Categories: Music theory, Chords
From the previous lessons, you now hopefully understand how notes and intervals are named. Here I will cover the construction and naming of some simple chords.
We already know that the space between two notes is called an interval. If we play the notes one after the other, it's called a melodic interval, because it's as if you're playing a melody. If we play them at the same time, it's called a harmonic interval, because it's, you know, a harmony. Now if we take a harmonic interval, and add a third different note, we have a chord. That was easy, right? After that, we can keep adding more notes to make more and more complicated chords, but for this lesson let's stick with three-note chords, also called triads, for all you Latin-speakers.
By the way, does anybody else remember the old game Rise of the Triad? Back in I think '95 or '96, I think it was. Somewhere between Doom and Duke Nukem 3-D, it was my favorite game. Anyway, that's irrelevant.
Where were we? Oh yeah, so basically, the definition of a chord is just any three different notes played at the same time. The intervals between these three notes define what the chord sounds like. There are a lot of different possible combinations of intervals, but only a few that are commonly used.
Major chords are the ones you'll likely play most often. When someone says, "Hey man, play a C," they mean a C major chord. Major chords show up everywhere in rock, pop, and folk music. They have a sort of triumphal sound, somewhat happy. Very nice.
The formula for a major chord is root, major third, perfect fifth. I'll explain what that means with an example.
Let's build a C major. First, what we call the "root note." That's the C. The root note is the note the chord is named after. So the root note of a G chord is G, the root note of an A# is A#, etc. If there were a note named Ralph, we could construct a Ralph Major. But there isn't, so never mind.
Next, we look at the formula. Next up is the major third. From the intervals lesson, we know that a major third is four half-steps, so we can count up: C#, D, D#, E. Viola! The next note is E.
Next in the formula is the perfect fifth. I can never remember how big a perfect fifth is, but looking back to the intervals lesson (I told you to bookmark it!), I see it is seven half-steps. Counting up: C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G. (Remember, there is no note between E and F or between B and C.) That gives us a G, which is the third and final note.
Now we have the notes in a C major chord: C, E, and G. Here's one way to play it on guitar: (Note that this is a music theory lesson, not really a beginning guitar lesson. The chord charts are here for reference, but if you're just learning to play, you'll want a more specific guitar playing lesson.)
We can do the exact same thing for any major chord. Try G major, for example. The root is obviously G, the major third is B, and the perfect fifth is D. A G major chord contains the notes G, B and D.
Here's one way to play a G on guitar:
Here are the rest of the most common major chords for guitar, along with the most common way to play each of them. Click on a chord name to see more ways to play it in the Chorderator.
Notes: E, G#, B
Notes: F, A, C
Notes: A, C#, E
Next in line for the throne of King of Chord Types is the minor chord. It's very similar to the major chord, but instead of a major third, it has a minor third. So the formula is root, minor third, perfect fifth. A minor third, as you know, is one half-step lower than a major third.
Minor chords tend to sound a little more relaxed, maybe a bit sadder, than major chords.
To get a C minor chord from the C major, we can just lower the major third one half-step, so it becomes a minor third. Instead of C, E, and G, we now have C, Eb, and G. Shorthand for C minor is Cm.
Here are the rest of the most common minor chords for guitar, along with the most common way to play each of them. Click on a chord name to see more ways to play it in the Chorderator.
Notes: D, F, A
Notes: E, G, B
Notes: A, C, E
Remember I said above that chords are three or more different notes played at once? Well, I lied, sort of. There are these things called power chords. According to the previous definition, power chords are not technically chords, because they only contain two different notes. But they are used so commonly in rock music I decided to include them here anyway. The formula for a power chord is root, perfect fifth. Often the root is repeated an octave higher, but that still counts as just one unique note.
If you take a minor chord or a major chord and remove the third, you end up with a power chord. Power chords are neither major nor minor, making them sort of ambiguous. They are perfect for punk rock, where major chords would sound too cheerful, but you don't want to delve into the minor chords and end up sounding like Yanni. They're also wicked easy to play.
Power chords are also called 5 chords, since they only have the root and the fifth. So you'll see something like C5 or Eb5.
It's pretty easy to imagine playing with the intervals that make up major and minor chords, shifting them up or down a half-step or more. Take a minor chord, and lower the perfect fifth a half-step, and you get the formula root, minor third, diminished fifth. That's called a diminished chord. These chords sound disturbing and Alice-In-Chains-ish. Shorthand for C diminished is Cdim. (You'll sometimes see other symbols for diminished, but for the purposes of this website, I'll stick to "dim", since it's easier to type and include on a webpage.)
Similarly, if you take a major chord and raise the perfect fifth to an augmented fifth, you get an augmented chord, with the formula root, major third, augmented fifth. These are pretty uncommon in rock, pop, or folk music. They do pop up in jazz. Shorthand for augmented is "aug".
Here's a little quiz to test how well you've learned the definitions. Feel free to refer back to the above list.
How did you do? Once you think you have a grasp of the names, you can try your ear at the Ear Trainer (audio chord quiz) on this site. Start nice and easy, with just a few chord types included in the test, then slowly add some more until you get good at naming them. It's a fun little game, and will improve dramatically your ability to recognize and reproduce chords.
Get the Flash Player to see this player.