A triad is a set of notes that can be stacked in thirds. To oversimplify, it’s a fancy name for a three note chord. In western music, triads are the most common chords you hear.
The easiest way to understand chords and their building blocks is through piano keys. The image below shows the note names of each key on the piano. The black keys have two note names because they can be called either one depending on the musical context. You can see that the image starts with C on the far left (lowest note) and ascends to the right. The distance between each note is what we call a half step or semitone. So, from C to C# is one semitone, C# to D is one semitone, etc. A Tone or Whole Step is two semitones. So, from C to D is a whole step, E to F# is a whole step, etc.
Look and listen to what it sounds like played chromatically:
The distance between any two notes with the same name on the piano is an Octave. So, as illustrated below, the range from C to C is one octave, and the same goes for any of the other notes. There are 12 semitones or 8 tones in an octave and, once you reach the octave, the pattern repeats.
Any basic triad is comprised of three notes or “degrees”; the first, third and fifth. The first, also known as the Root, is where we derive the chord name from. So we call a chord C because C is the root note. To make a C Major chord, you start with the root note, C, and then count four semitones up to E, and then count another three semitones to G. And you’ve found your notes: C, E, and G.
This basic formula can be applied to any root note to find a major chord. Root + 4 semitones + 3 semitones. We call the distance between the root and the 3rd (C and E in this case) a Major Third interval, and the distance between the 3rd and the 5th (E and G in this case) a Minor Third.
- Major Third: 4 semitones
- Minor Third: 3 semitones
So any major chord is the root, followed by a major third and a minor third.
Once you understand how major and minor thirds make a major chord, you can easily understand minor chords. Minor Chords use the same two thirds, but you stack them in the opposite order. Root followed by a minor third, and then a major third. Or you could look it as: Root + 3 semitones + 4 semitones.
This means that when playing a C Major, then a C Minor, only one note has to change.
Exercise – What notes would be in the following chords? Use the image below for reference.
- E minor:
- G# minor:
- C# major:
- B minor:
- Bb major:
Diminished Chords are built with two minor triads. So a C diminished chord would have the notes: C, D# and F#. They tend to sound more dissonant than minor and especially major chords.
The abbreviated versions for all three type we’ve covered are:
Major: Capital letter – C
Minor: Capital letter followed by small “m” – Cm
Diminished: Capital letter followed by degree sign or “dim” – Cº
ExerciseThe track in your Module 4 Live Pack titled Keys, has MIDI clips with the chords we just covered in C, as well as the 7th chords that will be covered later in the module.
- Transpose the MIDI notes in the Major, Minor, and Diminished clips to other root notes. For example; change C Dim to A Dim, or C Major to F# Major.
- You can do this by duplicating each clip into a blank slot, then adjusting the MIDI notes and renaming the clip with the correct name.
- Transpose each chord to at least two different root notes. Do more if you feel like it.
Remember: you don’t need to adjust the distance between MIDI notes, just highlight them all and drag them up or down until the root note lands on the note you’re looking for. You could also do this by highlighting all the MIDI notes and using the arrow up and arrow down keys.