chords we will then shift our focus to more exotic and compelling chords, chords that are sourced from outside our original diatonic scope, which are referred to as chromatic chords, or simply ‘borrowed’ chords, if we are composing in a particular scale when we decide to use the chromatic chord.

Diads (3rd Chords)

A ‘Diad’ is a chord that consists of two notes. It is also spelled ‘Dyad’, and the two are interchangeable. I personally prefer to use the spelling ‘Diad’ as it is logically consistent with other uses of the numeral prefix for the number Two. Other examples include ‘Triad’, ‘Diatonic’, etc. But again, they are completely interchangeable, and it really does not matter which one you choose to use, so try not to worry too much about it.

There is also a bit of an ongoing debate as to whether a ‘Diad’ should even be considered a chord at all, as it seems functionally equivalent to an interval. I think the distinction that needs to be made starts with what defines a chord in the first place. When we think of intervals we are thinking of the distance between two notes, which is a form of measurement. When we think of chords we are thinking of the quality of the sound that a group of notes makes when sounded together. One may certainly say that a Major 3rd is the same as a Major Diad, but the context has shifted from measurement to quality, so having a way to make that distinction can be useful. And just like the spelling thing, try not to worry too much about it, because it ultimately does not matter all that much in the end. The main reason to make the distinction is to give ourselves permission to use two note chords in our compositions without thinking of them as not interesting enough, which is certainly not the case.

Minor Diads

Minor Diads consist of a root note and another note, which is the interval of a Minor 3rd above the root note.

Diatonic Chords

C Minor Diad - Root Position

1 Select a Root Note

2 Select a Chord Quality

3 Select an Extension

4 Select a Position

C

Eb

C4

C5

B5

Major Diads

Like Minor Diads, a Major Diad consists of a root note and the interval of a Major 3rd. They are also considered mostly interchangeable with the interval of a Major 3rd.

Diatonic Chords

C Major Diad - Root Position

1 Select a Root Note

2 Select a Chord Quality

3 Select an Extension

4 Select a Position

C

E

C4

C5

B5

Chords can have as many notes as one desires. What makes it a chord is that it contains at least two notes. If a note is doubled, however, this doubled note does not necessarily count in the definition of the chord itself, but rather in the voicing of the chord.

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