• Chord Theory: Four Universal Approaches To The Formation Of Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Experienced players,Piano,Theory

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    The goal of this lesson is to provide you with additional insight on the formation of chords.

    I know you have your approach to the formation of chords and there are a couple more approaches to chord formation out there that are beyond what we’re covering in this lesson. But we’re basically looking at four approaches that are universal.

    Let’s get started.

    Universal Approaches To The Formation Of Chords

    First of all, we’ll be starting with the tonal approach, then we’ll delve into three other approaches that are advanced and a lot easier.

    One thing a lot of people don’t know about chord formation is that advanced approaches to chord formation are easier than simpler approaches to chord formation.

    I’ll throw more light on this after we’re done.

    The Tonal Approach

    The tonal approach to chord formation deals with half-steps and whole-steps. So, if you know half-steps and whole steps on the keyboard, you can form any type of chord and in any key.

    For example, the C major triad:

    …can be broken down into half-steps:

    From C to E is four half-steps:

    …then from E to G is three half-steps:

    So, the major triad consists of four half-steps between its root and third tone, and then three half-steps between its third and fifth tone.

    If you can remember the number “4-3” and apply it starting from any given tone, you’ll form the major triad in any key.

    From D:

    …if you go up four half-steps (to F#):

    …and another three half-steps from F# (to A):

    …you’ll have D-F#-A:

    …and that’s the D major triad.

    In the tonal approach, you’ll have to know and memorize tons of formulas:

    “4-3” for the major triad

    “3-4” for the minor triad

    “4-4” for the augmented triad

    “3-3” for the diminished triad

    …and for seventh chords, you’ll have formulas like:

    “4-3-4” for the major seventh chord

    “3-4-3” for the minor seventh chord

    “4-3-3” for the dominant seventh chord

    “3-3-4” for the half-diminished seventh chord

    “3-3-3” for the diminished seventh chord

    …and that’s the tonal approach.

    The Scalar Approach

    In the scalar approach, a scale reference is used in the determination of the chord tones using the following numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7, (9, 11, 13.)

    The scale approach is more advanced than the tonal approach because it requires the knowledge of certain scales in all the keys and without the knowledge of the scale in all the keys, the scalar approach can grow from being challenging to being difficult or impossible.

    The magic numbers for the scalar approach are 1, 3, 5, 7, (9, 11, and 13) and using these numbers, you can form a variety of chords using the right scale and on any key.

    Using the C major scale:

    …we can form the following chords using the magic numbers:


    The first, third, and fifth tones of the C major scale are C, E, and G:

    …and that’s the C major triad.


    The first, third, fifth, and seventh tones of the C major scale are C, E, G, and B:

    …and that’s the C major seventh chord.


    The first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth tones of the C major scale are C, E, G, B, and D:

    …and that’s the C major ninth chord.

    We can go on and on.

    I’m glad you’ve seen how this works using the major scale as the reference. If you use the minor scale and other modes (both synthetic and authentic), you’ll form tons of minor, dominant, altered, and diminished chords.

    The Intervallic Approach

    In the intervallic approach to the formation of chords, we’re basically stacking intervals together to form chords and there are third, fifth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth intervals you must learn and master before you can use the intervallic approach.

    Also, using third intervals (major and minor third intervals in particular), you can form triads, seventh, and extended chords as well.

    “The Formation Of The C Major Triad Using The Intervallic Approach…”

    Stacking a minor third interval on top of a major third interval produces a major triad. This can be formularized thus:

    Major Third + Minor Third = Major Triad

    Starting from C:

    …and forming a major third interval, produces C-E:

    Stacking a minor third interval (which is E-G):

    …on top of C-E (a major third interval):

    …produces the C major triad:

    “The Formation Of The C Minor Triad Using The Intervallic Approach…”

    Here’s the formula of the minor triad:

    Minor Third + Major Third = Minor Triad

    Starting from C:

    …and forming a minor third interval, produces C-Eb:

    Stacking a major third interval (which is Eb-G):

    …on top of C-Eb (a minor third interval):

    …produces the C minor triad:

    Every triad, seventh, or extended chord has its intervallic formula that can be used in its formation and once known, you can form any chord using the intervallic approach.

    The Chordal Approach

    The chordal approach to the formation of chords works by association. In the chordal approach, a particular chord is used as a reference, and every other chord is associated with it.

    For example, if you’re familiar with the major triad, you can associate every other chord with it. You can associate the minor, augmented, and diminished triad with the major triad.

    “Here’s How It Works…”

    Using the C major triad:

    …you can form the C minor triad by lowering the third tone of the C major triad (which is E):

    …by a half-step (to Eb):

    …and that’s the C minor triad:

    Attention: Every other minor triad can be associated with the major triad. Hence, they can be formed if the above-given procedure is adhered to.

    Also, the C augmented triad:

    …can be associated with the C major triad:

    …and this is because when the fifth tone of the C major triad (which is G):

    …is raised by a half-step (to G#):

    …that produces the C augmented triad:

    Submission: All augmented triads can be associated with a corresponding major triad and raising the fifth tone of a given major triad produces a corresponding augmented triad.

    Lowering the third and fifth tones of the major triad produces the diminished triad and this is the basis of the association of the diminished triad with the major triad.

    “Here’s A Quick Example…”

    Lowering the third and fifth tones of the C major triad:

    …which are E and G respectively:

    …by a half-step (to Eb and Gb):

    …produces the C diminished triad:

    So, in the chordal approach, several chords are associated with a particular chord which functions as a reference and that’s exactly what we did in this segment; associating the minor, diminished, and augmented triads with the major triad.

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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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