Musician’s Corner Part VIII

Welcome back to the Musician’s Corner. Previously, we took a look at the C major scale and from it we derived all of the naturally occurring modes. Today we are going to continue to analyze the C scale, but instead, shift our focus to the chords that can be created from it.

More specifically, today we are going to build triads. A triad is exactly what you might guess, a group of three notes. Even though more interesting and cool sounding chords can be built with more notes, doing this would be jumping ahead of our selves. A solid understanding of the triads on which more complex chords are constructed will not only give you a better understanding of the larger structures, but also allow you to take this knowledge into any style you wish. Jazz relies on these larger structures but all western music has these more basic triadic structures in common.

Just for review, let’s look at the C Major scale again:

Now, instead of building scales from the next successive note, we are going to skip one note. For example, the first triad we will build will be C E G. Why are we building chords by skipping notes? Well, simply because our ears think those combinations sound good. Remember, the theory generally comes after the execution, not the other way around.

Here is the table showing the seven basic chords that can be derived from the key of C. As before, it also analyzes the chords in terms of intervals relative to the parent key as well as relative to itself.

(Click the image to enlarge)

There are several pieces of information that we can derive from this chart. When we look at each chord we see that the first interval is either 2 whole steps or 1 and ½ steps. The chords that begin with 2 whole steps are major chords. Remember from before that an interval built out of two whole steps is a major third. A chord that first has two whole steps, followed by 1 and ½ steps is a major chord. Conversely, a chord that has 1 and ½ steps followed by 2 whole steps is a minor chord. If you look at the last chord you will see that it is the odd man out. It does not contain any interval consisting of 2 whole steps. Instead it is built with two minor thirds. This kind of chord is called a diminished chord. This refers to the interval between the root and fifth, which is diminished as opposed to being perfect.

This chart also gives us another way to name the chords, using numbers rather than letters. The first chord of the key is a C major chord. It is also called the “one” chord because it is built off of the first degree of the scale. The second chord of the key is D minor. It is called the “two” chord because it is built off of the second degree of the scale. Convention tells us to use Roman numerals when referring to chords in this manner. I prefer the system that uses capital Roman numerals for major chords and lower case ones for minor chords. I find that this makes viewing this concept in writing much clearer. Here is a chart demonstrating the names and relationships discussed in the last two paragraphs.

Most of this chart is redundant with the first one, but it may allow you to see the same information in a different way. However, the Roman name is the most important piece here. This way of naming has maintained the same relationship between all the chords in the key, but removed the actual note names. This is what will enable us to move this concept into other keys. Unless are happy to play in C major your whole life, then just ignore that part.

The most important thing to pick up from this lesson is which chords are major and which are minor. The I chord is major, the ii chord is minor, and so on. This must be memorized. Don’t worry if you cannot remember it at first. If you cannot remember this order of chords, then just remember how we came up with it. You can always work out this order from the notes in key.

Knowing this pattern is the key to figuring out what notes to play in a song. Later we will look at actual chords from songs and see how there patterns fit with this order of major and minor. From that we will be able to know the key (or temporary key) and then choose appropriate scales. It is also great if you need to learn a song quickly from someone. They can yell out “4” and you know instantly that since you re playing in a major key the “4 (IV)” chord has to be major. This makes communication on stage much faster when all some one has to yell out is “6,” rather than A minor. A minor is a much bigger mouthful.

This lesson showed us what al of the triad type chords are in a major key and we learned the order of major and minor chords: I – major, ii – minor, iii – minor, IV – major, V – major, vi – minor, vii – diminished. In the next lesson we will take a look at some actual chords progressions from songs and begin to apply this knowledge. Until then, make sure you have memorized the pattern of chords and then go back to review the modes.

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