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Basics of chords – Triads, Modes and Spellings

Learning how chords are constructed will lead to a better understanding of how to construct melody and bass lines.

This article will explainn what a chord spelling is. What a triad is and how to work chords out.

Below is an article covering the major scale and intervals.

The Major Scale and Intervals

As with the above article I’m going to use the key of ‘C‘ as an example.

The principles in this article can be applied to all keys, you just have to know your key signatures.

Key Signatures

This article assumes you know the notes of your instrument – if not then you need to learn them.

If you are a complete newbie and learning from scratch then you’ll need to learn the notes on a keyboard.

Read this artcle: Notes on a keyboard(to be written).

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Let’s start shall we?

The Key of C – no sharps or flats.

The Scale of C Major = C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

The C Major chord = C, E, G

A chord is a triad of notes, these notes being intervals:

The Root the 3rd and the 5th

In the C major chord the chord spelling is as following,

The Root (C) <-> The 3rd <-> (E) <-> the 5th (G)

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

As you can see from above the intervals of the scale create the chord spelling.

From reading the article The Major Scale and Intervals you should have a grasp of intervals.

The ’3rd’ is important because it dictates the type of chord we have ie major or minor.

A major 3rd here gives us the major chord = Tone, Tone = C to E

A minor 3rd here gives us the minor chord = Tone, Semitone = C to Eflat

Let’s keep it simple though – stick to the ‘key’ and lessen the confusion.

So how do we work out chords.

Well there are two ways:

1. From the scale as above.

2. From the key.

I prefer doing it by key, it keeps things simple and also you can learn a few things as you go.

This way you get t0 know chords in a key, modes and the key signature.

With C major we’ve established that we have no sharps or flats.

So now we’re onto modes – now don’t panic the names are not important but the principle is.

Take C major as before:

C D E F G A B C

now write out the scale but start from D and write an octave.

D E F G A B C D

This gives us a mode of C Major using D as it’s root = this mode is called the ‘Dorian’ mode.

As I said names not important – but the order of the modes stays the same in all major keys.

Ionian: C D E F G A B C

Dorian: D E F G A B C D

Phrygian: E F G A B C D E

Lydian: F G A B C D E F

Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G

Aeolian: A B C D E F G A

Locrian: B C D E F G A B

I know it looks a bit confusing and probably could be a bit daunting but slow down and look at it again.

Following this order we can now work out our chords:

Ionian: C D E F G A B C = Major

Dorian: D E F G A B C D = Minor

Phrygian: E F G A B C D E = Minor

Lydian: F G A B C D E F = Major

Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G = Major

Aeolian: A B C D E F G A = Minor

Locrian: B C D E F G A B = Diminished

This order of chords in all major scales does not change.

So therefore we can learn all the chords per key.

With me so far?

Let’s recap:

Major Key -> Interval = maj 2nd, maj 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, maj 6th, maj7th

Major Key -> Chord order = Major, Minor, Minor, Major, Major, Minor and Diminished

Major Key – > Mode order = Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian,  Aeolian, Locrian

So now back to chord spelling.

Using the major scale – in this case the C major, we can get our chords.

But to get our chord spellings we need to write out the modes.

To write out the modes we write out the C major scale but start from each degree of the scale.

Now to get our chords we highlight the 1st(root), 3rd and 5th notes of each mode.

As so:

1——–3rd—–5th

C—D—E—F—G—A—B—C = MAJOR

D—E—F—G—A—B—C—D = MINOR

E—F—G—A—B—C—D—E = MINOR

F—G—A—B—C—D—E—F = MAJOR

G—A—B—C—D—E—F—G = MAJOR

A—B—C—D—E—F—G—A = MINOR

B—C—D—E—F—G—A—B = DIMINISHED

Remember the order or majors, minors and diminished chords do not change from key to key.

If you learn the order and then learn the principles above you should then be able to learn your chord spellings.

Try it with G Major – if you follow what you’ve learnt from above you should get all the chords and chord spellings from the key of G but don’t forget G has an F sharp.

See below to see if your correct.

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MORE CHORDS:

When you see suspended chords this usually means that the 3rd has been suspended/changed.

The note will be raised or lowered – a sus4 simply replaces the 3rd with a 4th and a sus 2 replaces the 3rd with a 2nd.

For example: A Dsus2

D F A = D minor

D E F G A B C D

The min 3rd in D minor which is ‘F’ is replaced with the second note of the ‘D’ dorian mode giving us an ‘E’

Therefore the D sus 2 is spelt D F A

The D sus 4 works in a similar way,

E F E A B C D

But this time the ‘F’ is replaced by the 4th note – the ‘E’

Therefore the D sus 4 is spelt D F G.

Adding a note is different as you retaain your notes from you chord and simply add a note.

A quick example is the C add9.

Write out the C major scale but write two octaves.

As before we have the root, 3rd and 5th

C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C

The add 9 comes from the 9th note being added, in this case the ‘D’.

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Inverted chords:

Very quickly and Inverted chord is the chord spellings order changed,

Example A minor chord:

A C E inverted: C E A or E C A

What you are doing is changing the bass note – this can give us some interesting colours musically speaking.

As always experiment with it…

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Chords of G Major:

Ionian: G A B C D E F# G = Major

Dorian : A B C D E F# G A = Minor

Phrygian: B C D E F# G A B = Minor

Lydian: C D E F# G A B C = Major

Mixolydian: D E F# G A B C D = Major

Aeolian : E F# G A B C D E = Minor

Locrian: F# G A B C D E F# = Diminished

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