Simply put, chords are a set of three or more notes played together. Chords are responsible for providing harmony, one of the three principal building blocks of music, along with rhythm and melody.
When two or more chords are arranged in a sequence, the result is what we call a “chord progression”. In pop music, chord progressions most often contain between three and four chords, all coming from the same musical “key”. In Jazz and Classical music, it is common to create chord progressions that use chords from multiple keys.
Chord progressions create something called “tension and release”. The further each consecutive chord departs away from the first chord in the scale (called the tonic), the more unstable the progression becomes. This creates a feeling of incompleteness for the listener. When the progression finally returns to home base, this is called “resolution”. To hear examples of different chord progressions in action, check out our Chord Progression Generator here.
Throughout a piece of music, this tension-and-release creates an arch of emotion, exactly like a movie or TV script. There is rising and falling action, a climax, and a resolution to the story.
Harmony being one of three pillars of functional music, learning about chords and how to use them is indispensable. Chordal harmony is often what gives music its spice.
In Western music, there are 12 total musical notes. While these notes can be arranged in any order to form melodies, it is the harmony, or the chords that the melody is played or sung against that make it interesting.
Listen to this example of a tune everyone knows, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, arranged by the great jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star 'John Coltrane' Jazz Reharmonization
Sounds a little funny right? Here we are hearing Coltrane use a technique called “reharmonization”. Reharmonization is the practice of taking a song’s melody and setting it to a different harmony, via the use of a new chord progression.
This example shows just how drastically different a melody may sound when played against a different set of chords.
For practice telling apart different chords by ear, try out Chordelius.
To form the four basic types of chords: major, minor, diminished, and augmented, we need to be familiar with two simple intervals, the major third, and the minor third.
The third is the space of three notes in the musical alphabet.
A major third can be found on the piano by playing a note and then moving up by four keys. On the guitar, a major third is found by fretting a note and then moving up by four frets.
A minor third is one half-step or “semitone” lower than a major third. You can find a minor third by playing a note on the piano and then moving up by just three keys. On the guitar, it is three frets.
Major chords are formed by stacking a minor third on top of a major third.
The major chord gets its name because the major third interval is at the bottom of the chord. This interval is consonant, meaning it feels stable and pleasant to the ear. The distance between the root and the top note, the perfect fifth, is also consonant. This means that any major chord in the key will feel strong and stable.
In minor chords, the middle note, the third, is lowered by one half-step, or semitone from a major chord. Therefore, the minor third is now on the bottom and the distance between the top two notes is a major third. The result is a slightly darker-sounding chord.
The minor chord still contains the perfect fifth interval so it is still consonant, meaning although slightly less stable than a major chord, it holds a stable quality, and doesn't need to resolve to another, more stable chord.
If we start from a minor chord and move the 5th down by one half-step we create what is called a “diminished” chord. The chord is now formed by stacking two minor third intervals on top of one another.
Diminished chords have a “dissonant” quality, meaning they want to “resolve” to another more stable chord. This is due to the flattened 5th (diminished fifth) from which the chord gets its name. The distance between the first note (the tonic) and the fifth is now smaller. This interval, also called the tri-tone, is often associated with a dark, foreboding sound… so much so that it earned the nickname- “the Devil’s interval” and was for some time literally banned in “holy” music.
The augmented chord is formed from two major third intervals stacked on top of one another. Although this chord contains two major thirds, it is still a “dissonant” chord, needing to resolve to a more stable chord.
This is due to the #5 interval between the root note and the top note, which has been raised by one half-step from a normal major chord. This interval is called an “augmented” fifth, hence the name of the chord.
Any three-note chord is also called a “triad”. These are the four basic types of chords. From here we can branch out and explore 7th chords, suspended chords, altered chords, and more…
*A quick hack for chord building is to choose a scale to work with (The music scales tool will be helpful for this), then choose a starting note in the scale and then skip over one note to land on the note in the scale that is a third away. Repeat this again to form a three or four-note chord that corresponds with the starting note within the scale.
Just as chords can be arranged in different orders to create different sounding chord progressions, the notes within each chord can be rearranged to create different sounding chord “inversions”.
Inversions are when a chord is played beginning on a note other than the root. This rearranges the order of the intervals within the chord, slightly altering its sound. Chord inversions originated in choral music as part of what is called “voice leading”.
Before polyphonic instruments like the harpsichord, clavichord and piano were invented, chords were formed by the overlap of different voices singing in a choir.
In order to make the music sound smoother, composers re-ordered the notes in each chord to minimize the movement throughout each voice. Whichever note was sung by the Bass voice would determine the chord inversion. Use the tool above to visualize the different inversions. Simply select a chord, and then select the inversion on the right side.
For three-note chords, there are three possible inversions.
Root position- The notes in the chord are arranged as normal, with the root note at the bottom.
In the “first inversion”, the third is placed at the bottom of the chord, followed by the fifth, and then the root at the top.
In the “second inversion”, the fifth is placed at the bottom of the chord, followed by the root, and then the third on top.
These inversions help to create smooth “voice-leading” when moving between chords. By using inversions that produce the least amount of motion. To practice recognizing inversions by ear, play Inversionist game.
Expanding on basic three-note chords, there is another series of chords known as seventh chords. Seventh chords contain one added note, the interval of a 7th, on top of the basic triad. Each of the three-note chords can be turned into a seventh chord, with one additional chord type being possible, called a dominant 7th chord.
The major 7th chord is formed by adding the 7th scale degree (in this case- “B”) on top of a major triad.
The dominant 7th chord is formed by adding the flattened 7th scale degree (in this case- “Bb”) on top of the major triad.
The minor 7th chord is formed by taking a minor triad and adding the flattened 7th scale degree (in this case- “Bb”) on top.
The half-diminished 7th chord, also called “minor 7 b5”, is formed by taking a diminished triad and adding the flattened 7th scale degree (in this case- “Bb”) on top.
The fully diminished 7th chord is formed by taking a diminished triad and adding the double flatted 7th scale degree (in this case- “Bbb” aka “A”) on top.
The augmented 7th chord is formed by taking n augmented triad and adding the flattened 7th scale degree (in this case- “Bb”) on top.
The notes of a chord don’t always have to be played at the same time. An arpeggio is a series of chord notes played consecutively.
Learning to identify chords when played harmonically as well as arpeggios is a great practice when developing your ears. To hear the notes of each chord arpeggiated, change the player's mode above to “Ascending” or “Descending”.
Learning to recognize chords by ear is a natural next step in developing your knowledge of harmony and improving your musicality.
Boost your musical IQ by learning to identify chords by ear using the games on ToneGym. Our Chordelius game begins with basic chord types and increases difficulty as you level up your skills. Inversionist will help you identify inversions, and while you're at it, try Route VI to test your chord progressions recognition skills.
Have fun on your musical journey!
What's A Chord?
How Chords Work