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Inside Music:
"Beginning Harmony" (Part 3)
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, July 1999.

We continue our series on harmony, turning now to simple chords. You may want to refer to Part 1 and Part 2, which deal with intervals — how they're made, measured, and named, and how they relate to each other, especially Major and minor intervals (there's a useful chart in the June article giving the specific sizes of different intervals, measure in half steps).

A chord is made of at least three pitches sounding at the same time. Chords can have any combination of pitches and intervals, but they usually follow certain time-honored "rules." Of course, in practice, these rules are quite flexible and amenable to exceptions (or interesting possibilities), but the rules are a good place to start.

Rule #1: The pitches in a given chord are all part of the same scale, usually a Major or minor scale. In fact, in many cases, nearly all of the chords in an entire song (or section of a song) are in the same Major or minor scale. It's easy to explore this principle at a piano, even if you're not a pianist. Just play random combinations of three pitches at a time on either the white keys only (which are all in the key of C Major), or the black keys only (the key of F# Major), and you'll probably find more than a few pleasing chords. That's because the pitches in each scale sound good together (especially the black keys). If you play random combinations of both white and black keys, the chords may sound more dissonant because their pitches have less of a chance of coming from the same scales.

Rule #2: Every chord has one pitch that serves as its "center of gravity," called the "root" of the chord. The root of the chord is always the pitch given in the name of the chord: the root of a D minor chord is D; the root of an F-sharp Major chord is F-sharp; and so forth.

Rule #3: All the other pitches in a chord have "titles," also, which correspond to how far they are from the root (measuring up from the root). For example, if the root is C and the other pitches are E and G, then the E is called "the third" of the chord (because E is a third above C), and G is called "the fifth" of the chord (because G is a fifth up from C). Notice that the words "third" and "fifth" can be used to name either an interval (e.g. "E is 'a third' above C") or a specific pitch in a chord (e.g. "E is 'the third' of the chord"). To avoid confusion, refer to an interval using "a" or "an" before the name (e.g. C and E are "a third" apart), but use "the" when referring to a pitch in a chord (e.g. E is "the third" of the chord). In other words, "the third" of a chord is "a third" above the root. Don't worry — it does get easier.

Rule #4: The simplest, most common type of chord is called a "triad." A triad always has three pitches: the root, the third, and the fifth. The chord we saw earlier, C/E/G, is a triad. C is the root, E is the third, and G is the fifth.

Just as we can have Major and minor intervals (see Part 1 and 2), a triad can also be Major or minor, according to what kind of third it has. The triad above (C/E/G) is a Major triad, because its third is a Major third above the root. Therefore, this chord is called a "C Major triad." To change it into a "C minor triad," all we have to do is make the third of the chord minor, by lowering it from E to E-flat. Our new chord, C/E-flat/G, is called a "C minor triad."

Notice that the C Major and C minor triads have the same root and fifth. The only difference between them is the Major or minor third. But that small change makes a huge difference in the sound. People usually describe Major triads as sounding "happy," and minor chords as "sad"; their true emotional range is actually much more complex and personal than that, but this happy/sad distinction is useful when you're first learning to identify chords.

Rule #5: The fifth in both a Major and minor triad is always a Perfect fifth (3.5 steps above the root).

Let's form more triads, this time using D as our root. We'll start with a D Major triad. The root, obviously, is D, the third is F-sharp (a Major third above D, or 2 steps), and the fifth is A (3.5 steps above D). To make a D minor, we use the same root and fifth, but lower the F-sharp a half step down to F.

Try forming Major and minor triads on other roots. To each new root, just add the third (Major or minor) and a Perfect fifth, and you've got your triad. Then, try to determine whether the following triads are Major or minor: G/B/D; E/G/B; F/A/C; A/C-sharp/E; E-flat/G/B-flat; B-flat/D-flat/F; and G-sharp/B/D-sharp. Good luck!

© Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.

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