Chords (music)

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A chord is a combination of three or more notes. The most complementary groups of notes make up popular chords. Because of the broad nature of this definition, types of chords have been developed that "sound good" according to the western philosophy of music.

While two notes technically constitute harmony, two-note groups are not considered chords.

Types of chords[edit | edit source]

The following chords can be played in any key. To understand them, one should have the basic knowledge of a scale first. When considering what quality a chord is (major, minor, etc.), all that matters are the names of the 3 notes; it does not matter whether some notes are doubled or played in different octaves (known as a chord inversion). For example, a C major triad must have a C, an E and a G, but it doesn't matter which is on bottom, nor does it matter if there are 2 E's or 2 G's.

Other notes, such as 9ths and 13ths, can be added to a chord, but this learning resource focuses on basic chords and their structure. Depending on the lowest note of the chord and the notes added or removed, formation of a chord is known as an “inversion” or a “voicing.”

Major Chord[edit | edit source]

C Major on the piano

The major triad is often symbolized with a capital letter (C | Cmaj). It is three notes: the first, third, and fifth note of a scale. Alternatively, you can find this chord by adding a note a major third (4 half-steps) up from the root note and then a minor third (3 half-steps) up from that. If you add the half-steps of a major and minor third you will notice the third note is 7 half-steps up from the root making a perfect fifth. This interval will remain the same in major and minor chords. All primary triads are created by stacking intervals of a third. It is a very whole sounding chord, and is found within most, if not all popular songs.

C Major triad: C - E - G

Minor Chord[edit | edit source]

The minor triad is often symbolized with a lower case letter, or 'min', or just an 'm' (c | Cmin | Cm). It is composed of three notes: the first, flat-third, and fifth. The lowered third represents the third note of a minor scale. Alternatively, you can find this chord by adding a note a minor third (3 half-steps) up from the root note and then a major third (4 half-steps) up from that. The quality of this chord is not as full as the major chord, and has a darker complexion. It also is found in a majority of popular music.

C Minor triad: C - E♭ - G

Diminished Chord[edit | edit source]

The diminished triad can be symbolized with either a '°' or with the abbreviation "dim" (C° | Cdim). Its components include: the first, flat-third, and flat-fifth. Alternatively, you can find this chord by adding a note a minor third (3 half-steps) up from the root note and then another minor third (3 half-steps) up from that. If you add the half-steps of two minor thirds together you will notice the third note is 6 half-steps up from the root making a diminished fifth, giving the chord its name. Having 2 lowered notes, a diminished chord does not have great euphony. It sounds slightly out of place, but adds a certain musical flavor.

C Diminished triad: C - E♭ - G♭

Augmented Chord[edit | edit source]

The augmented triad is usually symbolized with a '+' or 'aug' (C+ | Caug). It is rarely seen in contemporary music (jazz theory, for example, prefers the #5 notation), but is one of the most significant triad structures. It combines the first, third, and a raised fifth. Alternatively, you can find this chord by adding a note a major third (4 half-steps) up from the root note and then another major third (4 half-steps) again. If you add the half-steps of two major thirds together you will notice the third note is 8 half-steps up from the root making an augmented fifth, giving the chord its name. An augmented fifth sounds the same as a minor sixth (note) but is notated differently and consequently will sound different in context.

As all the notes of the augmented triad are spaced equally, there are only four augmented chords. C, E, and G# augmented chords all contain the same number of notes. All three notes of the augmented triad are found within the accompanying whole-tone scale.

C Augmented triad: C - E - G#

Seventh Chord[edit | edit source]

Dominant Seventh Chord[edit | edit source]

A seventh chord is attached to any other chord by the addition of the number '7' (C7). It can be attached to pretty much any chord, not just the major chord: (C7 | dim C7). Opposed to the addition of the seventh note of the scale, a flat-seventh note is added (in the key of C, this is Bb rather than B). When the third note is flat it is known as a minor 7. Therefore, "dominant 7" refers to a flattened seventh note, while a "minor 7" refers to both a flattened seventh and a flattened third note.

These chords, especially the dominant 7, tend to be popular in jazz and blues music, since they lend themselves to the "blues scale," which itself includes the flattened seventh note.

Dominant 7: C - E - G - B♭

Minor 7: C - E♭ - G - B♭

Major Seventh Chord[edit | edit source]

Like a dominant seventh chord, a note is added to the triad to create a major seventh chord. While a '7' represents the dominant seventh chord, the letters "maj" and a '7' represent a major seventh chord (C maj7). The note added to this chord is the seventh note of the root's major scale. This chord is used to emphasize the major scale or tonality of a phrase, and to clarify that the dominant seventh should be avoided. A sharp fourth (Lydian) note may be acceptable as a grace note over this chord.

C - E - G - B

Minor (Major Seventh) Chord[edit | edit source]

The minor major seventh chord (Cmmaj7) is used in Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream" and Bronislau Kaper's "Invitation." The chord includes both a minor third note and a major seventh note. Although the name of the chord appears to be an oxymoron, the major seventh is an extension of the chord, and therefore can be seen as containing two components: a minor component in the lower part (Eb in the key of C), and a major component (B in the key of C) in the upper part. The scale accompanying this chord is the melodic minor scale.

C - E♭ - G - B

Sixth Chord[edit | edit source]

The sixth chord is a four note chord, adding the sixth note of the root's major scale to a triad. Major and minor triads can become sixths, represented by the addition of a '6' (e.g. Cm6).

Major: C - E- G - A

The major sixth is functionally similar to the major seventh but provides a clearer resolution. However, in jazz theory the major seventh is preferred over the major sixth due to its clarification of the major seventh over the dominant seventh.

Minor: C - E♭ - G - A

The minor sixth is functionally similar to the minor major seventh and is used on particularly tense sections of ballads as an emotional "climax."

Suspended (Sustained) Chord[edit | edit source]

The suspended chord, also called sustained chord, is symbolized with "sus" or "sus4" (Csus | Csus4).

In the normal (major) triad in C, the note E is the "third" because is it an interval of a third above C. However, in suspended chords the "third" of the chord is replaced by a fourth. Traditionally the fourth would resolve to the third (E) of the chord, although the sus4 chord can stand on its own and doesn't always resolve to a normal triad.

A Csus chord is composed of the notes C, F, G instead of C, E, G (the normal triad).

Another version of this chord is symbolized with "sus2" (Csus2).

A sus2 with C as its root would be C, D, G.

Sus4: C - F - G

Sus2: C - D - G

Add2/Add4 Chord[edit | edit source]

This chord is just like a suspended chord in that it uses the second and fourth note. The difference is that, whereas in a suspended chord the third note is omitted, in an "Add2/Add4" chord, the third is kept.

Add4: C - E - F - G

Add2: C - D - E - G

Gallery[edit | edit source]

C Major
C Minor

External Links[edit | edit source]

Free tutorial on Chord Substitutions (dead link)