Basic Theory Made Easy. Part 6: Building Chords

In this article, we will take what we have learned and build chords with it.

Ultimate Guitar
Welcome back to the 6th article in this series. And for all of you wanting or needing a break from the "harder stuff," this is your lucky day. Let's get started. Chord Quality: What are chords and what are their "quality?" 1) A chord (specifically, a triad) is a group of 3 notes built diatonically, naturally from a scale or mode. To build one, a note is skipped between each chord tone. 2) Quality refers to whether a chord is major, minor, augmented, or diminished. That's it. Here's the easy part. If you remember most things we discussed in the previous articles, chords will be almost literally a no-brainer for you. Building A Major Chord: There is a simple pattern for this too! The pattern can be expressed in one of two ways: Either it can be expressed as a STACKED interval, or in reference to the root. Here's the basic difference: If you "stack" an interval, you are simply taking the last note you used and making it the reference instead of the root. Don't worry about stacking right now. I will only use root reference until after you have mastered chords. Major Chord: *unison, maj3, p5 That's it. Now let's do the MINOR: *unison, min3, p5 Alright. Let's do the DIMINISHED: *unison, min3, d5 Finally, the AUGMENTED: *unison, maj3, aug5 Chordal triads (diatonically occurring chords with ONLY three notes) are ALL built that way. And that is literally the long and short of it! Let's build a few quick triads to show exactly what we are doing. *A major triad: A, C#, E A is a unison unto itself, C# is a maj3 above A E is a p5 above A *A minor triad: A, C, E A is a unison unto itself, C is a min3 above A E is a p5 above A So in majors and minors, the THIRD is what changes the quality of the chord. Let's do augmented and diminished: *A augmented triad: A, C#, E# A is a unison unto itself, C# is a maj3 above A E# is an aug5 above A *A diminished triad: A, C, Eb A is a unison unto itself, C is a min3 above A Eb is a dim5 above A Notice how in the augmented, BOTH the THIRD and the FIFTH are important? Notice how both are important in the diminished as well? ========================================================== The Why Of A Few Things: Alright. Building the chords wasn't very hard if you have followed the series from the beginning. You simply follow the pattern for the quality and build the chord. Simple. But why? Here's why. Remember all the scale and modal studies we did? That was to "prime" you for understanding musical tonality more thoroughly. The major chord comes DIRECTLY (here we go again...) from the MAJOR SCALE. If you start on the first scale degree (root) of a major scale in ANY key and skip a note until you have chosen three notes, you have built a major triad. There are NO EXCEPTIONS. It is EXACTLY the same with the minor except it is built from the first scale degree of a MINOR scale. Again, there are NO EXCEPTIONS. The diminished triad is a little tricky. But remember when I identified the "diminished" mode of locrian? Well, if you build a chord diatonically from the root of that mode, guess what kind of chord you get? A diminished! Again, there are NO EXCEPTIONS. Augmenteds: But where do we get augmenteds? Ok, remember WAY back when I talked about raising a scale's seventh degree so that it becomes a "leading tone?" Remember how I said it "leads your ear" back to the root of the key? Well, diatonically speaking, we must explore the leading tone function in order to understand completely where augmenteds come from. Firstly, let's take a natural mode that occurs WITHOUT a leading tone. Minor (or the Aeolian mode) will do just fine. Remember, it has these intervals: unison, maj2, min3, p4, p5, min6, min7, octave If we raise the seventh, we have our leading tone. So the scale now changes to this: unison, maj2, min3, p4, p5, min6, maj7, octave The reason we do this is twofold: Firstly, sometimes we just NEED a leading tone to help chordal resolution. It leads the ear MORE INTENSELY back to the root of the key. It also helps to give the scale more of an exotic sound when used as a melodic device. Secondly, if you build a chord from the FIFTH scale degree of a minor that has a leading tone, that chord goes from being minor to being major. NOT THE SCALE OR THE KEY!!!! But the CHORD created from THAT SCALE'S fifth scale degree. So let's just look at this for a moment. Let's take A minor since it is simple to look at. In it, we have the notes of: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A Notice that G is a WHOLE STEP beneath A. It occurs naturally that way because it is a minor interval. If we build a chord from the fifth scale degree of A minor, we get E minor. E, G, B Now let's say we make the scale have a LEADING TONE. The scale and key will STILL BE MINOR because of the MINOR THIRD, but the SEVENTH will be raised to become a leading tone. Here it is: A, B, C, D, E, F, G#, A Now, if we build a chord from the fifth scale degree, THIS time, we come up with a MAJOR. E major. It is the "dominant" (well, almost). It looks like this: E, G#, B Ok, so what about the augmented? If you take that same minor scale that has a leading tone and make a chord from the THIRD scale degree, you get an AUGMENTED. It would be a C aug, and this is what it would look like: C, E, G# Diatonically speaking, THAT's how we get augmenteds. RECAP: There are only four qualities: 1) Major 2) Minor 3) Augmented 4) Diminished *All qualities come directly from the major scale except augmented. And it still comes INDIRECTLY from the major. *The leading tone is a maj7. Minors can use this to lead the ear back to the root. *The chord built from the 5th degree of a natural minor with a leading tone will become major. *The chord built from the 3rd degree of a natural minor with a leading tone will become augmented. Next article we will discuss chord extensions, where they come from, and general chord-writing rules. Thanks for reading. ======================================================= EXTRA STUFF FOR THE ADVENTUROUS! Ever wonder why you almost NEVER see any A# major chords? Chords must have three notes that SKIP A NOTE in between. So the A major is A, C#, E. A# major would be A#, C##, E#. I bet you are asking, "Why can't it just be A#, D, F?" Well, there are TWO notes between A and D! So this doesn't work. Sure, it SOUNDS enharmonic, but it is written WRONGLY. So what is A#'s enharmonic tone? It is Bb. Remember how the key of Bb only has two flats? There is our answer. So Bb major (which sounds EXACTLY the same as A# major) is Bb, D, F ---as there is only ONE NOTE skipped between each note of the triad. It just makes things easier. Also, one of the ONLY times when the note of A# actually occurs in a key is when you are in the key of F# or B. And in F# major, the chord built from the A# is a MINOR. In B major, A# has a diminished chord! So even diatonically speaking, A# major RARELY occurs. === Key of F# major: F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E#, F# Chord built from the A#: A# minor A#, C#, E# === === Key of B major: B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B Chord built from the A#: A# diminished A#, C#, E === === Key of A#: A#, B#, C##, D#, E#, F##, G##, A# ----> Why write all this when you can simply use Bb? Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb. === And THAT is why you hardly ever see certain chords like A# major, or G# major, Db minor, or Ab minor. Because they rarely actually diatonically occur in "normal" keys. Their relative enharmonic keys are usually MUCH SIMPLER to write.

2 comments sorted by best / new / date

    hey man,this article is pretty good, personally I feel that stacked intervals is an easier way of explaining chords (maj = 1, 3, 5), but i guess that is just my preference. also just FYI ## can be expressed as x. so instead of C## it would be Cx...