All About Chords in Music Theory
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Last Updated: November 2022
In this next section of our basic music theory course, we’re taking a look at what chords are in music. Make sure you’ve already gone through our guide on time and rhythm as well as our guide to notes and scales if you haven’t already. We also talk about reading sheet music if you’re interested.
A chord is a set of two or more notes played together at the same time. These aren’t just random ones played together, though. These are notes that go well together (sound harmonious together).
How to Play Music Chords
Here are ones you’ll come across most:
All major chords use the 1st tone, 3rd tone and 5th tone of the major scale you’re playing in. So, for example, in C major (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) let’s apply numbering. Here’s what you get:
C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7, C = 8
Since the major triad is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th tone of the scale, the C-major triad chord would use the notes C, E and G. Go over to your piano and play C-E-G together at the same time. You can hear it sounds bright and happy, just like the C major scale.
Congratulations, you just played your first chord.
You can do the same thing to find the root chord of ANY note, you simply have to know the scale of that note. So for example, to play a D Major, just use the 1st, 3rd and 5th degree of the D Major (D – F# – A)
Minor chords are often thought of as “sadder,” while Major sounds “happier.”
The difference comes from the notes that actually make up the major and minor scales. For minor we simply “flat” the 3rd degree of the major version. And that’s because in the minor scale the 3rd degree is flat compared to the major.
If you remember, the notes of C major are C, D, E, F, G, A, B
But the notes in the minor scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. (the 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees are “flattened” from the major version – this works across ALL major/minor scales)
So in C Minor – C = 1, D = 2, Eb = 3, F = 4, G = 5, Ab = 6, Bb = 7, C = 8
And even though they are made up of different notes, the way it is put together remains the same. We use the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of the scale.
So the C-minor would be made up of C, Eb and G.
Again, you can use the same method to find out the minor chord for any of the 12 notes on the piano.
Augmented and Diminished
Augmented and Diminished chords carry LOTS of tension. They sounds like they are scary or “on edge.”
Augmenteds are major with a SHARP 5th degree.
C Major is C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7, C = 8
and a C Major is C – E – G, then a C Augmented would be C – E – G#.
Diminished ones on the other hand are minors with a FLAT 5th scale degree.
So if C Minor is C = 1, D = 2, Eb = 3, F = 4, G = 5, Ab = 6, Bb = 7, C = 8
then a C Diminished chord is C – Eb – Gb.
The last type we’ll talk about here is the 7th chord. These are the really full and beautiful sounding. You hear in a lot of jazz, r&b and soul/gospel music.
You can create either major or minor 7th by simply adding on the 7th scale degree to any basic major/minor chord.
So a C Major 7 is C – E – G – B
and a C Minor 7 is C – Eb – G – Bb.
Again, you can do this with ANY note on the keyboard, using this number system (we dive more in depth into the number system in part 3 of this course, next).
There’s one more basic concept that you should understand and that’s “inversions.”
An inversion is simply playing a chord, with the notes in a different order than the standard position.
The standard C Major chord is C – E – G (the 1-3-5 of the C Major scale).
If you want to invert that you would simply re-arrange the notes.
First Inversion = 3-5-1
So a C Major chord in first inversion would be played as E – G – C
Second Inversion = 5-1-3
So a C Major chord in second inversion would be played as G – C – E.
Try it out on the piano to see the different sound of each “voicing” of these. Then try it with others
Soon you’ll be able to play full chord progressions.
There’s much more to chords but this guide should have given you the basics of what you need to know. If you’d like to learn more about building chords read more details in our full guide on piano chords.
Frequently Asked Questions About Chords
Musical chords are built by stacking intervals on top on each other. You start on a “tonic” or “root” note, and then move up a set interval to another note and add it to the chord’s composition. You continue doing that until you have built the specific chord you want to play.
There are various combinations of chords you can use together to produce a beautifully emotional harmonic part. There are no set rules, but there are frameworks that you can use to easily put together chords that will sound good together. One of these frameworks is called “Diatonic Harmony.” This is a set of “rules” you can use to quickly figure out which chords work together.
Yes chords a often a part of the “harmonic movement” of a piece of music. They provide the emotional bed of a particular piece of music. When some speak about “harmony” they are often talking about the underlying bass movement or chord progression of a song.
Up Next: The Nashville Number System in Music
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