Understanding chords (Part I)



what-brass-players-wantUnderstanding how chords are put together will help improve your understanding of how the music you play is constructed. The easiest way to approach understanding how chords work is to think of them as triads.  The term triad simply means a three note chord.

The easiest way to understand chords is to work from scales.  Scales and key signatures are the fundamental thing that form the basis of much of the theoretical understanding you will ever need. If you need to brush up on scales a bit, then check out this post or have a look at a new theory course book here.

The major scale is made up of a pattern of tones and semitones.  The pattern tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone will allow you to work out any scale from any given note.  For example, the C major scale starts and finishes on the note C and has the following notes:

C tone D tone E semitone F tone G tone A tone B semitone C

what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsIf you start the same thing on the note D, it is necessary to raise some of the notes by a semitone to make the pattern work. This means the D scale will have the following notes:

D tone E tone F# semitone G tone A tone B tone C# semitone D
what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsAt the moment you could be thinking that this post doesn’t seem to have that much to do with chords. However, the previous information is a fundamental way of showing how chords are actually constructed, but more importantly why some are major or minor.

Forming Major Chords

To form a chord all you need to do is take the first, third and fifth note of the scale.  So in C major the first, third and fifth notes are C, E and G. Therefore the notes for the C chord are C, E and G.

what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsSo we have the way of working out chords and have the chord C. The next important bit of information is which chords we can use with that chord.  The three most important chords that are used most often are the tonic chord (the chord formed on the first note of the scale), the sub dominant (the chord formed on the fourth note of the scale), and the dominant (the chord formed on the fifth note of the scale).  In this case our tonic is the note C, our sub dominant is the note F and our dominant is the note G.

what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsTo get the major chord of F, we can take the first, third and fifth notes of the F major scale.  These would be the notes F, A and C. To get the chord G, all we need to do is take the first, third and fifth notes of the G major scale.

what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordswhat-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsThis can be transferred to any starting note with any key. For example, if we take the note F as the note we want to work from, the chords would be worked out as follows:

The tonic note would be the note F
F major scale = F G A Bb C D E F
Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the scale are F, A and C
Chord F = F, A and C

what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsThe sub dominant note is Bb
Bb major scale = Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the scale are Bb, D and F
Chord Bb = Bb, D and F

what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsThe dominant note is C
C major scale = C D E F G A B C
Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the scale are C, E and G
Chord C = C, E and G

what-brass-players-wanr-understanding-chordsThis easy method will help you to work out any of the primary chords of any piece that you play in a major key.  There are lots of other ways of working out chords that you are able to use that are slightly quicker.

Next week I will blog about using primary and secondary triads (major and minor chords) as well as how to form diminished and augmented chords!

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