Understanding Chords

This is a simple lesson designed to help you understand how chords are built, so that you can get started using them yourself.  Some folks try to make this a lot more complicated than it really is.  If you’re looking for a complex, deep-theory approach to chords, this post is going to leave feeling cold as a fish.  But if theoretical mastery isn’t your immediate goal, you should find this approach quite helpful.

In the same way that you couldn’t teach me to cook if I didn’t know what a frying pan or a knife was, a little terminology would be helpful to make sure that we are understanding one another.

Here are a few musical terms to start off with:

  • What is a note?  A note is simply the sound of one string being plucked on a guitar or one key being pressed on a piano. For example, if you pushed down one key on a piano, you would hear a specfic note.  Depending on which key you pressed the note would be called something different (like a C, or a F# (pronounced F sharp).  As you can see in this picture, I am playing a C.
  • What is a chord? A combination of three or more notes played together.
  • What is an interval? An interval is a measurement between two separate notes.    When measuring geographical distance, we might ask “how far is it from here to there, or from this place to that place?”  And, depending on the distance, one might answer “Oh, it’s 2 miles up the road from here.”Similarly, in music, we ask “what is the distance (or interval) between this note and that note?” And one might reply, “it’s a minor 3rd.” (If you’re not sure what a minor 3rd is, don’t worry.  It’s not very tricky and we’ll talk about it below.)
  • What is a whole tone? A whole-tone describes the relationship between 2 notes that are separated by another note. For example, if you were to move one whole-tone up from an E, you would play what’s known as an F# (if you don’t understand what a “flat” or a “sharp” is, don’t worry about it right now.  I’ll be posting about this soon.)Here’s an example of a whole tone on a piano.  Notice how I am skipping over a note.

  • And here’s an example of a whole tone on the guitar.

  • What is a semi-tone?  A semi-tone describes the relationship between two notes that are right next to each other.  For example, on a piano E to F is a semi-tone, because it is the closest note to the E.So on the piano, a semi-tone looks like the picture below.  Notice how I am NOT skipping over a note, but playing the next note over.

  • On the guitar, it looks like this:

Great.  Now that we are speaking the same language, lets get on to learning about chords.

So far we know that a chord is what you get when you play three or more notes at the same time.  If you’ve ever been to a music store and seen those thick spiral-bound books filled with 1000’s of chords, it might surprise you to learn that there are really only  5 chord-types that are used 95% of the time in all of the music we listen to every single day.  Just 5.

We also learned that intervals are used to measure the distance between the notes in any given chord.  The word “interval” is a generic term used to refer to a group of 13 specific measurements.  Starting with the smallest measurement, each one is bigger than the next by exactly one semi-tone.

Although learning the names of each of these intervals isn’t too tricky, and is a valuable exercise, we only need to know 2 of them to play 95% of the chords that we hear in popular music.  These are:

  1. Minor 3rd (m3) – We can think of this as being a small block, because “minor” is just another way of saying small.  It is exactly 3 notes (semi-tones) up from a foundation note (the “first note” in the picture at the right).

    The foundation note can be any note, but lets use E as an example…(insert picture here of me playing E on the Piano and Guitar).  If we start on E and measure a minor 3rd up, we will play a G note (because it happens to be 3 notes up).

  2. Major 3rd (M3) – We can think of this as being a BIG block, because Major is just another way of saying big.  It is exactly 4 notes (semi-tones) up from a foundation note.

    Let’s use E again as our example.  If we start on E and measure a Major 3rd up, we will play a G# note (because it happens to be 4 notes up).

So…If we know that a small block is only 3 notes up from any given note, and a big block is 4 notes up, all we need to start building chords is the proper mix of the two blocks.

Lucky for you, there are only a few recipes and they are quite easy to understand and remember.  Stay tuned, because in the next lesson, we’ll talk about the four most common “chord recipes”!

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil discovered his passion for music in his early teens when he began learning to play the guitar. He attended the VCC School of Music where he studied jazz and contemporary guitar performance. Phil joined Resound as a guitar teacher in 2013 and has been the school’s Director since 2014.

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