Basic Chord Theory

For my second music theory tutorial, I’ll be talking about the wonderful, amazing, mystifying world of chords!

(This post assumes you have the basic knowledge of scale theory. If not, maybe my scale theory post can help!)

A chord, in its simplest form, is made up of three different notes played simultaneously. This is also known as a triad and it contains a root, a 3rd and a 5th. “What is a root, 3rd and 5th”, you ask? Let’s take a look at the C major scale to find out. This is the most straight forward scale as it contains no sharps or flats. If you know your alphabet from A to G, you know the C major scale.

C   D   E   F   G   A   B

Since the musical alphabet stops at G, we circle back to A once we get there. Trust me, there is no “H” note, no matter how hard you listen for it.

We can number each note in this scale, starting with C as the root (fancy name for the first note of the scale), D as the 2nd, E as the 3rd, and so on until we get to B, which is the 7th. As I stated before, we need the root, 3rd and 5th to construct a simple chord. If we extract those notes from the C major scale, we get:

C (the root), E (the 3rd), G (the 5th)

Count it out yourself if you don’t believe me. This is what it looks like on a piano:

A root position C major chord highlighted in blue on a piano keyboard

If you were to play all three of these notes at the same time on a piano just as they are highlighted above, you will hear a C major chord. Amazing!

So we have just completed the daunting task of composing a C major triad. Now, how do we make a C minor triad? Simple. All you have to do is lower the 3rd by one half step. Doing so yields an Eb. Now we have:

C (the root), Eb (the lowered 3rd), G (the 5th)

Check out the visual!

A root position C minor chord highlighted in blue and red on a piano keyboard

If you play these notes simultaneously, you will hear a C minor triad. Fantastic.

The four types of triads are major, minor, diminished and augmented. Here are examples of each in the key of C major:

Major: C E G – (root, 3rd, 5th)

Minor: C Eb G – (root, lowered 3rd, 5th)

Diminished: C Eb Gb – (root, lowered 3rd, lowered 5th)

Augmented: C E G# – (root, third, raised 5th)

There you have it. Let it all soak in. Now if you play a chordal instrument (an instrument that allows you to play multiple notes at once, such as the piano or guitar) and you know where to play these notes individually, you can start composing beautiful music in no time. Try writing out triads in every key. Here are the same four triad types for D to get you super pumped and excited:

Major: D F# A

Minor: D F A

Diminished: D F Ab

Augmented: D F# A#

Check back often for more theory related posts. I may edit them or add multiple parts to further expand the material. If you have something specific you want me to cover, yell at me!


2 comments on “Basic Chord Theory

  1. Amy Bowie says:

    I have never played the piano before and decided to look up finger placement. After a few searches I ended up on your website. I have been reading and learning for an hour now and I can’t believe how easy it is to understand and play the piano. I read the scales post and played what you showed and boom – I understand scales and can play them. Same thing with chords. You have a way with words and figures that makes sense to me, simply. Thank you!

    • dflomusic says:

      Glad to hear. Thanks! I haven’t updated in a while but I’ll be remodeling the site soon. I’m hoping to make the different posts a little easier to find. Let me know if you have any suggestions or requests for the future.

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