Chord Clues A Quick Guide to Chord Theory

Chord Clues
A Quick Guide to Chord Theory
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Version 1.0 - Copyright © 2008-2010 M.I. Hollemans
This content was published previously on www.pianoclues.com
Feedback is welcome at [email protected]
–1–
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•
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–2–
Why learn chords?
Musicians can be divided into two groups: those who read sheet music and those who play
using the “chord method”.
If you’re a sheet music player, you may think that you don’t need to know about chords.
However, I believe that understanding how chords are used in a composition will make it
much easier for you to read and understand the piece.
Even for classical music! Just like today’s songwriters, composers of classical music used
chords to create their harmonies. Chords are the foundation of all our music.
Here is an example:
This is the first phrase of “Largo in Eb major” by Chopin.
Now, I’m not a particularly good sight-reader and this looks pretty intimidating to me. But
when I write down the chords, it instantly becomes a lot easier for me to read.
Because I know how to form chords, I can predict what the notes will be and what shapes my
hands need to assume.
Here is the same phrase with added chord symbols:
It may be a little hard to read in the picture, but the chords are: Eb, Bb7, G7/B, Cm, G7, Ab,
Fm, Eb/Bb, Bb7, Bb7/Eb, Eb.
–3–
I notated some chords as “slash chords”, for example G7/B. This is a G7 chord but with a B
tone in the bass.
Now it’s just a matter of playing the correct melody note in the right hand and the bass note
in the left hand, and filling in the rest with chord tones.
I don’t really need to read each individual note: I can assume with a large likelihood of success
that most of them will be tones from the chord. And if they are not, then playing a chord tone
will still sound acceptable. ;-)
I do this on all my sheet music pieces now: first find the chords and write them above the
music. It makes the structure of the piece more understandable to me, and I learn it quicker.
By making the chords visible, the dots on the page are no longer arbitrary and unrelated.
–4–
The different types of chords
If you’re wondering exactly what a chord is: You make a chord by playing 3 or more tones
together. That’s it, as simple as that.
But which tones? Well, that depends on what you want to use the chord for.
Not all chords are the same. There are roughly six different types of chords and each of these
types has its own function in the language of music.
The most important tone in the chord is called the root tone. This is the tone that the chord
gets its name from. For example, the C major chord is built on the root tone C and is of the
type major.
You can use each of the 12 unique tones on the piano as the root to build a chord on, but in
this article we’ll just look at C.
Here are the different chord types:
The major chord
This is the C major chord:
Major chords are the most common chords in our music. The tones in this particular major
chord are: C (the root tone), E and G.
–5–
The minor chord
This is the C minor chord:
The minor chord has two tones in common with the major chord, but the middle tone is
different: an Eb instead of the E. Minor chords are often labeled as having a “sad” sound.
The dominant-7 chord
This is the C dominant-7 chord:
Chords can have more than 3 tones. It is possible to “extend” major and minor chords with
additional tones, but most of these do not change the type of the chord: it stays major or
minor.
However, by adding a Bb to the C major chord we do change its character and thereby its
function. The resulting chord is called the dominant-7 chord (or just “7 chord”).
–6–
The diminished chord
This is the C diminished chord:
It looks a little like the C minor chord but with a Gb instead of a G. You can make a diminished
chord by lowering the highest tone of a minor chord, or the top two tones of a major chord.
The augmented chord
This is the C augmented chord:
Not only can you lower tones, you can also raise them. Here, we have raised the G to a G# to
form an augmented chord.
An augmented chord has the same function as a dominant-7 chord, and they can substitute
for each other. (Often they are combined into one chord.)
–7–
The suspended chord
This is the C suspended chord:
By taking a C major chord and playing an F instead of the E, the chord becomes suspended.
These types of chords create tension that is often resolved by playing a major chord.
Try it: play the C suspended chord followed by C major. Can you hear how C major relieves the
tension created by the suspended chord?
As you can see in the pictures above, what causes the differences between these chord types
are the distances between the tones that make up the chord. These distances are called
intervals and we look at those later.
–8–
How to construct chords
You don’t need a “1000 Chords Dictionary” to be able to read and play chords. You can learn
how to form chords on your own, because chords are built using simple formulas.
A chord is three or more notes played at the same time. It’s as simple as that. Of course, the
trick is to know which three notes…
Obviously, not all combinations of notes sound good. Particular combinations each have their
own name: there are “major” chords, “minor” chords, “dominant-7” chords, “diminished
chords”, and so on. See the previous chapter for the different chord types
Of each chord type, there are 12 possible chords: one for each note. So there is a C major
chord, a C# major chord (which is the same as the Db major chord), a D major chord, and so
on. There is also a C minor chord, a C# minor chord… you get the drift.
The note that names the chord is called the root note. So in the Cmaj7 chord, the root note is
C. The chord quality (or chord type) is maj7, which is short for “major chord with an added
7th”.
What’s the difference between all these chord types? The way they sound, of course: each
type has its own unique sound. For example, major-7 chords such as the Cmaj7 have a warm
sound, while dominant-7 chords like C7 sound very bluesy.
Chord formulas
To form a chord you simply apply a formula to the major scale named by the root tone. This
formula tells you which notes from the scale make up the chord. Each chord type has its own
formula.
So to build any type of chord, you need to know:
•
•
the major scale for the root tone of that chord, and
the formula for that chord.
I am assuming that you already can play the 12 major scales. If not, learn the major scales first.
Let’s put this knowledge into practice.
–9–
The formula for major chords is: 1 – 3 – 5
We know that the scale for C major is:
C
1
D
2
E
3
F
4
G
5
A
6
B
7
C
8
If we fill in the numbers from the formula, we get: C – E – G. These are the tones of the C
major chord. Make sense? That’s all there is to it.
Tip: When we say: “The 3rd of the chord” we mean the third tone from its major scale, E in the
previous example. (So we don’t mean the 3rd note in the chord, but in the scale.)
A major scale only contains 7 unique tones but sometimes we count to 13! We call these
extended tones because they extend beyond the octave. The most common extended tones
are 9, 11 and 13.
It’s important to realize that note “9” is the same as note “2”, 11 is the same as 4, and 13 is the
same as 6:
C
1
8
D
2
9
E
3
10
F
4
11
G
5
12
A
6
13
B
7
14
There are also formulas that contain the symbols b and #. The b stands for “flatten” or lower
by a half-step and # stands for “sharpen” or raise by a half-step.
For example, the formula for a minor chord is: 1 – b3 – 5.
You know that 3 is the third note of the scale, so to get b3 we lower the third note by a halfstep.
Likewise, the formula for an augmented chord contains a #5: this is the fifth note raised by a
half-step. Any note can be raised or lowered but 3, 5, and 7 are the most common ones.
– 10 –
The chart
Chord naming rules and chord symbols are not always very consistent. Often the same chord
can have multiple names. The chart lists the most common symbols.
Note that the numbers in the formulas always indicate positions in the major scale.
Major chords:
Chord name
Major
Major 6
Major 7
Major 9
Major 11
Major 13
Major add 9
Major 6/9
Chord symbol
(nothing), maj, ma, M, ∆
6, maj6, ma6
maj7, ma7, M7, ∆7, j7
maj9, ma9, M9, ∆9, j9
maj11, M11, ∆11, j11
maj13, M13, ∆13, j13
add9, /9
6/9, 9/6
Formula
1–3–5
1–3–5–6
1–3–5–7
1–3–5–7–9
1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11
1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11 – 13
1–3–5–9
1–3–5–6–9
Chord symbol
m, min, mi, m6, min6
m7, min7
m9, min9
m11, min11
m13, min13
m(maj7), mM7, m∆7
m(maj9), mM9, m∆9
m(add9), m/9
m6/9, m9/6
Formula
1 – b3 – 5
1 – b3 – 5 – 6
1 – b3 – 5 – b7
1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9
1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11
1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11 – 13
1 – b3 – 5 – 7
1 – b3 – 5 – 7 – 9
1 – b3 – 5 – 9
1 – b3 – 5 – 6 – 9
Minor chords:
Chord name
Minor
Minor 6
Minor 7
Minor 9
Minor 11
Minor 13
Minor major 7
Minor major 9
Minor add 9
Minor 6/9
Dominant chords:
Chord name
Dominant 7
Dominant 9
Dominant 11
Dominant 13
Chord symbol
7
9
11
13
Formula
1 – 3 – 5 – b7
1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9
1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11
1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11 – 13
– 11 –
Diminished chords:
Chord name
Diminished
Diminished 7
Half-diminished (7)
Chord symbol
dim, °
dim7, °7
m7b5, m7-5, ø
Formula
1 – b3 – b5
1 – b3 – b5 – bb7 (bb7 = 6)
1 – b3 – b5 – b7
Chord symbol
aug, +, +5
aug7, 7#5, 7+5
Formula
1 – 3 – #5
1 – 3 – #5 – b7
Chord symbol
sus, sus4
7sus, 7sus4
sus2
Formula
1–4–5
1 – 4 – 5 – b7
1–2–5
Augmented chords:
Chord name
Augmented
Augmented 7
Suspended chords:
Chord name
Suspended (4)
Suspended 7
Suspended 2
Tip: If the chord symbol is some kind of complicated chord, like Cmaj13, and you don’t know
how to play all the additional tones, then you can simplify the chord to its basics. In this case,
the basic chord is the major chord, so you can get away by playing only 1 – 3 – 5. It might not
sound entirely as intended, but it will still sound good.
– 12 –
Altered chords
Occasionally, you may come across a weird-looking chord symbol such as G7b9 or C7b9#5.
The b9 and #5 indicate “alterations” to the chord.
Alterations change the “color” of the chord but do not change its character and purpose.
As always, b means to lower a tone by a half-step and # means to raise the tone a half-step.
The chord G7b9 contains the tones of the G7 chord with an added 9th that is lowered a halfstep.
The tones of the G7 chord are: G – B – D – F
The 9th from the major scale of G is A, but we still need to flatten it. (Remember that the 9th
is the same as the 2nd degree from the scale.)
The final chord is: G – B – D – F – Ab
The chord C7b9#5 also contains a lowered 9 (Db in this case) and its 5th has been raised (to a
G#).
That makes the tones for this chord: C – E – G# – Bb – Db
If the chord symbol is 7alt, then you are free to make your own alterations. Usually only the
9th and the 5th are altered, but raising or lowering the 11th and 13th also happens.
Sometimes the alterations are put in parentheses: C7(b9). That is especially helpful on chords
that already have a b or # in their name: C#9 is a C# dominant-9 chord, not a C chord with a
raised 9!
Occasionally, the symbols - and + are used for b and #. For example: C7-5
That’s it! If you’re already comfortable with building chords from scale degrees then altered
chords should not cause you any problems.
– 13 –
Simplifying chords
If you play from leadsheets or you downloaded a chord chart from the internet, you may
occasionally find chord symbols that you don’t know yet how to play.
Here’s the trick: the only thing that really matters about a chord is whether it is major or
minor. You can safely ignore anything else about the chord.
For example, you may encounter the chord symbols Am9 and D13.
The first one is an “A minor” chord with an added 7th and an added 9th.
The second one is a “D dominant-7” chord with an added 13th but it could also have a 9th
and 11th, depending on how you voice it.
If that didn’t make any sense to you and you have no clue how to form these chords, then
keep what you know and throw away the rest.
In our example:
Am9 can be simplified to Am, which is A minor. That’s a very simple three-tone chord.
D13 can simply be played as D major. Again, a very simple chord.
When you play Am instead of Am9 and D major instead of D19, the tune probably won’t
sound quite like it’s supposed to, but it won’t sound bad either. You can get away with it!
The only important thing to get right is the distinction between major and minor. If you mix
those up, something will sound bad.
To recap:
• A chord symbol that has an “m” or “min” (or sometimes a minus sign) can be simplified
to a minor chord.
• Any other chords can be simplified to a major chord.
And if you’re really not sure, you can simplify even further to a power chord. :-)
(There are a few other chord types too, such as diminished and augmented, but we’ll ignore
those for now. Just worry about major and minor.)
– 14 –
The power chord
The “power chord” is a simplified chord, used mostly by rock guitarists but it also has a place
on the piano.
Remember that a major chord consists of the first, third and fifth degrees of the major scale. A
minor chord is like a major chord but with the 3rd lowered a half-step.
A power chord, however, just has the 1 and 5 and omits the 3rd. Because we leave out the 3rd
in a power chord, it is neither major nor minor.
You can play a power chord whenever a major or minor chord is required. In fact, because the
1 and 5 are present in every chord except for diminished and augmented chords, you can
substitute power chords almost everywhere.
The reason rock guitar players love power chords is that you only have to learn a single hand
shape in order to play all possible power chords. Also, when you apply a lot of distortion to
the sound, power chords sound better than full chords.
Power chords are not very common in piano music. But they are useful if you want to play
chords way down low on the keyboard.
With those low tones, adding the 3rd makes the sound too muddy, so playing just 1-5 will
sound better than 1-3-5.
The notation for a power chord, for example the C power chord, is C5. Less common is
something like C(omit3).
– 15 –
Diatonic chords
The key that a piece is written in does not just determine the possible melody tones, but also
the chords that can be used.
The diatonic chords are the ones most likely to make an appearance. These are the chords
that can be built on the tones of the key’s scale. They do not “borrow” tones from other scales.
Let’s assume we’re playing in the “key of C”. That means we’re using the tones from the C
major scale.
The C major scale is: C D E F G A B C
We can build a three-note chord — also called a “triad” — on each of these tones.
This is the formula: We pick a root tone to start from, then skip one to find the second chord
tone, then skip another to find the last chord tone.
The first chord is C major: C E G
See what I did? I started on the first tone from the scale, C. Then I skipped a tone, D, to land
on E. Then I skipped another tone, F, to get to G. And I know that the combination C-E-G is
called the “C major” chord.
The second chord is D minor: D F A
This time I started on D, skipped E, found F, skipped G, found A. Very simple.
If we apply that formula to all tones in the scale, we find the following chords:
Chord
C major
D minor
E minor
F major
G major
A minor
B diminished
Tones
CEG
DFA
EGB
FAC
GBD
ACE
BDF
– 16 –
Or viewed slightly differently:
C major
D minor
E minor
F major
G major
A minor
B dim
C
C
D
D
E
E
E
F
F
F
G
G
G
G
A
A
A
A
B
C
D
E
F
B
B
B
C
C
D
D
E
F
Here it is in sheet music notation:
For any piece in the key of C, these are the most common chords. (Actually, B diminished is
much less common than the others.)
Not all of the chords have the same type: some are major, some are minor, and one is
diminished.
For any major scale, the order is always as follows:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
major
minor
minor
major
major
minor
diminished
Try it for yourself on the scale of F major: F G A Bb C D E F
– 17 –
You should find the following chords:
Chord
F major
G minor
A minor
Bb major
C major
D minor
E diminished
Tones
FAC
G Bb D
ACE
Bb D F
CEG
DFA
E G Bb
Minor keys
We can also build chords on the tones from a minor key. Let’s take the key of A minor. We will
use the natural minor scale to build the chords, except for one.
The natural scale of A minor is: A B C D E F G A
These are the same tones as the scale of C major, although in a slightly different order. That is
because A minor is the relative minor of C major.
Because the two scales have the same tones, we can simply use the diatonic chords from the
key of C major, but we now begin at A instead of C:
Chord
A minor
B diminished
C major
D minor
E major
F major
G major
Tones
ACE
BDF
CEG
DFA
E G# B
FAC
GBD
Pay attention to the 5th chord, E major. This is the exception. If we used the natural minor
scale as we did for the other chords, this chord would have been called E minor.
Instead, we use the harmonic minor scale, which has a G# note instead of G. The reason is this:
the 5-chord should have a strong, powerful sound, even in minor keys.
– 18 –
In sheet music notation the chords are:
Again, notice the G# on the E major chord.
Seventh chords
The chords we looked at so far were triads, chords with only 3 tones. We can add another tone
on top to make them “seventh” chords. Adding this “7th” will refine the character of the
chords.
(We could add more tones too, to make 9th, 11th, or even 13th chords, but these additional
tones don’t have as much impact on the character of the chord.)
Back to the key of C and the C major scale: C D E F G A B C
We made our chords by skipping tones. Skipping another tone and adding the next note to
our C major chord makes it a C major-7th or Cmaj7 for short: C E G B
The second chord then becomes Dm7 (D minor-7th): D F A C
Get the drift? Here are all the diatonic 7th chords:
Chord
Cmaj7
Dm7
Em7
Fmaj7
G7
Am7
B half-dim7
Tones
CEGB
DFAC
EGBF
FACE
GBDF
ACEG
BDFA
In sheet music:
– 19 –
Now what did I mean by “refining the character” of the chords? When we had just 3-tone
chords, F and G were both major. Now, however, F has become a major-7 chord but G is a
dominant-7 chord.
A major-7 chord and a dominant-7 chord have two very different functions in the language of
music. The 5th chord in the key, in this case G7, is therefore usually played as a four-tone
chord, to make this distinction between major and dominant-7 clearer. Like I said, the 5-chord
is special.
Also, B diminished was refined to a B half-diminished-7 chord (and not a fully diminished-7
chord). Note that “Bm7b5” is another way of writing “B half-dim7”.
The order of diatonic seventh chords in a major key is always:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
maj7
m7
m7
maj7
dominant-7 (or just “7”)
m7
half-dim7 (or “m7b5”)
We can also add 7ths to the chords from a minor key. Again, these are simply the chords from
C major in a different order. With the exception of the the 5-chord, E7, which has also become
a dominant-7 chord here:
Chord
Am7
B half-dim7
Cmaj7
Dm7
E7
Fmaj7
G7
Tones
ACEG
BDFA
CEGB
DFAC
E G# B F
FACE
GBDF
– 20 –
Roman numerals (and the number system)
We have seen that it is possible to build chords on the tones of the major or minor scale (the
diatonic chords).
Often, these chords are not referred to by their name, but by a number. And not a regular
number like 1 or 6, but with Roman numerals.
In case you forgot all about them, here are the Roman numerals 1 to 7:
1
I
2
II
3
III
4
IV
5
V
6
VI
7
VII
If we were to write the diatonic chords from the C major scale using Roman numerals, it would
look like this:
C
I
Dm
ii
Em
iii
F
IV
G7
V7
Am
vi
Bdim
vii°
Notice the following:
•
•
•
•
Major chords (C and F) are written using capitals.
Minor chords (Dm, Em and Am) are in lower-case.
The dominant-7 chord (G7) is written as V7.
The diminished chord (Bdim) is written as vii°
Occasionally, you may also see the following notation:
C
I
Dm
IIm
Em
IIIm
F
IV
G7
V7
Am
VIm
Bdim
VII°
Why use these Roman numerals instead of the chord names? Because using the numbers
allows us to talk about chords and chord progressions independently of the key.
For example, the chord progressions C F G7 C and F Bb C7 F can both be written as I IV V7 I.
– 21 –
The first is in the key of C and the second in the key of F, but otherwise they are identical:
Roman numerals: I
Key of C:
C
Key of F:
F
ii
Dm
Gm
iii
Em
Am
IV
F
Bb
V7
G7
C7
vi
Am
Dm
vii°
Bdim
Edim
One advantage of using numbers instead of chords is that it becomes easy to transcribe a
piece from one key to another.
Example. Here is the beginning of Misty in the key of C:
C
Gm
C7
F
Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree
Suppose you want to play it in another key, say G. First, you replace the chord names with
Roman numerals:
I
Vm
I7
IV
Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree
Then you look up the chords for the new key and fill them in:
G
Dm
G7
C
Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree
The principle works the same for the chords from a minor scale, although the symbols are
slightly different (because the chords have different qualities).
For example, the key of A minor:
Am
i
Bdim C
ii°
III
Dm
iv
E7
V7
F
VI
G7
VII7
It is also possible to use Roman numerals to describe chords that are not diatonic. In other
words, chords that are borrowed from other keys.
For example, the chord bIII is the 3rd chord (III), in major (uppercase letters), lowered by a
half-step (b). In the key of C, this would be the Eb major chord.
You may also see a sharp symbol combined with a Roman numeral: #IV in the key of C is the
F# major chord.
– 22 –
It is not uncommon to add a qualifier to the Roman numeral. Examples: IVmaj7, II7, #IVdim7.
To find the real chord, substitute the Roman numeral for the n-th chord from the scale.
You may have heard of the Nashville Number System. This is the same principle, although it
works with plain-old numbers instead of Roman numerals. So instead of II-V-I you’d see 2-51, but they both mean the same thing.
Solfege is yet another system, except that it doesn’t use numbers, but syllables:
1
Do
2
Re
3
Mi
4
Fa
5
Sol
6
La
7
Ti
And finally, each of the diatonic chords can also be given a name that more-or-less describes
its function. Different chords have different functions in their key. I’ll simply give you the list
here:
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Tonic
Supertonic
Mediant
Subdominant
Dominant
Submediant
Leading tone (or subtonic)
So now you know that when people talk about the “I-chord” or “tonic”, they mean the first
chord from the key.
– 23 –
Building chords from intervals
We have already seen how to build chords using major scale degrees. But we can also build
chords from intervals, by stacking minor third and major third intervals on top of the root
tone.
An interval is nothing more than the distance between two tones. To find the name for an
interval you can simply count the number of half-steps (or “semitones”) between the two
tones and look up the name in the following table.
Just in case you did not know, a half-step or semitone means: go one key on the keyboard to
the left or right. Suppose we start at the C key. A half-step up from C is C#, a half-step up from
C# is D. Conversely, a half-step down from C is B, a half-step down from B is Bb.
Interval name
Unison
Minor second
Major second
Minor third
Major third
Perfect fourth
Augmented fourth
Diminished fifth
Perfect fifth
Augmented fifth
Minor sixth
Major sixth
Diminished seventh
Minor seventh
Major seventh
Octave (or eight)
Half steps
0
1
2
3
4
5
6
6
7
8
8
9
9
10
11
12
For example, let’s look at a major chord, C major. It consists of the tones C – E – G.
The interval from C up to E is a major third (4 half-steps).
The interval from E up to G is a minor third (3 half-steps).
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This interval formula, root + major third + minor third, applies to all major chords. The other
chord types have their own formulas:
Chord name
Major
Major 7
Minor
Minor 7
Minor major 7
Dominant 7
Diminished
Diminished 7
Half-diminished
Augmented
Formula
root + maj 3rd + min 3rd
root + maj 3rd + min 3rd + maj 3rd
root + min 3rd + maj 3rd
root + min 3rd + maj 3rd + min 3rd
root + min 3rd + maj 3rd + maj 3rd
root + maj 3rd + min 3rd + min 3rd
root + min 3rd + min 3rd
root + min 3rd + min 3rd + min 3rd
root + min 3rd + min 3rd + maj 3rd
root + maj 3rd + maj 3rd
The table above only lists chords that are built using thirds. Of course, you can think of all
other types of chords in terms of intervals too.
For example, the interval formula for a suspended chord like Csus4 (C-F-G) is: root + perfect
fourth + major second. And a major 6 chord such as Cmaj6 (C-E-G-A) is: root + maj 3rd + min
3rd + major 2nd.
And so on… Figuring out the interval formulas for all the other possible chord types is left as
an exercise for the reader. :-)
Alternatively, you can look at intervals this way: A major chord consists of the root, the tone a
major third up from the root, and the tone a perfect fifth up from the root. After all, C up to G
is a perfect fifth interval.
Personally, I don’t often think about chords in terms of intervals, but I do believe that learning
this skill will add to your understanding of the language of music.
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Inversions
Chords are made by playing three or more tones at once. Often we will play chords in root
position, which means that the lowest tone is the root tone of the chord.
For example, C major in root position is played as: C – E – G (from low to high)
Often it is useful to put the chord tones in a different order. We’ll go into the reasons why
later, but for now I’ll show you how to play such inversions.
If there are three tones in the chord, as in the C major chord above, we can play it in three
different positions:
1. Root position (or fundamental position)
2. First inversion
3. Second inversion
In first inversion, you take the lowest tone and put it on top. The chord becomes: E – G – C.
In terms of major scale degrees, the chord is now: 3-5-1
In second inversion, you take the highest tone and put it at the bottom. Now the chord is:
G – C – E. In scale degrees, the chord is now: 5-1-3
(You can also make the second inversion by taking the first inversion and putting its lowest
tone on top again.)
The number of tones in a chord determines the number of ways the chord can be played. So
four-tone chords can be played four different ways.
For example, the Cmaj7 chord:
1.
2.
3.
4.
Root position: C-E-G-B (1-3-5-7)
First inversion: E-G-B-C (3-5-7-1)
Second inversion: G-B-C-E (5-7-1-3)
Third inversion: B-C-E-G (7-1-3-5)
It’s as easy as that.
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In popular music, inversions are usually notated as slash chords, which look like: “chord
name/bass tone”.
An example is Cmaj7/E. This means you should play the Cmaj7 chord but so that the E tone is
at the bottom. In other words: in first inversion.
The classical way is a little trickier; it uses intervals to notate the inversion. For triads (threetone chords):
•
•
•
Root position: just the chord name
First inversion: chord6 — because the root is now a sixth interval above the bass tone
Second inversion: chord64 — the root is now a fourth above the bass tone and the 3rd
of the chord is now a sixth above the bass tone
Confused yet? Here are the notations for seventh chords (i.e. chords with four tones):
•
•
•
•
Root position: chord7
First inversion: chord65
Second inversion: chord43
Third inversion: chord2
Notice that from top to bottom, the inversion numbers go from 7 to 2. That’s a handy trick to
remember this notation scheme.
Anyway, I prefer the slash chord method to notate inversions. :-)
The main reasons for using inversions are: a) playing a smoother bass line, b) voice-leading.
More about that later.
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Chord progressions
A “chord progression” simply means: a series of chords. Most tunes are harmonized with three
or more chords, and the order of those chords is called the chord progression.
A verse or chorus of a song often starts out on the home chord (the I chord in the key), then
moves through a series of other chords and finally ends up on the home chord again.
Many songs (as well as classical pieces) use the same sequences of chords, and in this article
we’ll look at some of the most common ones.
A very basic progression is I – IV – V. If we’re playing in the key of C that would be C – F – G.
After the V chord you would typically play the I chord again.
Often the IV chord in this sequence is replaced by the ii chord. That is a minor chord. The
progression then becomes I – ii – V, or C – Dm – G in the key of C.
Again, this progression leads us back to the home chord, so the next chord after ii – V is most
likely to be the I chord. This progression is therefore known as ii – V – I (or 2-5-1).
Remember that the V chord is often played as V7. That is how you can recognize this
progression. If you see a minor chord followed by a dominant-7 chord, followed by a major
chord: it’s a ii-V-I.
An extension of this progression is the 1-6-2-5 pattern. (For some reason this progression is
often written using normal numbers instead of Roman numerals.)
In the key of C, it goes like this: C – Am – Dm – G7
One of the names these chords go by is the “Blue Moon progression”, but there is a huge
number of other songs that use it too.
Go play it on the piano and then hum the verse of “Blue Moon” or “Heart and Soul”. Don’t tell
me it doesn’t sound familiar. :-)
It is really easy to compose your own tunes on top of these four chords, because it will make
almost any melody sound good, but we’ll get into that in a later article.
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If you already know about the Circle of Fifths, notice that these chord progressions, 2-5-1 and
1-6-2-5 (or rather 6-2-5-1), are simply trips around the circle. Movement in fifths gives the
strongest type of sound that our ears like, so it is no wonder that these patterns are used so
much.
Because Dm can substitute for F (see above), you can also play 1-6-2-5 as 1-6-4-5, and vice
versa. It’s only a small variation in the sound.
What I want you to do now is go through your stack of sheet music or leadsheets (if you have
them) and see if you can find these chord progressions in those songs. Even classical pieces
will have them.
You can also find the chord sheets of many tunes online. Just go to Google and type in:
name of the song chords tabs
For example:
blue moon chords tabs
The words “chords” and “tabs” will tell Google to look for websites that have chord sheets. You
might have to dig around for a while but usually you can find a chord sheet for most music.
Remember that you can spot a ii-V-I by looking at the type of chords: a minor chord followed
by a dominant-7 chord, followed by a major chord. This is important, because sometimes —
especially in Jazz tunes — you may find a ii-V-I that uses chords that are not in the key of the
song.
For example: C Am F G7 Gm C7 F …
The first four chords are in the key of C, but Gm isn’t and neither is C7. What you see here is a
ii-V-I, namely Gm-C7-F, that is used to modulate to another key. The F is now the new I chord.
At some point the chords will modulate back to the original key, likely using another ii-V-I.
That’s a typical thing for Jazz tunes.
So much for the theory. It’s good to learn these chord patterns (1-6-2-5 and 2-5-1) in every
key, so go to your piano or guitar and play around with them.
– 29 –
Voice-leading
Suppose in a particular tune C chord is followed by F chord. Then you could play it like this:
However, that’s quite a big jump. As a result, the music sounds disconnected. Another way to
play this chord progression:
Now only two tones change — the C remains in the same place — and they jump only a very
small distance (a half-step and a whole-step, respectively).
The result is a much smoother sound. This principle is called voice-leading.
The key to voicing-leading is playing inversions. We started with C chord in root position and
then played the F chord in first inversion.
We also could have done it like this:
Now C is in first inversion and F is in second inversion. Again, one note remained in the same
place and the other two only jumped a small distance.
– 30 –
We always try to keep the tone (or tones) that the two chords have in common in the same
place. When C chord is followed by Am, only one tone moves:
However, in the progression F – G, all three tones must change because the F and G chords
don’t have any tones in common:
Unless, of course, we make G a four-tone chord, G7:
Note that I played the chord root in the bass this time.
Another four-tone chord example, Dm7 to G7:
Here, two notes remain stationary while the other two move a small distance downward.
– 31 –
That’s really all there is to it. To do proper voice-leading, find the inversion of the next chord
that requires the fewest changes.
Common uses for voice-leading: playing accompaniment, playing with string sounds (violins),
and playing organ and electronic keyboard — these instruments have no sustain pedal, so
voice-leading is needed for smooth changes.
Time to practice your inversions!
That's all, folks
Thanks for reading! I hope you learned a thing or two about chords and how they work.
If you have an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, then do check out my Reverse Chord Finder Pro
app. I think you will find it useful. For more information, see: www.reversechord.com
You can always reach me by e-mail at [email protected]
Have fun making music!
Matthijs Hollemans
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