• Ask Dr. Pokey: “What Is A Chord And What’s Not?”

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

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    Our focus in this lesson is to learn and understand what a chord is and what it isn’t.

    I’m dedicating this lesson to everyone of you asking “What is a chord?” and is probably not getting the right or a satisfactory answer.

    We’ll start out by defining a chord and then proceed into breaking down the keywords in the definition of a chord.

    Recommendation: Check out our music theory digital download collection.

    “What Is A Chord?”

    There are so many ways to define a chord, which may vary from the easiest definition (for the layman) to the most complex definition (for music scholars).

    In this lesson, we’ll have to define a chord in a way that is in-between the easiest and the most complicated. So that everyone would appreciate it.

    A chord can be defined as an aggregate of three or more related notes (agreeable or not), which may be played or heard together.

    One of the common chords you might have come across is the C major triad:

    …which consists of C, E, and G. Let’s go ahead and break down the keywords in the definition of the term chord before we go any further.

    Keyword #1 – “Three Or More”

    One of the first things to consider is the number of notes (aka – “note aggregate”). There must be a minimum of three notes in a chord. Therefore, it’s not possible to have a chord of two notes.

    When two notes are played or heard together, an interval is formed. So, an aggregate of two notes played or heard together is known as an interval.

    Here are various classes of chords according to note aggregate:

    Triads: Three note chords.

    Tetrads: Four note chords.

    Pentads: Five note chords.

    Hexads: Six note chords.

    Heptads: Seven note chords.

    Octads: Eight note chords.

    Submission: A chord must belong to any of the classes listed above.

    Keyword #2 – “Related Notes”

    The most important thing you need to consider in a chord is the relationship between the notes of a chord. The notes of a chord must be related by scale and class of harmony (don’t worry…I’ll explain).

    Relationship By Scale

    Before an aggregate of notes can be considered as a chord, the notes must belong to a particular scale. An example is the C major triad:

    …where the notes are related by the C major scale:

    C, E, and G (which are the chord tones of the C major triad):

    …are the first, third, and fifth tones of the C major scale:

    C (1)  D  E (3)  F  G (5)  A  B  C

    The scale relationship between the notes of the C major triad is what makes the C major triad a valid chord.

    Relationship By Class Of Harmony

    The notes of a chord must be relate by a class of harmony; which is determined by the distance between the notes of a chord.

    There are basically three classes of harmony — secundal, tertian, and quartal harmony:

    Secundal harmony. When the distance between the successive notes of a chord is a second interval.

    Tertian harmony. When the distance between the successive notes of a chord is a third interval.

    Quartal harmony. When the distance between the successive notes of a chord is a fourth interval.

    In the case of the C major triad:


    …the distance between C and E:

    …is a third, and so is the distance between E and G:

    So, the C major triad is based on tertian harmony because the notes are related by third intervals.

    Submission: A chord must have notes that are related by a scale and class of harmony.

    Keyword #3 – “Agreeable Or Not”

    The notes of a chord can either be pleasant or unpleasant when played. Pleasant combination of notes are classified as concords while unpleasant combination of notes are classified as discords.

    A chord may be a concord or discord and this depends on the intervals it is made up of.

    Chords that are made up of perfect fifth intervals, major and minor third intervals, etc., are concordant while chords that are made up of augmented and diminished intervals are particularly discordant.

    The major triad (using the C major triad as a reference):

    …is an example of a concord. A breakdown of the C major triad:

    …into intervals produces the following intervals…

    C to E:

    …a major third interval.

    E to G:

    …a minor third interval.

    C to G:

    …a perfect fifth interval.

    The reason why the C major triad sounds pleasant when played is because of the intervals it is made up of (which are the major third, minor third, and perfect fifth).

    A typical example of a discord is the C augmented triad:

    …which can be broken down into the following intervals…

    C to E:

    …a major third interval.

    E to G#:

    …a major third interval.

    C to G#:

    …an augmented fifth interval.

    The reason why the C augmented triad sounds unpleasant when played is because of the augmented fifth interval it is made up of.

    Recommendation: Check out our music theory digital download collection.

    Keyword #4 – “Together”

    The term chord is derived from an old English word “accord” which means together.

    The notes of a chord must be played together and playing the notes of a chord together produces a note relationship called harmony. Chords are harmonic by design and can only be formed when notes are played together (not separately).

    Submission: Indeed, there are situations when the notes of a chord can be played or heard separately; in the case of broken chords and arpeggios. However, these are only melodic expressions of chords, which do not change the basic definition of chords.

    Final Words

    Now that you know what a chord is, need I explain what a chord isn’t? Lol!

    Any musical idea that doesn’t align with the basic properties of a chord that we’ve covered in this lesson is not a chord; just know that they should be another name for it — not just the term chord.

    All the best and see you in the next lesson when we’ll talk about scales.

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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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    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    1 Flo Smith

    I found this helpful for learning chords.

    Reply

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