Where Do Chords Come From (Part One)

By | May 7, 2018

If you have an understanding of major scales and keys and how they are formed, you are ready to begin learning about chord construction. I like to begin teaching this stuff with a little anecdote.  As a child I was fascinated by all things musical. When I was growing up we did not have a piano in my house until I was a preteen, when my parents found an old clunker for free in the newspaper and brought it home. But from a much earlier age I was drawn to any piano I could get my hands on, as are most musically inclined children, I’m sure. My grandmother had a piano though, and my grandfather on my father’s side had a pump organ, and whenever we would go over to their houses to visit I would head right for the basement and spend most of my time messing around, banging on the keyboard.

This was how I very quickly taught myself my first lesson in harmony. For those of you who have an understanding of the keyboard layout and major scales/keys, you already know that the key of C Major is all the white keys on the piano. Otherwise known as the C major scale, the key of C Major is a great example to use to begin a discussion of harmony. This is because it is the only key which has no sharps or flats.

So, the first couple times I messed around at the piano keyboard when I was very young, I tested the waters by banging on the keys rather indiscriminately. As I began to take note of the sounds I was making, I noticed a two very important things almost immediately. First, when I pushed a cluster of white keys that were all right next to each other the resulting sound was not very pleasing to my ear. It was crunchy, muddy and generally abrasive. This prompted me to try a different approach, which led to my second realization. I spread my fingers a little bit more and pushed down three or four white keys which this time were not right next to each other, but instead I had left one white key unpressed in between each one I had pressed. This resulted in a sound which was much more pleasing to my ear and recognizable as musical.

I did not realize it at the time, but I had just learned exactly how chords are constructed and where they come from. Our system of harmony is what we call a “tertian” system. This means “based on thirds.” A “third” is the type of interval you get when you skip one note in a major scale. As you can see, this is what is happening in the diagram on the bottom. What a great discovery! It seemed to work all the time.

So, what we have now learned is that chords come from keys/major scales, by beginning somewhere in the scale and skipping one scale note each time you add a note to the chord. Thus begins our discussion of chord construction. The first types of chords we are going to examine are “triads.” Triads are three-note chords. Simple major chords and minor chords are two examples of triads.  A specific example of one would be a C Major chord. The notes contained in the C Major triad are C-E-G. If you look at the diagram above you will see that the notes “C”, “E” and “G” completely follow our newly discovered rule. They come from the C Major scale by “skipping” exactly one note in between each.

In the next part of this lesson, “Where Do Chords Come From? (Part 2)” we will find all the triads in the key of C Major and learn some more important rules and standard terminology.

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