Music Theory (1) Chords And Harmony

Chord And Harmony
If you came to this website then you probably want to learn something about music theory. You may be an absolute beginner or you may already know a lot of music theory already and want to learn some more advanced topics. In either case understand that learning music theory is one of the more beneficial things a musician can do and I hope you will continue the process.
Why study music theory?
Contrary to what some people may say learning music theory does not reduce your ability to enjoy music. In fact you may enjoy music even more after you learn some theory because the more you know about how music works the more you will be able to do as a musician.
There are many reasons to study music theory but the top reasons are:
  1. You will be a better performer. - If you don't know much music theory and you are playing some music and you encounter a passage that has the notes C, E, and G, you would have to mentally process those three notes separately, and this will slow down your ability to perform. If a musician who knows music theory plays the same passage they would instantly recognize that the notes C, E, and G make up a C Major chord and they would play those notes more easily because it took less mental effort to understand the music. Music theory makes learning, practicing and performing much easier.
  2. You will have more options as a musician. - All musical activities will be much easier. Performing, composing, improvising, arranging, teaching music, or getting a music degree will be much easier if you know music theory.
How to study music theory
  • The first thing musicians should learn about music theory is notation: the staff, clefs, note names, rhythms, rests, intervals, meter and time signatures, key signatures, and dynamics.
  • The next things musicians should learn are scales and chords(harmony).
  • The next things to learn are melody, phrases, and musical forms.
  • If you have you learned all of the above then you will have a firm grasp of music theory.

Chords are notes played simultaneously. The most commonly used chords are constructed from stacked thirds. Chords can also be constructed from seconds, fourths or fifths but these types of chords are less common.
Basic chords:

Seventh Chords:
If we stack another third onto any of the basic chords we now have Seventh Chords.

From left to right the names of these chords are: Major-Major seventh, Major-minor seventh, minor-minor seventh, minor-Major seventh.

These chords names are commonly abbreviated, such as M7 for Major-Major Seventh and 7 for Major-minor seventh.

From left to right the names of these chords are: Augmented-Major seventh, Augmented-minor seventh, Half diminished, diminished seventh.

Extended Chords 
Extended Chords are chords extended past seventh chords. If we stack a third upon any seventh chord we now have a Ninth Chord. If we stack a third upon any ninth chord we now have an Eleventh Chord. Finally, if we stack a third upon any eleventh chord we now have a Thirteenth Chord.
Examples of Extended Chords:

There are various Chord Symbols that can be combined to indicate many different types of chords.
Basic Chord Symbols:
  • Letter Name (e.g., C) = Major chord
  • m = minor chord
  • + = Augmented chord
  • o = diminished chord
Seventh Chords:
  • 7 = minor seventh
  • M7 = Major seventh
  • Ø = half-diminished chord
  • o7 = diminished seventh chord
Extended Chords:
  • 9 = Ninth chord
  • 11 = Eleventh chord
  • 13 = Thirteenth chord
Altered Tones:
  • b5 = flat fifth
  • #5 = sharp fifth
  • b9 = flat ninth
  • #9 = sharp ninth
  • #11 = sharp eleventh
  • b13 = flat thirteenth

CM7 = a C Major chord with a Major seventh.

Dm(M7) = a D minor chord with a Major seventh.

Fm9 = an F minor chord with a minor seventh and ninth.

C7#9 = a C Major chord with a minor seventh and a sharp ninth.

Chord Roots:
The Root of any chord will be the note which corresponds to the letter name of the chord. For example, the Root of a DM7 chord is D.

Chord Inversion:
If the root of a chord is not in the bass (the lowest note in a chord voicing) then that chord is said to be an Inverted Chord. For example, starting form lowest to highest, if you have the notes E, G and C you have an inverted C Major chord. It is inverted because the C, the Root of the chord, is not in the bass.

Any chord with the notes C, E, and G is a C Major chord no matter which note is in the bass, because they all contain the same notes.

Examples of Inverted Chords:

Roman Numeral And Chord Notation
The chords of the Major and Minor scales can be indicated by roman numerals.

Major chord: I, II, III, etc.
Minor chord: i, ii, iii, etc.

Augmented chord: I+, II+, III+, etc.
Diminished chord: vi°, vii°, etc.

Half-diminished chord: viiØ7, etc.
Extended chords: ii7, V9, V13, etc.
Altered tones or chords: #iv, ii#7

Chords of the Major Scale:

Chords of the Natural minor scale:

Chords of the Harmonic minor scale:

Chords of the Melodic minor scale (ascending):

Other examples:

Quartal And Quintal Chords
Most chords are constructed from major or minor thirds. Quartal chords are chords that are constructed from fourths. Quintal chords are constructed from fifths.

Quartal Chords:

Quintal Chords:
Quartal and Quintal chords have a suspended un-anchored sound to them that differs form regular chords. This quality makes Quartal and Quintal chords very useful in a composer's chord vocabulary.

The French composer Claude Debussy was one of the first composers to use Quartal and Quintal chords regularly. Quartal and Quintal chords are now common in jazz, rock music and TV and film music. Quartal chords are also easy to play on the guitar due to the fact that the standard guitar tuning is mostly fourths.

Quartal chord on Guitar:

Augmented Sixth Chords
If we have a minor chord in first inversion the interval between the bass note and the root of the chord is a Major sixth.

If we then raise the tonic note (by an augmented unison), the interval between the bass note and root note becomes an augmented sixth. A chord with this interval of an augmented sixth is called an Augmented Sixth Chord.

The three basic types of Augmented sixth chords:
An Italian Sixth Chord has an augmented sixth between the bass and root of the chord, with the fifth of the chord in-between the bass note and root.

A German Sixth is like the Italian sixth but with one extra note placed aperfect fifth above the bass note.

A French Sixth is like the Italian sixth but with one extra note placed aAugmented fourth above the bass note.

The resolutions of Augmented sixth chords:
Italian and French Sixth chords will most often resolve to a dominant chord.

The German Sixth will most often resolve to a dominant or tonic chord. (It is worth noting that if the German Sixth resolves to the dominant then parallel fifths will occur, which can cause musical lines to lose their independence in certain styles of music.)

Polychords are chords constructed from two or more separate chords. Composers and improvisers use polychords as a resource for rich and complex sounds in their music. Polychords frequently occur in jazz and modern classical music.

Examples of Polychords:

C Major/E-flat Major:

D Major/B-flat minor:

C Augmented/G7 Augmented:

C Major/F-sharp Major Polychord - "Petrushka Chord":This chord was used by composer Igor Stravinsky in his ballet Petrushka.

Basic Piano Chords
The chords every piano and keyboard player should know are the basicMajor, minor, Augmented, and diminished chords, and seventh chords. These are the most common chords and are relatively easy to play.

These chords are shown with the root note C. Other root notes are possible by transposing these chords. For example, a C Major chord (C, E, G) can be transposed to D. This will result in a D Major chord (D, F-sharp, A).

These chords are constructed from musical intervals. Each chord has:
  1. A Root note
  2. A note a Major third (M3) or minor third (m3) above the Root
  3. A note a Perfect fifth (P5), Augmented fifth (A5), or diminished fifth above the Root
  • And seventh chords also have a note a Major seventh (M7), minor seventh (m7), or diminished seventh (d7) above the Root.
The basic chords:
  • Major - Root, M3, P5
  • minor - Root, m3, P5
  • Augmented (Aug) - Root, M3, A5
  • diminished (dim) - Root, m3, d5
The seventh chords:
  • 7 - Root, M3, P5, m7
  • M7 - Root, M3, P5, M7
  • m7 - Root, m3, P5, m7
  • dim7 - Root, m3, d5, d7
  • half dim7 - Root, m3, d5, m7

If we choose a Major chord for example we begin by picking a Root note. We could pick any of the 12 notes but in this case we will choose G. The next note we need is a Major third (M3) above the Root, which in this case would be the note B. The final note we need is a Perfect fifth above the root, which in this case would be the note D. Now we have all three notes of our Major chord: G, B, and D.

For reference here is a diagram of the keyboard with the note names on it:

Now that you know these chords you might want to learn about chord inversion, chord symbols, or extended chords.

Basic Guitar Chords
The easiest chords to play on the guitar are the Major, Minor and Seventh chords in open voicings. These chords use open strings and no more than three fingers, and they don't go into the higher positions of the guitar. The ease in playing these chords makes them the best for beginners to learn. This article will show them in two different ways: fretboard diagrams, and tablature (Tab).

A quick review of chord symbols: Uppercase letters indicate Major chords, a chord with a lowercase "m" indicates a minor chord, and a "7" indicates that the chord is a seventh chord.

Fretboard Diagrams

Open circles indicate open strings.
Dark, filled in circles indicate the spots on the frets where you put your fingers.
The "X" symbol tells you to not play a string.


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