Wouldn’t music be boring if only one note was allowed to be heard at a time? A single melody is certainly pretty but there’s something about harmony that is so much better. Harmony is made with chords.
A chord is simply two or more notes being played at the same time. There are many different types of chords. There are chords that can be identified and those that are called clusters. Think of a cluster as going up to a piano and sitting on the keys. It’s not pretty but it sometimes serves a musical purpose.
But we’re not here to talk about clusters. Before we can break the rules, we have to know the rules so today we’re going to learn how to construct basic chords.
First, basic chords are built using a scale. Let’s think of the C Major scale for a minute. The notes are C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. If we were to number the notes of the scale, C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, and so on, these are called scale degrees. (C is scale degree #1)
If we were to build a C chord, we would use scales degrees 1,3,5. This is called a “1” chord because it’s build on top of the first scale degree. (They are also expressed using Roman numerals) The notes of a C chord or 1 chord are C-E-G. Another way to think of building a chord is to build it with every other note. Notice with our C chord, there is a note in between each note of the chord. (D is between C and E, and F is between E and G) Can you figure out the notes of a D chord? If you came up with D-F-A, you understand how to spell basic chords.
Any chord that is constructed using the notes of a scale are called diatonic chords. That means that we didn’t change any notes when we constructed all of the chords in the key. Your piano teacher may have given you chord exercises to practice chord fingerings and now you know how to construct all of the “diatonic” chords using the key signature.
Of course, it isn’t that easy. There are four basic types of chords: Major, minor, augmented, and diminished.
Remember that C chord? (C-E-G) This is a Major chord. We know this because major chords have a Major third between the first two notes and a minor third between the top two notes. (Check out our interval article by clicking here) If we want to make our chord minor, we lower the 3rd (the middle note) by one half step. Now our C chord is a C minor chord (C-Eb-G) and it has a minor third between the bottom two notes and a major third between the top two notes.
To make a chord diminished, we lower the 5th (the top note) by one half step. We now have a C diminished chord (C-Eb-Gb) and it has a minor third between both the bottom two and top two notes. Finally, to make a chord augmented we once again begin with a major chord (C-E-G) and we raise the 5th (the top note) by one half step (C-E-G#). Notice that we have a Major third between both the top two and bottom two notes.
These types of chords are used by composers just as colors are used by a painter. Different combinations of chords produce beautiful music.
Chords can get complicated but if you start with the basics, you’ll be a chord expert in no time.