Chords: What They Are & How They Work

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     A chord is any group of 3 or more notes that are played at the same time. Broken chords, also known as arpeggios, are chords which are played one note at a time, but add up to 3 or more notes.

      A scale is simply a row of notes in some consistent pattern. The word “scale” comes from a Latin word meaning “ladder” – notes ascend or descend the ladder rung by rung.  The most-used scale is the major scale, which is a row of notes in alphabetical rotation in the following pattern:

     Notice that the distance between the 1st and 2nd notes of the major scale is a whole step; between the 2nd and 3rd notes is a whole step; between the 3rd and 4th notes is a half step, and so on.

     For example, if we began our major scale on F sharp, it would look like this:

     If we started on B, it would look like this:

     Notice that the only half steps are between the 3rd and 4th notes and the 7th and 8th notes – all the other notes are separated by whole steps.

 

     Here is a chart which shows the notes of all 12 major scales according to their position in the scale. Note the relationship of whole steps and half steps:

 


 

 

1st note (do)

2nd note (re)

3rd note (mi)

4th note (fa)

5th note (sol)

6th note (la)

7th note (ti)

8th note (do)

C scale

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

Dscale

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

D

D scale

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

D

Eb scale

E

F

G

A

B

C

D

E

E scale

E

F

G

A

B

C

D

E

F scale

F

G

A

B

C

D

E

F

Gb scale

G

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

G scale

G

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

Ab scale

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

A

A scale

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

A

Bb scale

B

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

B scale

B

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

 

     In the preceeding chart, you will notice that there are no sharp scales listed. This is simply because D flat and C sharp are really the same key – just written differently. The same is true of E flat and D sharp, G flat and F sharp, A flat and G sharp, and B flat and A sharp. These are known as enharmonic scales – the sound is identical, but one scale is written as a flat scale while the other is written as a sharp scale.

     So melodies use scales, and like a climbing vine, they wrap themselves around the harmony of the song.

     Chords occur in different qualities. Three note chords are known as triads. There are four types of triads:

  • Major

  • Minor

  • Augmented

  • Diminished

     Major chords (triads) consist of a stack of 2 intervals: a major 3rd on the bottom, and a minor 3rd on top:

12 major chords

 

     Minor chords (triads) consist of a stack of 2 intervals: a minor 3rd on the bottom, and a major 3rd on top:

12 minor chords

 

     Augmented chords (triads) consist of a stack of 2 intervals, both of which are major 3rds:
Augmented piano chords
     Diminished chords (triads) consist of a stack of 2 intervals, both of which are minor 3rds:

Diminished piano chords (triads)

 

     Chords can be turned upside down: they are known as inversions.

     Chords containing more than 3 notes are termed "extended chords", because they extend beyond the mere triad. There are many extended chords, but here are some of the more common:

  • 6th chords

  • Minor 6th chords

  • 7th chords

  • Major 7th chords

  • 9th chords

  • Major 9th chords (the "major" refers to the major 7th in the 9th chord)

  • 11th chords

  • 13th chords

    Chords can also be altered through the use of sharps and flats. For example, a 7th chord might be altered by lowering the 5th 1/2 step. It would be notated as a C7-5 chord. Another example would be a flat 9th chord, notated as C-9.

     Chords can also be used on top of a note which is not part of the chord. These are known as "slash chords" because they are notated like this: C/B   F7/G   etc.

     In addition to standard music notation, there is a "shorthand" kind of notation known as chord symbols. They typically are found above a melody line (tune of the song) and instruct the musician as to what chord to use at any given time:

     *It should also be noted that not all musicians agree on the names or symbols for all chords. There is no "authority" that passes down rules for such things; no congress that enacts laws about chords and how they are named. But there is general agreement on perhaps 90% of all chords; only on the more complex chords will you see much disagreement.

     Here are some typical piano 3-note chords (triads):

     Here are some typical extended chords (4 or more notes):


There is a whole lot more to know about chords, but this will serve as a starter.

 

To learn about unisons and intervals, click here

    

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