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"Beginning Harmony (Part 4)"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, August 1999.

Our series on basic harmony concludes here, exploring deeper into the world of triads. In Part 3, the assignment was to decide whether each of these triads was 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.

Remember, to tell the difference between Major and minor triads, measure the distance between the root and the third (NOTE: Both Major and minor triads have a Perfect fifth, or 3.5 steps. There are triads with different kinds of fifths — i.e. smaller or larger — but this is beyond the scope of this series. For now, all the chords we'll deal with have Perfect fifths, so you can get comfortable with Major and minor triads.)

In the first chord, the root and third (G and B) are two steps apart, or a Major third. Therefore, G/B/D is called a "G Major triad." In the second chord (E/G/B), the root and third are 1.5 steps apart, or a minor third. Therefore, E/G/B is called an "E minor triad." Try the others on your own, and listen to the sound of each chord to confirm your answers.

How would you turn an E minor triad into an E Major triad? Again, the difference is in the third: the E minor triad's third is minor, and the Major triad's third is Major. To create an E Major triad, all we have to do is raise the G up to G-sharp, giving us E/G-sharp/B.

This half step difference between Major and minor triads is easy to observe on your instrument, especially on the piano, where everything is laid out in a row. If you have trouble orienting yourself on the guitar, just observe the difference between the Major and minor chords that you already know. For example, play an A Major chord, then play an A minor chord. They're almost identical, but the note on the 2nd string in the minor chord is a half step lower than it is in the Major chord. This note is the third — in A minor, it's a minor third, and in A Major it's a Major third. Notice that there's a similar difference between E Major and E minor (the third is on the 3rd string), and D Major and D minor (third on the 1st string). In each pair, the third differ by a half step (1 fret), lower for minor, higher for Major.

If triads only have three pitches, why are many guitar chords with more than three strings in them also called triads? For example, when you play an A Major triad in first position (down at the nut), you strum across all six strings. However, there are actually only three different pitches being played, because several letters occur more than once: 6th string is E; 5th is A; 4th is E; 3rd is A; 2nd is C-sharp; and 1st is E again. In an A Major triad, A is the root, C-sharp is the third, and E is the fifth. Therefore, the standard way of playing an A chord gives us two roots (strings 3 and 5), 3 fifths (strings 1, 4, and 6) and one third (string 2).

No matter how many pitches you play in a chord, if they all "boil down" to three separate pitches in this root/third/fifth arrangement of a triad, then the chord is a triad.

Notice that, in our A Major guitar chord, the lowest note is E, the fifth of the chord. This illustrates the fact that any pitch in the triad can be on the bottom, not just the root. For example, a C Major triad has these three notes in it: C, E, and G. These notes can be in any order, and they would still be called a C Major triad. For example, E/G/C and G/C/E are both C Major triads.

Flipping the order of the chord-tones like this is called "inverting" a chord, and each different order of the tones is called an "inversion." Because there are three pitches in a triad, there are only three ways to order the notes: root/third/fifth, third/fifth/root, and fifth/root/third. The one with the root on the bottom is called "root position." The others are called "first inversion" and "second inversion," respectively.

As we saw above, we can also double some chord tones. Each new combination is a different "voicing" of the chord (the inversions are just the simplest voicings because there are only three tones, and they are all played within one octave of each other). A voicing can have many tones, spread over several octaves. However, if there are only three different pitches in a root/third/fifth relationship with each other, the chord is still just a triad.

Play different chords and listen for whether they're Major or minor. Where are the root, third, and fifth? Which tones (if any) are doubled? Try moving the third to make Major chords into minor chords, and vice versa. Try other voicings for these chords elsewhere on your instrument. Where are the root, third, and fifth now? What if you invert a chord so that a tone other than the root is in the bass?

Though this is the last of our series on beginning harmony, I will revisit chords in future articles, exploring such topics as scale-tone chords, seventh chords, extensions, alterations, etc.

Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).