• How To Determine Whether A Chord Is Major Or Minor

    in Chords & Progressions,Experienced players,Piano,Theory

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    Every serious pianist should be able to look at any chord and determine whether it’s a major or minor chord.

    Believe it or not, music is ruled by two key types – the major and the minor key. Consequently, scales, intervals, chords, and chord progressions are usually categorized into major and minor.

    In this lesson, I’ll be showing you one important feature that will help you separate major chords from minor chords. But before we go ahead, permit me to give you an overview of quality in music.

    An Overview Of The Concept Of Quality In Music

    The idea of making a note the center of attraction or what music scholars call tonal center creates a distinct environment which is commonly known as the key.

    When you hear musicians say they are in the key of D, they are basically making D:

    …the tonal center (aka – “the key”) and creating an environment around D:

    There are two types of key environment that can be created over a given note – the major and minor keys – and each of them has its characteristic quality. The major key sounds happy, joyful, bright, etc., while the minor key sounds sad, gloomy, nocturnal, ghostly, etc.

    So, it goes beyond saying a piece of music is in a given key, to the use of major or minor to qualify the key.

    When musicians say they are in the key of D, it’s either they are in the key of D major:

    …or in the key of D minor:

    Submission: I’m aware that there are other qualities that are used in music, like the diminished and augmented qualities, however, they are still categorized as major or minor. More on this will be discussed later.

    Suggested reading: A Study On The Major Key.

    Suggested reading: What Musicians Mean When They Say “Minor Key.”

    Chords can also be qualified the same way keys can be qualified using the terms major and minor. Irrespective of the size of a chord, when it comes to quality, it can only fit into one of the two qualities – major and minor.

    I’ll throw more light on this in the next segment.

    Tertian Harmony: The Power Of The Third

    Thirds are important because traditionally it is a standard practice to form chord by stacking notes in interval of thirds. The C major chord:

    …is built in thirds between C and E:

    …then E and G:

    The same thing is obtainable in bigger chords like the G dominant ninth chord:

    …which is built in thirds between G and B:

    …B and D:

    …D and F:

    …F and A:

    Beyond the use of thirds in chord formation, we’ll be using thirds in the next segment to determine whether a chord is major or minor. There are four qualities of thirds:

    The major third

    The minor third

    The diminished third

    The augmented third

    But in this post, we’ll be focusing on the major and minor third, which are for the most part the most commonly used quality of thirds.

    The Major Third Interval

    The major third is the relationship between the first and third note of the major scale. In the key of F:

    …where F and A are the first and third tones, F-A:

    …is a major third interval.

    Here are major third intervals in all twelve keys for your reference…

    C major third interval:

    Db major third interval:

    D major third interval:

    Eb major third interval:

    E major third interval:

    F major third interval:

    F# major third interval:

    G major third interval:

    Ab major third interval:

    A major third interval:

    Bb major third interval:

    B major third interval:

    The Minor Third Interval

    The minor third interval is the relationship between the first and the third tones of the minor scale. You can also form a minor third interval by lowering a major third interval by a half step.

    Check out the minor third intervals in all twelve keys…

    C minor third interval:

    C# minor third interval:

    D minor third interval:

    D# minor third interval:

    E minor third interval:

    F minor third interval:

    F# minor third interval:

    G minor third interval:

    G# minor third interval:

    A minor third interval:

    Bb minor third interval:

    B minor third interval:

    All chords can be broken down into these third intervals. Check out the C minor 11 chord:

    …which can be broken down into the following thirds…

    C-Eb:

    …C minor third interval.

    Eb-G:

    …Eb major third interval.

    G-Bb:

    …G minor third interval.

    Bb-D:

    …Bb major third interval.

    D-F:

    …D minor third interval.

    So, thirds (major and minor thirds especially) are useful in chord formation, but most importantly in chord quality determination.

    How To Determine The Quality Of A Chord

    When a chord is played [in root position], you can determine its quality from the interval between the first and third tones of the chord. If a chord whose root is C:

    …has the C major third interval:

    …as its first and third tones, it is considered to have a major quality. Conversely, if it has the C minor third interval:

    …as its first and third tones, it’s considered to have a minor quality.

    We’ll be considering various classes of chords and determining their respective qualities – whether major or minor.

    Triads

    A triad is a chord of three notes that consists of a root, third, and fifth. There are four classes of triad – the major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads.

    Let’s look at these triads:

    C major triad

    C minor triad

    C augmented triad

    C diminished triad

    …and determine their respective qualities.

    In the C major triad:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and E) is a major third. Therefore the quality of the C major triad is major.

    Attention: You’re probably asking why we had to determine the quality of a major triad when it’s a “major” triad. Well, you can find yourself in a situation where a chord is played and you’re to determine its quality. I’m talking about situations where you’ll be given any triad and asked “Is this a major or minor triad?”, unlike the situation above where you’re given a major triad to determine its quality.

    In the C minor triad:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and Eb) is a minor third. Therefore, the quality of the C minor triad is minor.

    In the C augmented triad:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and E) is a major third. Therefore the quality of the C augmented triad is major.

    In the C diminished triad:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and Eb) is a minor third. Therefore, the quality of the C diminished triad is minor.

    Seventh Chords

    Seventh chords are four note chords that encompass seven degrees of a given scale. Seventh chords have a root, third, fifth, and seventh tone.

    There are several seventh chord qualities, however, five of them (major seventh, minor seventh, dominant seventh, half-diminished seventh, and diminished seventh) are commonly used. We’ll be taking a closer look at the following seventh chords:

    C major seventh chord

    C minor seventh chord

    C dominant seventh chord

    C half-diminished seventh chord

    C diminished seventh chord

    …and determining their respective qualities.

    In the C major seventh chord:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and E) is a major third. Therefore the quality of the C major seventh chord is major.

    In the C minor seventh chord:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and Eb) is a minor third. Therefore the quality of the C minor seventh chord is minor.

    In the C dominant seventh chord:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and E) is a major third. Therefore the quality of the C dominant seventh chord is major.

    In the C half-diminished seventh chord:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and Eb) is a minor third. Therefore the quality of the C half-diminished seventh chord is minor.

    In the C diminished seventh chord:

    …the interval between the first and third tones:

    …(which are C and Eb) is a minor third. Therefore the quality of the C diminished seventh chord is minor.

    Submission: I spelled the C diminished triad as C-Eb-Gb-A instead of C-Eb-Gb-Bbb because my chord share tool doesn’t spell double-flat notes yet. Bear with me.

    Final Words

    Third intervals are just two notes, however, if you know these two notes in all twelve keys, you can be able to determine the quality of a chord.

    Henceforth, once you come across a chord, you can be able to classify it either as a major or a minor chord.

    All the best!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    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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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 David Moses

    Wonderful piece of information here.
    However I’d love to know why we have a diminished and half-diminished seventh.

    Reply

    2 Yemi

    Thank you for this article. It is very enlightening and educative.

    Reply

    3 ch

    I figured this out when I noticed some certain chords get written in lowercase roman numerals while certain others are written in upper case. I noticed that chords with the major quality are written in uppercase while all others are in lowercase. Then I concluded it must be the type of 3rd interval from the root that is the deciding factor.
    Thank you sir.

    Reply

    4 Jyhyn

    I was hoping that you would give us an idea as to how to tell the ‘quality’ (major or minor) of inverted 7th chords. That would have been an article worth reading. Disappointed.

    Reply

    5 Chuku Onyemachi

    Jyhn,
    I’m sorry you’re disappointed. However, I must say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a step. We’ve explored how to determine the quality of root position chords, therefore in subsequent lessons, we’ll be taking our study to the point where we’ll determine the quality of inverted chords (triads, sevenths, ninths, etc.)

    Reply

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