Chords Part 1: Major and Minor Triads
Any musician comes across chords whether they realize it or not. Chords are some of the building blocks of harmony, and they make up pretty much every song you’ll ever hear or play.
In part one of this series on chords, we will start with the basics: major and minor triads.
First things first—lets define triad. A triad can be thought of as the simplest type of a chord; it is simply a set of three notes stacked on top of one another. These notes are separated by intervals: either major or minor thirds. Depending on how we organize these thirds will determine whether a triad and in turn a chord is major or minor. Indeed it is the first third above the root (root being the lowest note in a chord) that determines the chord’s quality—either major or minor
Major chords or triads are created by taking some root note, say C, and then moving up a major third, followed by a minor third (or a perfect 5th from the root). A perfect fifth is simply a major third plus a minor third above a root note, (or the 5th note in a major or minor scale). The interval of the major third is two whole steps, so if we wanted to create a C major chord, we would have C as our root, then we would move up two whole steps to our major third, E, for our second note in the chord. From there, we can think of adding the final note in two different ways: either by moving up a minor third from the E, or moving up a perfect 5th from our root, C.
A minor third consists of a whole step plus a half step (as opposed to two whole steps in a major third), so if we wanted to move up a minor third from E, we would move a whole step up to F#, then a half step to our last note in the chord, G. And yes, moving up a perfect 5th from C will also land you on G.
Minor chords are made in much the same way as major chords, except the thirds are reversed. This means that instead of moving up a major third from your root note (let’s stick with C), we would first move up a minor third, and then we would add a major third on top of that (or a perfect fifth above the root) to complete the chord.
A minor third is a whole step plus a half step, so if we start on C, we would move up to E-flat as opposed to the E natural in the major chord discussion above. From there we would move up a major third to reach our last note, G.
Chord Quality Comes from the Third
To sum things up, if we look at the notes that make up a C major triad (C-E-G) versus the notes that make up a C minor triad (C-E flat-G), we can see that it is the first third (second note in the triad) that determines whether it is major or minor. You might also notice that the top note, G, does not change. This is important to know and saves time when constructing chords.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for much more discussion on the many different types of chords and how we make them.