Let's Play #2 - Basic Chord Types - Modal Electronics Skip to content

Let’s Play #2 – Basic Chord Types

Let’s explore chords (not cords – that’s a whole ‘nother thing) in this outing
by Jerry Kovarsky

Introduction

Let’s explore chords (not cords – that’s a whole ‘nother thing) in this outing. You may think you know about them already, but stick with me, I think I’ll have some new ideas for you along the way.

At their most basic, a chord is a group of stacked notes, played together. Does that mean that if you drop your hands on the keyboard without regard for anything that what results can be called a chord? Possibly not, but I’m not here to stop you from creating whatever colors you want. The concept of chord types does relates to things like a key signature and types of scales, and even functional harmony, which are all concepts we will talk about in the future, but for this column I just want to expose you to the sounds and construction of various chord types. We’ll learn more about how to effectively use them at some later date.

The Four Basic Chord Qualities

First up is the Major triad (a triad is a chord made up of three notes). Here is the C Major chord: 

Building up from the C note (which we call the root of the chord), we add a note (E) a major third higher (count up four half-steps), and then we add a note (G) located a minor third up from the E (count up three half-steps). Or you can think of the third note as a perfect fifth higher than the root (count up seven half-steps). Using the names of these intervals we call the notes the root, the 3rd, and the 5th of the chord. Since the third is a major third higher we can call them root, major 3rd and 5th.

Listen to the example below: people often say the major triad sounds bright, or happy.

Next up is the minor triad. 

Building up from the C note we add a note (Eb) a minor third higher (count up three half-steps), and then we add a note (G) located a major third up from the E (count up four half-steps), or a perfect fifth (up seven half-steps) from the root. Using the names of these intervals we call the notes the root, the minor (or flat) 3rd, and the 5th of the chord.

Listen to the example below: people often say the minor triad sounds dark, or sad. 

The next chord is called the diminished triad. To diminish something means to reduce it, or make it smaller, and this chord reduces the space between the notes of the major triad. From the root we add two notes that are each a minor third higher (count up three half steps). We call the notes the root, the minor (or flat) 3rd, and the flatted 5th of the chord. 

Listen to the example below: people often say the diminished triad sounds edgy, or dissonant. 

Next we come to the augmented triad. To augment means to extend, or add on to something. Building up from the C note we add a note (E) a major third higher (count up four half-steps), and then we add a note (G#) located a major third up from the E (count up four half-steps). We call the notes the root, the major 3rd, and the sharp (or augmented) 5th of the chord. 

Listen to the example below: people often say the augmented triad sounds a bit mysterious, or suspenseful. That probably comes from the way it has been used in TV and film scores for many decades now. 

Two More Cool Chord Qualities

Now we come to a chord called a suspend 4th, or sus4. The suspension is referring to moving the major 3rd up a half-step to the 4th (in this case E becomes an F). Building up from the C note we add a note (F) a perfect fourth higher (count up five half-steps), and then we add a note (G) located a whole step up from the F (count up two half-steps), or a perfect fifth (up seven half-steps) from the root. Using the names of these intervals we call the notes the root, the sus 4, and the 5th of the chord. 

Listen to the example below: people often say the sus4 triad sounds open, or unresolved.

The next chord is not as common as the previous ones, but has become a major part of pop and jazz music over the last few decades. It is called the suspended or sus2 chord. As you might expect, it trades out the 4th tone for a 2nd. Building up from the C note we add a note (D) a whole step higher (count up two half-steps), and then we add a note (G) located a perfect fourth up from the D (count up five half-steps), or a perfect fifth (up seven half-steps) from the root. Using the names of these intervals we call the notes the root, the sus2 (or just the 2nd), and the 5th of the chord. 

Listen to the example below: people often say the sus2 triad also sounds open, but is less unresolved than the sus4. So it sounds “at rest.” 

Armed with these chord types you could write and play a lot of pop and dance music. But before I teach you some things about how to play them in a variety of ways, I want to go over 4-note chords. Which we’ll do in the next column.

To get these chord types into your head, ears and under your fingers, download this chart giving you these triad types in all 12 keys. 

Jerry Kovarsky

Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected  in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. More recently, Jerry writes about technology and keyboard musicianship for numerous outlets. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art and has returned to his musical roots, performing, recording, and teaching on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

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