• Q: “Can You Name Any Chord Using These Three Checks?” A: “Yes!”

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

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    It’s possible to name any chord on the piano if you know the three checks I’m about to show you in this lesson.

    We get emails from our enthusiastic students who are overwhelmed by the vast world of chords; especially when it has to do with naming chords and that’s if I feign that I’m unaware that application of chords is not another aspect that needs urgent attention.

    Today, in response to an email on how the name of a chord can be determined, I’m going to show you three checks that would help you ascertain the name of just any chord on the piano.

    Are you ready?

    The Primary Check – “Identity And Stability Check”

    The first thing you have to take a look at is the identity and stability of a chord.

    At this point you’re probably saying “Identity? Stability? What does it have to do with naming chords?” and my response is “…it has everything to do with it!”

    The Identity of a chord comes from its first tone and its stability comes from the distance (aka – “interval”) between its first and fifth tone.

    “Let’s Start With The Identity Of A Chord…”

    The first tone of a chord is also known as its root.

    A chord takes its identity from the root and when it’s not inverted, the root is usually the lowest-sounding chord tone. For example, the chord “C-E-G:

    …if I assume that you don’t already know it’s a C major chord, has C as its root.

    So, the chord takes its identity from C:

    …and even if we don’t know anything else about the chord, we know its identity — it’s a C chord.

    If you’re given “E-G-B”:

    …and you know its root is E:

    …then you’ve also figured its identity out — it’s an E chord.

    Submission: Keep in mind that there are times when the lowest-sounding note in a chord is not the root. But be rest assured that once you’ve figured out the root of the chord, you’ve found its identity.

    “Now, Let’s Talk About Stability…”

    Once you’ve known the identity of a chord, the next thing to check out for is for its stability and stable chords form a perfect fifth interval from the root of the chord.

    A perfect fifth interval is the distance between the first and fifth tones of the major or minor scale. For example, now that we know that the C major scale:

    …has C and G:

    …as its first and fifth tones, we can say that the “C-E-G” chord:

    …is a stable chord because its fifth tone (G):

    …forms a perfect fifth interval from the root (C):

    So, “C-E-G” is a stable chord unlike “C-E-G#:

    …which is an unstable chord because of the augmented fifth interval between C and G#:

    …or unlike “C-Eb-Gb”:

    …which is an unstable chord because of the diminished fifth interval between C and Gb:

    “Why Do We Have To Know About Stable Chords?”

    The stability check lets you know if a chord is augmented or diminished and although augmented and diminished chords are rarely played, the stability check is still useful because major and minor chords are stable.

    So, if a chord indicates the perfect fifth interval while you’re making the stability check, then chances are there that it’s either a major chord or a minor chord. However, you won’t be able to precisely say if it’s a major chord or a minor chord until you do a secondary check.

    In a nutshell:

    Stable chords are either major (sometimes dominant) or minor.

    Unstable chords are either augmented or diminished and you’ll be able to tell at the spot.

    Now that we’re done with the primary check, let’s proceed to the secondary check.

    The Secondary Check – “Quality Check”

    Proceeding to the secondary check after the primary check is important because the quality of a chord matters a whole lot when it comes to naming the chord.

    There’s a simple quality check, compound quality check, complicated quality check, and I’ll be showing you two (out of three) of these secondary checks and how they can help you ascertain the quality of a chord.

    The Simple Quality Check

    A simple quality check is used to determine the quality of a chord (whether it’s major or minor) by figuring out the interval between the root (the tone that gives our chord its identity) and the third tone.

    So, in the “C-Eb-G” chord:

    …we can isolate the root and third tone (which are C and Eb):

    …and figure out the interval between them.

    Now, if you’ve been following our lessons in the past and are already grounded in music theory, then you should know that from C to Eb:

    …is a minor third interval.

    The secondary check of the “C-Eb-G” chord shows a minor interval and that’s all the information we need to call it a minor chord; so that’s a C minor chord:

    …consisting of C, Eb, and G.

    Analogy: It’s just like being found with cocaine during a search at the airport is enough for you to be prosecuted for going against the drug law. You can’t possibly convince the immigration that you are not into drugs because you were “checked” and convicted.

    So, if your secondary check says “minor” then it’s a minor chord. But if it says “major” then it’s a major (or sometimes dominant) chord.

    If we go back to the “C-E-G” chord:

    …and do a simple quality check, you’ll figure out that the interval between C and E (the first and third tones):

    …is a major interval and that makes the “C-E-G” chord a major chord.

    If you put the identity (primary check) and the quality (secondary check) together, you have the C major chord:

    The Compound Quality Check

    The compound check is just like the simple check save for the difference of an additional check — the extra check.

    The compound check goes beyond checking the third to the seventh; so, it checks the third and seventh tones of a chord which are known to music scholars as the skeleton of a chord.

    You can simply call the compound check an “X-ray check” because we are screening the skeleton (third and seventh tones) of a chord and it’s used for bigger chord structures like seventh chords and extended chords.

    For example, if you’re given a “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” chord:

    …and you don’t know its name, the compound check can help you figure it out so easily.

    All you have to do is to keep these in mind:

    Major third + Major seventh = Major Chord

    Minor third + Minor seventh = Minor Chord

    Attention: Provided that a chord is stable (having a perfect fifth interval.)

    Sounds easy, right? It feels we’re adding major intervals (third and seventh) to produce a major chord and adding minor intervals (third and seventh) to produce minor chords.

    But you also have to know these other rare combinations:

    Major third + Minor seventh = Dominant Chord

    Minor third + Major seventh = Minor (Major) Chord

    Attention: Provided that a chord is stable (having a perfect fifth interval.)

    So, back to the “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” chord:

    Attention: Let’s assume we’ve done the primary check and it’s a stable C chord (that has a perfect fifth interval between its first and fifth tones).

    The interval between C and Eb (the root and third tone):

    …is a minor third interval, while the interval between C and Bb (the root and seventh tone):

    …is a minor seventh interval.

    So, we have the following combination:

    Minor third (C-Eb) + Minor seventh (C-Bb)

    …and based on what we know about the compound check that’s a minor chord — a C minor chord:

    But there’s more to this C minor chord than the secondary check can reveal and that’s why there’s a tertiary check. But before we study the tertiary check, let’s highlight on the complicated quality check.

    Attention: We’ll run a tertiary check on the “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” chord in the next segment. I promise you that.

    The Complicated Quality Check

    It’s called the complicated quality check because it’s actually complicated and it would take an entirely different blog to make an attempt to exhaustively cover this check.

    But bear in mind that this is a combination of the primary and secondary check and covers the following aspects:

    Identity Check

    Stability Check

    Simple Quality Check

    Compound Quality Check

    …so, it literally leaves no stone unturned.

    If you can put together all the concepts we’ve covered, you should be able to do a complicated quality check but there’s more to the complicated quality check than the four aspects and we’ll cover it in a subsequent lesson.

    The Tertiary Check – Added Tone/Extension Check”

    If you are naming a triad or seventh chord, after the secondary check you’re good to go. But it’s always good to end your check with a tertiary check because it can tell you about certain chord types like added tone chords:

    The add2 chord

    The add4 chord

    The add6 chord

    …and extended chords like:

    The major ninth chord

    The minor eleventh chord

    The dominant thirteenth chord

    So, the tertiary check that helps you find out if there are extensions or added tones in a chord and what those tones are.

    Checking For Added Tones

    Most of the chords we play are built off third intervals and that’s why they are made up of a root, third, fifth, and seventh.

    Now, if we take the first, third, fifth, and seventh tones off the major scale (let’s say the C major scale):

    …we’ll be left with the following tones:

    D (which is the 2):

    F (which is the 4):

    A (which is the 6):

    …and these are the added tones.

    So, the added tones are the second, fourth, and sixth tones of the scale. Never lose sight of this!

    “Here’s A Chord Check Scenario…”

    If we have “C-E-F-G”:

    …and from the primary check, it’s a C chord (because of the identity derived from its root [which is C]):

    …and we’ve also done a simple quality check (a secondary check) and we ascertained that it’s a major chord because of the interval between C and E:

    …which is a major third.

    Now, we’ve done the primary and secondary checks and it shows it;s a C major chord:

    …but if we stop at that without doing a secondary check to look out for added tones, we’ll have a good but not-so-thorough job.

    Using our knowledge of the added tones, we can figure out that the F note:

    …in the “C-E-F-G” chord:

    …is the fourth tone of the C major scale and an added tone.

    So, that changes the chord a little bit from being just a major chord to being a major [add4] chord; specifically a C major [add4] chord:

    You can also find the C major chord:

    …with the added 2 (which is D):

    …and that’s the C major [add2] chord:

    ..or the C major chord:

    …with the added 6 (which is A):

    …and that’s the C major [add6] chord:

    Submission: Apart from the 2, 4, and 6, you can also add the 9, 11, and 13. However, we’re sticking to the former because the latter is often times used as extensions.

    Checking For Extensions

    When the added tones:

    The 2

    The 4

    The 6

    …are played an octave higher, they are said to be extensions and this is because they can be used to extend the width or height of a chord.

    The 2 is D:

    …in the key of C major:

    …and when it is played an octave higher:

    From this D:

    …to this D:

    …you’ll have the 9 or the ninth extension (D):

    So, while from C to D:

    …is a second, C to D:

    …is a ninth.

    “In The Same Vein…”

    C to F:

    …is a fourth and if we play the F:

    …an octave higher (as this F):

    …we’ll have C to F:

    …an eleventh.

    So, while from C to F:

    …is a fourth, C to F:

    …is an eleventh.

    In the same way, the thirteenth (C-A):

    …can also be associated with the sixth (C-A):

    So, while from C to A:

    …is a sixth, C to A:

    …is a thirteenth.

    “How Many Extensions Now?”

    There are three extensions:

    The ninth (D):

    …which is associated with the second:

    The eleventh (F):

    …which is associated with the fourth:

    The thirteenth (A):

    …which is associated with the sixth:

    So, if you know your added tones:




    …you also know your extensions:




    “Back To The “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” Chord”

    In the last segment, we described the “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” chord:

    …a a C minor chord and I told you that we’ll run a tertiary check on it, remember?

    We determined its identity, which is C:

    …and we did simple and compound quality checks and found two minor intervals — C-Eb:


    …and that’s how we got the quality of the “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” chord as minor.

    Well, let’s continue from where we stopped.

    In our tertiary check, we are basically looking for extensions and you already know that there are three extensions:

    the ninth (D):

    the eleventh (F):

    …the thirteenth (A):

    …and it’s crystal clear that the “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” chord:

    …has one of these extensions (and that’s D):

    …which is the ninth.

    If we add the primary, secondary, and tertiary checks together, we have a name for the chord:

    The C minor ninth chord

    …and here’s a breakdown:

    C from the primary check (on the identity)

    minor from the secondary check (on the quality)

    ninth from the tertiary check (on added tones and extensions)

    …and as you can see, we have the big and sophisticated “C-Eb-G-Bb-D” chord named correctly using the three checks.

    A Short Note On Altered/Chromatic Added Tones Extensions

    It is important for me to let you know that added tones and extensions can also be chromatically modified and this happens a whole lot in dominant chords.

    A chromatic added tone or extension is either raised or lowered by a half-step. So, instead of a ninth (which is D):

    …in the key of C major:

    …you’ll find the sharp ninth (D#):

    …and the flat ninth (Db):

    …as the two chromatic added tones.

    For example, the “C-E-G-Bb-Db” chord:

    …can be checked as follows:

    Primary check: C

    Secondary check: dominant seventh chord (major third + minor seventh)

    Tertiary check: flat ninth (the ninth [which is D] is lowered by a half-step [to Db])

    Altogether, the “C-E-G-Bb-Db” chord:

    …is the C dominant seventh [flat ninth] chord — the C7[b9] chord.

    So, keep in mind that your extensions won’t always come as the tones of the scale (diatonic extensions); they can sometimes come in chromatic forms where they are either lowered or raised by a half-step.

    Final Words

    Honestly, you won’t find the concepts explained in this blog presented in the manner we did and I appreciate my role-model and mentor, Jermaine Griggs, who laid the foundation of these concepts and inspired me to take it to another level.

    While I must confess that these checks are not absolute, especially while dealing with suspended, quartal and secundal chords, I guarantee that 99% of everyday average chords can be figured out with these checks.

    Most importantly, if you don’t know the building blocks of chords (intervals), doing these checks will grow from being difficult to being impossible. So, if you think I’m making a clarion call to the study of intervals, you are NOT far from the truth.

    See you in the next lesson.

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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