The previous blog was about intervals. This blog follows on from that and covers the basics of chords.
What Is A Chord?
In its simplest definition a chord is two or more notes played at the same time. With this in mind it is worth remembering that not all instruments can play chords (but having more than one instrument playing together can create a chord).
Only instruments with strings and percussion instruments can play chords. Brass and woodwind can’t. The human voice (as a rule) can’t sing chords either though there are some people who have a party trick of being to sing more than one note at a time. This is a very limited thing and best not used as an example in your exam!
Whilst it is true that any two (or more) notes create a chord - this won’t always sound good! One could argue that something being good or bad is subjective as it will largely be based on our opinion but for the purposes of your music exam you need to be able to tell if a chord sounds good or bad.
The proper terminology for nice-sounding chords is either concordance or consonance. A not-nice-sounding chord is discordance or dissonance. Notes that are a semitone apart will clash. Notes that are a tone apart will still clash but can sometimes work well together. A third sounds even better.
Triads! What About The Yakuza?
As I stated earlier you can play any set of two or more notes to make a chord but if you want a decent sounding chord the best bet is to use triads.
As the name may suggest to you, a triad is made up of three notes. Each triad has specific intervals between each note and if you can remember them - the musical world is your oyster.
How To Create A Triad
One of the reasons I covered all the major and minor scales as well as the circle of fifths and intervals is that having a good knowledge of all this will really help your understanding of creating chords.
To create a triad pick any white key on a piano. This becomes your root note. The root is the tonic, or key (first note). For example in D major, the root is D as this is the first note of the scale. Once you’ve chosen your note, counting the root as one, count up three white notes. Then using the note you land on count up another three white notes. Play all three together, you have a triad. The example below shows the C major triad.
By doing that simple method, some of your chords will be major, some will be minor, and there’ll be a diminished there as well. If you play the notes of a chord separately it’s called a broken chord or arpeggio (more on that in a future blog).
You now know how to create a triad but let’s drill down on some specifics. Choose your root note and then for a:
Major Triad - go a major third from the root, then a minor third from the note you land on.
Minor Triad - go a minor third from the root, then a major third from the note you land on.
Alternatively, if you know all your scales inside and out you can simply use the first(root), third, and fifth note of the major or minor scale to get the same result. Another way is to remember that a major third is four semitones (counting the low note as one) and a minor third is three semitones (counting the low note as one).
There are a couple of other triads:
Diminished Triad - This is formed using two minor thirds (from the root and third).
Augmented Triad - This is formed using two major thirds (from the root and third).
Adding A Note
Adding a note to a triad means it won’t be a triad any more, but you can add a fourth note. Often it’s the seventh note. The minor seventh is the most common (this uses the seventh note of the scale lowered a semitone) but the major seventh (using the seventh note of the scale as is) can sound gorgeous.
All chords can be written in a shorthand called a chord symbol. The letter used is the name of the chord (root note). If you’re a guitarist you may already know them, but it won’t do any harm to revise them…I'm using C major in my example below.
A note name on it’s own is a major chord. Always use a capital letter.
A note name followed by a lower case “m” is a minor chord.
A note name followed by “+” is sometimes written as “aug” - meaning augmented
A note name followed by a “7” indicates to add the minor seventh
A note name followed by “maj7” indicates to add the major seventh
A note name followed by “º” or “-“ or “dim” means to play the diminished chord
A note name followed by a lower case “m” and a “7” = play the minor chord with an added minor seventh.
A note name followed by a lower case “m” and a “maj7” = play the minor chord with an added major seventh.
This probably looks harder than it is. It's very useful to know all this even if you only play classical music.