Chord Theory – An Introduction
‘So what is in a chord?’ I ask my piano students.
‘Isn’t it like, a bunch of notes played together?’
I went to an Ableton lecture once and a producer was running us through his workflow, including composition techniques. At one point he had to use a chord arpeggiator to find out what notes he could use for a bass line. I have nothing against using sequencers and the like to find initial chords and progressions (we all get writers block). However I was disappointed that he couldn’t at least come up with any ideas on the spot to either play or program in once he had basic chords laid down. In the time it took for him to set up the plugin and move all the midi notes around, I had already come up with five ideas in my head, and I knew more or less the notes I needed to try out.
Understanding a little bit of music theory is going to help anyone in their music making. It may help you in more ways than you can think of. Even if you spin vinyl most days and chop sweet beats, you will still benefit. (*Cough* bass lines..)
So, you ask, what do I need to learn?
Intervals! …and how to count them.
Assuming you can identify all the notes on a piano, let’s go! Sitting yourself at a piano or keyboard will help for this.
The distance between all notes on the piano are equal (called ‘equal temperament’ – harmonic distance, not mathematical) which means that we can play any one piece of music in all twelve keys and they would sound the same.
Great news for us! We only need to learn the concepts for one key, and then apply the same to the other 11!
Thus one of the most useful things to think about in music creation are the relationships between these notes called intervals – the distance from one to another. We give these intervals numbers.
Eg. From C to A is a 6th. (Counting from C to A)
From E to G is a 3rd. (Counting from E to G)
C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
Let’s pick the first, third, and fifth note. Boom, we have a C Major chord. The distance between the first and third note is a major third (Count 1, 2, 3). The distance between the 3rd and fifth is a minor third (Count 3, 4, 5).
But what about the black notes? They are essential to us accurately counting the intervals between each note. A major third interval consists of two whole steps. A minor third is worth a whole step and one half step.
(A whole step skips one note. A half note moves to the next.)
Great, so D Major in that case is D, F, A right? Because 1, 3, 5 right? Good effort, but not quite, we didn’t apply the intervals. A major third from D is an F#.
To get a minor chord, all we have to do is flat the 3rd note of the chord. Eg. To get a C Minor, the E (3rd) drops down a half step to Eb. Turning the triad into C, Eb, G. Or D Major turns into D minor with an F instead of F#.
Ah, you realise, you can make different chords within the one key!
Yes, we can take these 3rd intervals and apply them to each note in C Major.
It’s also important to remember the intervals for each note in relation to the tonic key, being C.
C Major (C E G) Root/Tonic of C
D minor (D F A) 2nd of C
E minor (E G B) 3rd ”
F Major (F A C) 4th ”
G Major (G B D) 5th ”
A minor (A C E) 6th ”
B flat 5 (B D F) 7th ”
If you are unsure why the chords are major and minor, notice how they all use the notes in C Major. So we worked backwards by figuring out whether the intervals are major or minor 3rds.
That’s about it for this week. Tune in soon for the next instalment.