• Ask Dr. Pokey: “What Are The Exact Number Of Tones In A Chord?”

    in Beginners,Chords & Progressions,General Music,Piano,Theory

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    I get questions from those who want to know the exact number of tones in a chord and that’s our focus in this lesson.

    A good way to start a lesson of this sort is with a review on the concept of a chord — its definition, a breakdown of relevant keywords, and a few other things — before we go on with what we have to cover.

    Are you ready?!

    Alright, kindly give me your undivided attention for the next seven minutes or so and we’ll be done with this lesson.

    “What Is A Chord?”

    Here’s the definition of a chord:

    A chord consists of a collection of three or more related notes (which may be agreeable or not) played or heard together.

    We’ll try and stay within the boundaries of these two keywords from the definition of a chord:

    1. Related notes
    2. Three or more

    Let’s go on!

    “Related Notes? Here’s Some More Information…”

    The notes of the C major triad:

    …are related in two ways – by a scale and by a class of harmony.

    1. By the C major scale
    2. By the tertian harmony

    The root, third, and fifth tones of the C major triad (which are C, E, and G) are the first, third, and fifth tones of the C major triad:

    C major triad:

    C major scale:

    So, C, E, and G, are related by the C major scale.

    Also, it’s important to note that the tones of the C major triad are related by the tertian harmony. What this means is that the distance between the successive tones of the C major triad is based on third intervals.

    Between the tones of the C major triad:

    C to E:

    E to G:

    …are all third intervals.

    Always remember that only related notes can form a chord and the relationship between chord tones must be based on a scale and class of harmony

    It Takes At Least Three Notes To Form A Chord

    From the definition of a chord:

    A chord consists of a collection of three or more related notes (which may be agreeable or not) played or heard together.

    …we can figure out the number of tones it takes to form a chord.

    Although it’s clear that one or two tones cannot form a chord (because the definition says three or more), we’re not certain if the exact number of tones should be three, four, five, six, or even more.

    Therefore, we’ll be going a step further in the next segment to determine the exact number of tones in a chord.

    The Exact Number Of Tones In A Chord

    The term chord is a generic term used to describe a collection of “three or more” related notes. As such, there is no specific answer to the number of tones that should be in a chord.

    The term C major chord can mean any of the two or more:

    C major triad:

    C major seventh chord:

    So, the term “chord” is not precise enough to tell us the number of tones in a chord and that’s why there are more specific terms that are used to describe chords that will give you a clue on the total number of notes in the chord.

    Let’s go ahead and look at these specific terms and the chords they are described with.

    Triads — “Three-Toned Chords”

    A triad is a chord of three notes, consisting of a root, third, and fifth tone.

    The term triad is specifically used to make reference to three-toned chords and does not refer to any other chord type. A triad can only have more or less than three tones when one of its tones are duplicated or omitted.

    So, the exact number of tones in a triad is three — no more, no less.

    “Check Out The Four Triad Types Starting From C…”

    The C major triad:

    The C minor triad:

    The C augmented triad:

    The C diminished triad:

    Sixth And Seventh Chords — “Four-Toned Chords”

    Sixth and seventh chords are four-toned chords.

    A closer look at these two examples:

    C major sixth chord:

    C major seventh chord:

    …shows that sixth and seventh chords have four tones each:

    • Seventh chords: Root + Third + Fifth + Seventh
    • Sixth chords: Root + Third + Fifth + Sixth

    It’s not wrong to say that sixth and seventh chords are derived from triads because all sixth and seventh chords are basically triads with an additional tone that is a sixth or seventh interval above the root.

    Although the term “sixth chord” and “seventh chord” might literally suggest that the chords are made up of six and seven tones respectively, that’s actually not the case.

    Sixth chords and seventh chords are described as sixths and sevenths because of the interval between the root and the highest-sounding chord tone when they’re played in root position.

    In the C major sixth chord:

    …the interval between the root (which is C) and the highest-sounding chord tone (which is A):

    C-A:

    …is a sixth interval and that’s what makes it a sixth chord.

    The same thing goes for the C major seventh chord:

    …where the interval between the root (which is C) and the highest-sounding chord tone (which is B):

    C-B:

    …is a seventh interval. So, seventh chords encompass the interval of a seventh.

    Extended Chords — “Chords Consisting Of Five Tones And More”

    Beyond seventh and sixth chords are extended chords.

    There are called extended chords because they exceed the compass of the octave. For example, the following extended chords:

    C major ninth:

    C minor eleventh:

    C dominant thirteenth [sharp eleventh] chord:

    …are all bigger than the octave:

    C to C (octave):

    Ninth chords have five tones:

    The C major ninth is an example:

    …and every ninth chord has a root, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth tone.

    Eleventh chords have six tones:

    For example, the C minor eleventh chord:

    …consists of a root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh tone.

    Thirteenth chords have seven tones:

    The C dominant thirteenth [sharp eleventh] chord:

    …consists of its root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth tone.

    Final Words

    It’s possible to omit one or more tones in a chord.

    However, this does NOT in anyway change the number of notes a specific chord consists of. For example, every triad consists of three notes; the omission of any of its tones doesn’t change it in any way.

    If you’re interested in learning about the rules that guide the omission of chord tones, then keep an eye on this blog because we’ll be covering that in subsequent lessons.

    All the best!

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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