Today we will learn about chords – notes that sound well together, that are the base of harmony (and emotional content of music). You will learn what kind of chords are there, and how to build them using a MIDI grid.
Finally, it is time to learn about chords. Chords are an important thing because they can help you shape harmonious and emotional texture of your music.
A chord is made of three or more notes that are played at the same time (well, basically). In other words, you play chords by pressing three or more keys on a piano at the same time (or playing them using a midi grid in the editor).
Later on, you’ll learn that chords can be played as arpeggios, meaning note after note – more on that later.
Some people say that chord is already made of two notes and then it is called a dyad. Figure 5.1 shows this.
Dyads, two notes that sound at the same time, in my opinion can be called chords (and they definitely imply a chord, or suggest a chord), but even more than that, they are a great example of harmony – harmony occurs when two or more notes are played at the same time.
These two or more sounds can be consonant and pleasant, or dissonant and unpleasant. You already know what consonants and dissonants are. I’ve mentioned this when we talked about the intervals. Chords are made with specific musical intervals, too. Chords can be major, minor, diminished or augmented.
Let’s learn a typical chord now. This one, shown on figure 5.2, is a triad, made of three notes.
A chord on figure 5.2 is a C Major (yes, the name is similar to the name of the scale). Triads are the most common chords in music. Let’s discuss them now. Specifically, let’s discuss major and minor triads.
Each triad is made of three notes, and these notes have their names: a root, a third, a fifth. You already know these two last words – they are the intervals. In reality, in Western music, chords are made of thirds and thirds alone. The third is a third to the root, but the fifth is a third to the third. What does it mean? Take a look at figure 5.2 again.
Between the root, the lowest note, and the highest note, you can see seven semitones – this is a perfect fifth. Between the root and the middle note, there are four semitones – this is a major third. And between the middle note and the highest note, there are three semitones – it’s a minor third. A chord made of four notes, called a seventh chord, is a chord with an additional third above the ordinary fifth. In other words, chords are made of thirds.
Let’s go back to basic triads.
The root, the lowest note, is the base of the chords and it gives the chord its name. For C Major chord, note C is its root. Its third is the note E (major third) and its fifth is note G. Chords are a sum of their intervals.
Each triad is made of a root, a third and a fifth. The fifth remains unchanged – I mean that in case of major triads and minor triads, the fifth is always a perfect fifth. But the third moves – it can be major or minor compared to root, and this changes the chord from minor to major. Figure 5.3 shows a C Minor triad. Notice that note E became here note D# – the major triad became a minor triad. This third, this middle note, is what shapes the chord’s emotions.
Major and minor triads are the basic triads in music. Like scales, minor and major chords have different feel to them. Major chords are brighter, more energetic and positive, while minor chords are more sad, melancholic.
But beware! To say that major is happy and minor is sad is an oversimplification – it’s good as an educational statement for beginners, but the more you learn, the more you realize that how the chord sounds depends on its context – the same chord may have a different feel to it if the scale is different, and the neighbouring chords are different. In other words, a major chord can sound sad in proper context. The same goes to other things in music like intervals. All this knowledge is good for beginners, but the more you compose, the more you realize that you can bend some “rules”.
All minor and major scales have three major triads ach and four minor triads each, and one of the three minor triads is a diminished triad.
Now, chords can be:
They can also be suspended, and there are few more types of chords, but don’t worry about this now.
This is the pattern for building major chords, where the digits represent number of semitones: root + 4 + 3. Take a look at some examples of major triads on figure 5.5 and count the semitones.
In other words, when you put a major third above the root, and then a minor third above the previous third, you will create a major triad.
And here is the pattern for building minor chords: root + 3 + 4. Again, take a look at figure 5.6 and coun the semitones.
Now, let’s take a look at augmented and diminished chords.
This is the pattern for augmented chord: root + 4 +4. Figure 5.7 shows augmented triads.
This is the pattern for diminished triads: root + 3 + 3. Figure 5.8 shows diminished triads.
Now you know how to build basic triads.
Chords Symbols in Literature
In books, chords are written down in various ways.
- Major chords may be represented by a roman numeral, or with an additional “maj” written down.
- Minor chords usually are written down with an “m”.
- Diminished may have a circle to them or a word “dim”
- Augmented may have an “aug” written down, or a + sign.
For example: C, Cmaj, A, Am, Bdim, E+. When we have seventh chords, we also add a numeral, for example: C7, Cmaj7, Am7, Bdim7 and so on. This digit stands for the fourth note of the chord. But sometimes, you may get lost – like when Cmaj7 is not seventh chord C Major, but a C major chord with a major seventh. This is more advanced knowledge that fits perfectly in books about music harmony, so don’t worry about this now.
Just remember that we write down chords in various ways. But when you make music on your computer, this shouldn’t be a problem too often.
Finally, the general rule is that chords are represented by roman numerals: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII for major chords, and i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii for minor chords – this rule is much more universal.
Triads, made of three notes, are the most common chords, but chords may contain four notes, too. Chords that contain four notes are known as seventh chords. We build them by adding another third, and then this last note becomes the seventh (like the interval). Sevenths can be major, minor or diminished, to name a few types.
Here are the patterns for building seventh chords – figure 5.9 shows seventhy chords, and the list below shows the building patterns.
- Major seventh – root + 4 + 3 + 4
- Minor seventh – root + 3 + 4 + 3
- Dominant seventh – root + 4 + 3 + 3
- Half-diminished seventh – root + 3 + 3 + 4
- Diminished seventh – podrootstawa + 3 + 3 + 3
- Minor seventh with a major seventh – root + 3 + 4 + 4
Know that we also have other chords made with ninths, elevenths or other intervals, but in case of these we usually omit some notes and double the others, and we won’t discuss these things now.
Quick Look at Chords of Major and Minor Scales
Let’s take a look at the major chords of the major scale. Take a look at the pictures and listen to the MIDI files.
Let’s start with some classic triads of the C Major scale as shown on figure 5.10. Notice that each triad is built upon the seven notes of the scale. The first triad is built upon a tonic, the second triad is built on a supertonic, third on a mediant and so on. In addition, C, F and G chords are major chords, while D, E and A chords are minor chords. The B chord is a diminished triad. Count the semitones between the notes in each triad and compare these with the patterns you’ve learned earlier – you will notice everything fits.
In each major scale you will see that the first, fourth and fifth chord is a major chord; the second, third and sixth is a minor chord, and the seventh is a diminished chord – this is common for all major scales.
Now, let’s take a look at seventh chords build with C Major.
Figure 5.11 starts with major seventh C chord, then we have a minor seventh D chord, minor seventh E, major seventh F, dominant seventh G, minor seventh A and a half-diminished seventh B.
Now, listen to A Minor scale, on figure 5.12.
The chords in minor scale starts with a minor chord. Then we have a diminished chord, major chord, minor chord, minor chord, major chord and major chord. Next, listen to seventh chords for A Minor.
From the left: minor seventh A, half-diminished seventh B, major seventh C, minor seventh D, minor seventh E, major seventh F and dominant seventh G.
Notice what kind of chords we’re dealing with here. As you may see, we have minor chords in major scale, and major chords in minor scale. This is because we’re dealing with diatonic chords, build upon the notes of a given scale. When you build the chords upon a scale, you only use the notes that belong to this scale. Because major scales contain minor chords and minor scales contain major chords, even a major scale can be used to create a bit more “minor” music.
Now you know the basic chords and how to build them. In the package for this book, you will find MIDI files with a lot of major and minor scales and chords you can listen to.
The notes in the chords can switch places, like when the third goes at the bottom, as an example. We call this chord inversions. We change the place of a root, a third or a fifth, but at the same time, we do not change the function of these notes.
The basic position of a chord is known as the root position. In it, a root is at the bottom, a third is in the middle, and a fifth is at the top. Figure 5.14 shows a C Major chord in a root position.
Inversions allows us to change the placement of the chord’s notes. Before we learn inversions, you need to remember one thing that I mentioned a few seconds ago: the function of the note remain the sames. So even if the root note is at the top of the chord, it still remains a root. A third at the very bottom of the chord remains a third.
All right, let’s learn about two basic inversions:
- First inversion – we move the root at the very top of the chord.
- Second inversion – we move the third to the very top. Second inversion occurs after the first, so if you want to move the third to the top, the root must be already there, and then the fifth is at the bottom, and root is in the middle :).
If there is no inversion, we say that the chord is in its root position.
Figure 5.15 shows a C Major chord in first inversion – the one at the right side. The one on the left is the C Major in its root position.
As you can see on figure 5.15, we have moved the root to the top. This is the first inversion. Of course, you can also move the root two or three octaves up – this, too, will be the first inversion of the chord.
Figure 5.16 shows the second inversion, in which we also move the third to the top – take a look at the chord to the very right. I left the root position (left) and first inversion (middle) for reference.
Remember that even if the fifth is at the bottom in the second inversion, the bottom note is still the fifth :).
Inversions may cause troubles when you try to identify the chords, but if you know the scale you’re working with, everything becomes easier, because there is only one way to build a chord in a given scale. For example, if you work with C Major scale, and you have notes G, E and C, you know it’s an inverted C Major chord, because you can’t build any other chord with these notes in this scale.
Inversions can be quite useful when composing music, because inverted chords have a different sound, so you can add some interest to your music. Also, inversions help with voicing – what is voicing?
Voicing and Doubling of the Chords
When you change the position of the notes in the chord, or you spread the notes between various octaves, we call this voicing.
The chord does not have to fit a single octave. For example, a third can be moved an octave higher, or even two octaves higher. Let’s take a look at figure 5.18 showing a C Major chord in inversions and with different spread.
On the left, we have a close voicing – the notes are very near each other, in the range of the same octave. But we can also have an open voicing, like in case of all the rest of the chords on figure 5.18, when notes are spread over many octaves.
Voicing is very important for composition – we spread the notes to different octaves to fill the entire spectrum of the sound – the low, the middle and the high parts of the spectrum. Later on, when you assign instruments to different notes, a proper voicing will result in a clear composition and clear sound. And when the notes and chords follow each other as the music progresses, we also have the rules for how these voice move – you may encounter this topic in music guidebooks, but I reserve it for a book about harmony and composition.
As you can hear with example from figure 5.18, an open voicing like in the second chord from the left doesn’t sound right. To make it sound good, you need to work on the voicing and double some of the voices – in other words, double some of the notes.
When the notes are placed near each other within a range of a normal interval and a single octave, we call this a close voicing. But when we spread the notes into two or more octaves, we call this an open voicing.
The notes in the chord can be doubled – this means repeated in a different octave. For example you may have four notes in a chord, but two of these notes are a C, in two different octaves. This means a C note has been doubled. Proper doubling is a subject for another guidebook about composition, but the basic rules aren’t that difficult. Take a look at C Major on figure 5.18 (on the right), listen to it and you should notice that it sounds a lot better.
Here are the basic rules for doubling notes of the chord:
- The root is doubled the most – on figure 5.18 we have 4 notes C, and in C Major this note is a root.
- Fifth is next to be doubled – I doubled it 2 times. In a good voicing, you can double the fifth, but there should be more doubled roots than fifths, yet less thirds than fifths.
- Third is the last to be doubled in a triad, and in case of sevenths, ninths and other bigger chords, these additional notes are doubled even less frequently.
An exception in case of thirds happens in minor scales, when the third can be doubled more freely, as it doesn’t break the sound of the chord that much.
We double the notes like this because the root is the foundation of the chord and it needs to be very clear sounding. A fifth is also an important part of the chord, but we can’t double it too much compared to the root, because too much fifths would hide the sound of the root. Finally, a third is needed to set the minority or majority of the chord, but if you put too many thirds in your voicing, the entire chord will become blurred. Bad voicing (wrong doubling) changes the sound of the chord for worse.
Listen to the chord from figure 5.19. The chord on the left has a nice voicing, while the chord on the right – the same chord – has a bad voicing.
A chord on the right doesn’t sound right.
You need to keep these rules of doubling in mind when composing music. Also, you should only double the root in the lower octaves – too much doubling of the fifth or third in the bass frequencies (low octaves) will damage the sound of the chord.
The higher the octave, the closer the voicing. So in higher octaves, you can put notes a lot more closer together.
I mentioned earlier in this book that a chord can be played note after note. In other words, the chord doesn’t have to be played all in once, but in can be broken into a regular pattern. We call this pattern an arpeggio, and you can see it on figure 5.20 that shows an A Minor chord, first played as a normal chord, and then played as an arpeggio.
As you can see, the pattern is made of the same notes as the chord – A, C and E – played within a given rhythm, and spread throughout two octaves. You can also change the style of the pattern, into something like figure 5.20. Of course, these are only examples and there are many arpeggio patterns you can create.
When you create such repeating rhythm, it can be called an ostinato, and it may function as a main melody, a countermelody or simply as a part of the musical texture.
In most cases, we build arpeggios and ostinatos with the notes of the chord. This technique is great to use as an accompaniment to the main melody, like on figure 5.22.
To create an arpeggio, simply take a chord and use its notes to create a repeated pattern.
You’ve learned about the chords – you know what they are and how to build them. You also know how to create chord inversions, you know the basics of voicing and doubling. Now you can learn about the chord progression.