Build a better awareness of chords and harmony

Ever wondered how chords are working within the music that you are playing, and how the note you have sits in the build up of the chord?

Having an awareness of how chords work and the importance of the note that you are playing and how it relates to the performers around you can have a positive impact on your ensemble playing.

A chord occurs when two or more notes are played simultaneously.  Very often the chord will be made up of three notes, and these three notes are repeated and different octaves.  In its simplest form, a three-note chord can be arranged as a triad.  (Triad is the word used for a three-note chord)  The bottom note of each triad is called the root.  Each triad has the root, the 3rd note above it and the 5th note above it.  For example, if C is the root then 3 notes above would be E, and 5 notes above C would be G.  If D is the root note, then the 3rd above would be F and the 5th note would be A.

An interval is the distance between two notes.  Think of it like you would a ruler and measuring the distance between one object and another.  The smallest distance usually measured in music (within the Western Classical Tradition) is a semitone.  On the keyboard, the distance between one key and the closest key to the left or right is known as a semitone.


Here are the triads based around the C major scale.

Pic 1

If you play the triads in turn you will notice that they sound different.  Chords can either be major, minor, augmented or diminished.  These are made of different patterns of major and minor thirds.  Note that upper case numbers are major and the lower case numbers are minor (apart from chord vii which is a diminished chord)

A major triad is made up of a major 3rd (4 semitones) and a minor 3rd (3 semitones).

Pic 2

A minor triad is made up of a minor 3rd (3 semitones) and a major 3rd (4 semitones)

Pic 3

An augmented chord is made up of a major 3rd (4 semitones) and a major 3rd (4 semitones).  Think of augmented meaning stretched – instead of using a major and minor interval, an augmented chord uses two major intervals.

Pic 4

A diminished chord is made up of a minor 3rd (3 semitones) and a minor 3rd (3 semitones). Think of diminished meaning squished – instead of using a major and minor interval, a diminished chord uses two minor intervals.

Pic 5

With all of these chords it is usual to double the root note, sometimes the 5th and the 3rd under very special circumstances.

Sometimes the chords are reorganised so that a different note appears at the bottom of the chord.  These are known as inversions.  When the notes are organised in triad form the root is at the bottom of the chord with the 3rd and 5th above, it is in root position.  If the notes are re-organised so that the 3rd is at the bottom, with the 5th and root above, it is in first inversion.  If the chord is organised so that the 5th is at the bottom, with the root and third above, it is in 2nd inversion.

Pic 6

Above you can see a root position triad in bar 1, a first inversion in bar 2 and a second inversion chord in the last bar.  These three different ways of playing these chords provide a very different sound and create good harmonic interest.

When playing as part of a group, understanding where your note sits in the chord can mean that you can play with far greater awareness of the music.  When playing the third of the chord, for example, it is very important to be aware that intonation is very important as this note defines whether the chord is major or minor.  If you are playing the root, it is important to ensure that the note is clear, in tune and strong enough to provide a foundation for the chord.

So how do you work out what note you have?  This is through a process of playing the chords on a piano or keyboard and listening to how they sound.  Listen carefully to how the chord sounds in root position, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion and you will be able to pick out that they all have a very different sound.  When you have started to become a bit more used to this, and have practiced this in different keys you can then start to transfer this listening skill to the ensembles that you play in.

Through careful listening it is possible to tell where your note is placed in a chord and adjust intonation, balance and begin to develop a sense of real musical understanding.

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