Understanding Chords: Part 2, Major Chords

Understanding Chords: Part 2, Major Chords – Featured Image

Understanding Chords: Part 2, Major Chords

This post is part two in our series on chords. It covers major chords. Part one covers intervals – the building blocks of chords.

The goal of this post is to help you be able to:

  • figure out the notes in any major chord – with an understanding of why it’s structured that way;
  • recognize major chords in the music you play; and
  • use that knowledge to make reading and playing music easier.

And to help solidify these ideas, there’s a short written quiz (which includes writing out a few major chords on the staff – with an understanding of how each element is structured).

Examples are presented here in the context of reading and playing for piano – though you should find the info helpful, regardless of your instrument. (Piano is a great tool for mapping things out. If one is able to recognize the letter names of the piano keys, the keyboard really helps with visualizing music theory.)

Review

And just to recap a few points from Part 1, Intervals:

  • An interval is the distance (in frequency/pitch) between two notes.
  • A chord is three or more notes occurring at the same time.
  • Major chords each contain three notes. (Incidentally, so do minor, augmented, and diminished chords.)
  • There are two intervals in a major chord – a major third (equivalent to four half steps) and a minor third (equivalent to three half steps).

Some Basic Chordal Theory

Roots, Thirds, and Fifths

Major, minor, augmented, and diminished chords are sometimes called triads. A triad is just a three-note chord, with an interval of a third between each of the notes. (If this idea is new to you, it’ll make more sense in a few paragraphs!)

The three notes in a triad are called the root, third, and fifth. Let’s go over these – and create a triad – one note at a time:

The root is the bottom note in a chord – the note the chord is built upon. A chord is always named for its root. So, the root of a C chord will be the note, C; the root of a G chord will be the note, G; and so on.

The note, C – the root of a C Major chord:

The third in a triad (for example, in a major chord) occurs an interval of a third above the chord’s root – hence, its name. In a C Major chord, the note E is the third.

C and E – the root and third of a C Major chord:

The fifth in a triad occurs an interval of a third above the chord’s third. (It also occurs an interval of a fifth above the chord’s root – hence, its name.) In a C Major chord, the note G is the fifth.

C, E, and G – the root, third, and fifth of a C Major chord:

Root, Third, Fifth as 1, 3, 5

To understand roots, thirds, and fifths, let’s imagine we’re counting upward up from the note, C (in the music alphabet, and on the staff). If we equate the note, C, with the number, 1; our counting through the music alphabet might look like this:

C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5

And here is how those five notes will look, moving upward on the staff:

The note, C, which corresponds to the number “1,” above, is the root of our chord. And the note, E, which corresponds to the number “3,” is the third of the chord; and the note, G, corresponding to the “5,” is the chord’s fifth.

This is a good way of understanding roots, thirds, and fifths. (Stick with me if this is confusing; it should make complete sense in a few minutes.)

A Singing Exercise

Sometimes, in music theory classes, we’re taught to sing the three notes of a chord (the root, third, and fifth) as “1, 3, 5.” Here’s an example of that.

In the audio file below, I’m singing the three notes of a C Major chord (the C, E, and G), from bottom to top; and then back, from top to bottom. Instead of singing, “C, E, G, E, C,” I’m singing, “1, 3, 5, 3, 1.” You might feel like singing along. Singing intervals in this way – and learning to match our pitch with each of the notes – helps deepen our understanding of intervals and chords:

Stacked Thirds

The fact that a triad is a series of three notes (the root, third, and fifth), each spaced by intervals of thirds, leads some theorists to describe triads as “stacked thirds.”

When we see a major chord on the staff (or a minor, augmented, or diminished chord), we can really see the “stacked third” nature of these kinds of chords:

You’ll remember, in this section of Part 1, how intervals of thirds always occur on the staff as “line to line” or “space to space.” (So, three notes stacked up by thirds, like in each of the four chords above, could be described as “line to line to line” or “space to space to space.”)

This stacked third “look” of three notes on the staff is always a sign that we’re seeing a chord – a triad (a major, minor, augmented, or diminished chord).

Seventh chords, which we’ll cover later in this series, are simply four notes stacked up by thirds – so, they also have this same look:

More to the Story

While triads, in their most basic form, occur as “stacked thirds”; the notes of a chord can also occur in different octaves, and any of the notes can occur more than once – making the overall look of a chord, in many cases, more complex than just stacked thirds. But stacked thirds always indicate a chord; and it’s the most basic way a chord can appear.

And, even when a chord occurs in a more complex form (known as a different “voicing” of the chord), we often still see elements of stacked thirds within the more complex voicing. The voicing below is a C Major chord, represented with five notes. The notes (from bottom to top) are the root, fifth, root, third, and fifth:

One quick aside – because some of this terminology can be confusing:

  1. We call an interval of three or four half steps a “third.” (A “minor third” is three half steps; and a “major third” is four half steps.)
  2. And we also call the middle note of a chord/triad a “third” (as in, root, third, and fifth).

Even though we’re using the word, “third,” in both cases, these are two different things.

So it’s good, when hearing the word “third” in the context of music, to distinguish whether it’s referring to:

  1. an interval (which is a measure of the frequency space/distance between two notes); or
  2. an individual note within a chord (the middle note of a triad).

Wow, so many things! :)

Major Chords

Construction

A major chord, in its most basic form, is simply three notes (our same root, third, and fifth) – where the interval (the frequency distance) between the bottom two notes is a major third (four half steps), and the interval between the top two notes is a minor third (three half steps).

Here’s a C Major chord to demonstrate:

(Notice how the note, E (the third of the chord), is part of both of the chord’s intervals. It’s the top note in the bottom interval, and the bottom note in the top interval.)

Here are the four half steps between C and E – the bottom two notes in the chord: (Playing these on the piano can help us to see and get a feel for the half steps as well.)

And here are the three half steps between E and G – the top two notes in a C Major chord:

Sound

A major chord is the archetypal, happy- or standard-sounding chord in music. It sounds like this:

Many songs and pieces of music contain only major chords. Here’s a very recognizable three-chord progression – an F Major, G Major, and C Major chord:

(We haven’t covered this yet, but in harmonic analysis, the chords above would be described as IV, V, and I chords in the key of C Major.)

Block Chords, Broken Chords, and Arpeggios

Chords often occur in music in three distinct ways – as block chords, broken chords, and arpeggios.

Block Chords

When the root, third, and fifth of a chord are played together/at the same time, this is often called a block chord – with “block” sort of describing how the chord looks, with the notes all written directly up and down from each other on the staff.

The sound examples of the major chords above are block chords. And here’s how a block chord looks on the musical staff:

Broken Chords

A broken chord occurs when notes of a chord begin at different times. The classic example of a broken chord (seen quite a lot in piano music) looks like this – where one note (often the chord’s root) occurs by itself; and the other two notes of the chord (the third and fifth) occur together on a different beat:

And here’s how the broken chord above sounds:

Notice how, in the broken chord example on the staff above, the stacked thirds (“line to line to line”) nature of the chord is still visible; but it takes a bit of reorganizing the notes in our mind to fully see. Locating and identifying the chords in music sometimes requires a bit of investigating and reorganizing the notes on the page.

Arpeggios

Arpeggio is a familiar word, but one that’s not often defined. An arpeggio is just the notes of a chord (for example, in a triad, any combination of roots, thirds, and fifths) occurring one at a time. (An arpeggio is a specific type of broken chord.)

Here’s the most basic form of an arpeggio, shown on the staff (and heard in the sound sample) below:

In these examples, I’m using the piano’s damper pedal – so you can hear the notes sustain. (Arpeggios tend to sound nice this way.)

And here’s an arpeggio that’s slightly more complex. In the example below (the staff and recording), the notes (from bottom to top) are root, fifth, root, third, fifth:

Block chords, broken chords, and arpeggios occur in music in almost unlimited ways. The examples above show the basics. But, in a piece of music, we encounter all sorts of interesting variations and blendings of these three chordal structures. (Well-written music often combines various of these “building blocks” in creative and thoughtful ways.)

Major Chords, In-Depth

When we create a C Major chord (a major chord whose root is the note, C), we don’t need to add sharps or flats to any of the notes in the chord. This is why C Major chords are often used in musical examples – it’s a simple chord to study. (The pattern of four half steps between the bottom two notes (the root and third), and three half steps between the top two notes (the third and fifth), occurs with all natural notes: C, E, G.)

However, when the root of a major chord is a note other than C, sharps or flats sometimes have to be added to various notes in the chord, in order to maintain the pattern of four half steps and three half steps that’s characteristic of major chords.

To illustrate, let’s create an E Major chord:

An aside: The tricky thing to remember is that there’s no sharp or flat – no black key on the piano – between B and C, or between E and F. So, B to C is a half step; and E to F is a half step:

Piano Keyboard Showing Half Steps – E to F

In all other parts of the music alphabet, a half step occurs as one natural note (not sharped or flatted) and one sharped or flatted note. For example: A to A#, or C to Db.

Ok, back to building an E Major chord. You can grab a pencil and some staff paper (or print some for free), and try this, too.

Here are the steps I follow:

  1. I write the root of the chord first – an E:
  2. Next, I add the third of the chord – remembering that it’s a major third interval (which is four half steps) up from the note, E. Starting from E (the chord’s root), we count up by the next four notes in the music alphabet – the next four half steps:
    • F (one half step up from E)
    • F# (a second half step up from E)
    • G (a third half step up)
    • G# (our fourth half step up from E)

    In this way, we’ve figured out that E up to G# is four half steps, a major third interval: (Again, playing this on a piano can help with recognizing and counting each half step.)

  3. So, now that we’ve figured out the root and third of the chord (in steps one and two, above), we’ll want to add the fifth (the upper note) of the chord. This will be a minor third interval (three half steps) up from the note, G#.

    We can use the same method that we used to figure out the third of the chord (in step two). And this time, instead of counting upward by four half steps (a major third interval), we’ll only want to move upward by three half steps – a minor third interval:

    G# up to A = one half step
    A up to A# = a second half step
    A# up to B = the third half step

    And we’ve found our answer: three half steps up from G# is B!

    So, now we have our E major chord spelled out: E, G#, B. Here it is on the staff:

One little trick that’s helpful to know is that, because the notes of major, minor, augmented, diminished, and seventh chords occur in intervals of thirds:

  1. the letter names of the notes in the chord will always be three letters apart in the music alphabet. For example, a C Major chord is spelled C, E, G. An A minor chord is spelled A, C, E. A B Major chord is spelled B, D#, F#. Regardless of any sharps or flats on the notes, the letters themselves will always be three apart.
  2. in their most basic voicing, the notes of each chord will always follow the “stacked thirds” configuration of Line to Line to Line or Space to Space to Space:

Chords, in their most basic form (in what’s usually called root position) will look like the above. We’ll plan to cover more about chords in their various forms (like different “inversions” and “voicings”) later in this series…

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Questions?

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about chords. (I love talking about this stuff.)

If you live in Seattle, I’m also available for private lessons in piano, music theory, and composition. Let me know also if you’d happen to live elsewhere and have an interest in Skype lessons. It’s something I’m just trying out. Feel free to contact me to talk more.

Quiz

Below is a quiz, in case you’d like to test your skills. The Answer Key is here.

With music theory, it’s often helpful to answer some questions – where you’re asked to do things like write out specific chords on the musical staff. It forces us to go through the steps and remember the details.

If you’re finding this series helpful, I’d encourage you to answer some or all of the questions below. It’s a helpful way of reinforcing the ideas.

Here’s some free staff paper – a pdf you can print. And here’s one of my favorite staff paper notebooks (made by Hal Leonard) on Amazon.

Part 1: Short Answer

  1. How many half steps are in a minor third interval?
  2. How many half steps are in a major third interval?

Part 2: True or False

  1. A major chord has a major third interval on bottom, and a minor third interval on top.

Part 3: Identifying Intervals – and Roots, Thirds, and Fifths

You might find it helpful to use staff paper, and to find and play these notes/keys on a piano, to help figure out each answer.

Questions:

  1. What note is a minor third up from the note, B?
  2. What note is a major third up from the note, E?
  3. What note is the third of a C Major chord? (Third, in this case, is referring to the middle note of a triad – for example, root, third, and fifth.)
  4. What note is the fifth of a G Major chord?
  5. What note is the third of a D Major chord?

Part 4: Identifying Chords on the Staff

The section below contains various major chords on the staff. Each appears as a Block Chord, Broken Chord, or Arpeggio. For each chord, write:

  1. The name of the chord (for example, “C Major”); and
  2. Whether it’s appearing as a Block Chord, Broken Chord, or Arpeggio.

One sample question is answered as an example:

Sample Question:

Questions:



  1. Ok, this one is designed to be more challenging. (Hint: Look for the “stacked thirds.” This can help identify the chord’s root.)

Part 5: Writing Chords on the Staff

Write each major chord below with whole notes on Treble Clef. Write each as “stacked thirds” – showing the root, third, and fifth as either “Line to Line to Line” or “Space to Space to Space.” (Note: Accidentals – i.e., sharps (#) and flats (b) – are drawn just to the left of the note they’re applied to.)

  1. A Major
  2. G Major
  3. B Major (This one’s tricky!)

Extra Credit:

Write the three chords from Part 5 again – this time, in Bass Clef rather than Treble Clef.

Well done! (Music theory is pretty fun and interesting, huh?) You can double check your work with the Answer Key, here.