• Give Me 10 Minutes And I’ll Enhance Your Knowledge Of Chord Tones

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    The goal of this lesson is to enhance your knowledge of chord tones.

    One of the remarkable differences between advanced/experienced players and beginners is that the former have an understanding of every chord tone. Consequently, they know the chord tones to omit in certain situations and the chord tones to focus on.

    An experienced player does not need to play all the notes in the C major ninth chord:

    …he/she can just play it this way:

    …and that’s because he knows the right notes to omit.

    I’ll start this lesson by given you an overview of chords before we get into our goals for the day.

    An Overview Of Chords

    A chord, according to Jermaine Griggs “is a collection of related notes, agreeable or not, that can be played [or heard] together [or separately.]”

    Although the definition above is comprehensive, let’s breakdown a few of the keywords…

    “…A Collection Of Three Or More”

    It takes at least three notes to form a chord. There’s a school of thought that is of the opinion that two notes can form a chord. However, two notes are considered to be intervals – the building blocks of chords.

    A chord can have as much as four, five, six or more notes depending on a variety of factors like the class of chord played and the voicing used.

    “…Related Notes”

    The notes of a chord must be related by two things – a given scale and an interval (I’ll explain.) Any collection of three or more notes cannot be called a chord without scale and intervallic relationship.

    “What Is Scale Relationship?”

    When the notes of a chord (aka – “chord tones”) belong to a particular scale, they are said to have a scale relationship. For example, C-E-G:

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

    Therefore, there’s a scale relationship between C:


    …and G:

    …the chord tones of the C major triad and the C major scale.

    “What Is Intervallic Relationship”

    The distance between successive chord tones must be based on a stipulated interval. Although the interval between chord tones can be second intervals:

    …third intervals:


    …and fifth intervals:

    …we’ll be focusing on chords that are built on third intervals (aka – “tertian harmony.”)

    It is the intervallic relationship in third intervals between the notes of the C major triad that explains why C to E:

    …is a third, and also why C-E:

    …to G:

    …is also a third.

    Attention: Chord tones are the the individual notes that make up a chord. In the C major triad, C, E, and G:

    …are all chord tones.

    Alright! Let’s take a look at the intervallic constituents before we proceed.

    All chords [no matter how big or small], can be broken down into intervals (which are the building blocks of chords.) The intervals that a chord can be broken down is know as its intervallic components/constituents.

    For example the C major triad, can be broken down into the following intervals…


    …a major third interval.


    …a perfect fifth interval and E-G:

    …a minor third interval.

    C-E, E-G, and C-G are the intervallic constituents of the C major triad.

    Due to the fact that chords can be broken down into intervals, it is important for every serious musician who wants to have a proper understanding of chords to also know intervals and how they make chords up.

    “What Is An Interval?”

    An interval is basically the relationship between two or more notes that are played [or heard] separately [or together] in terms of the distance between them.

    Let’s quickly do a contrast between two classes of intervals – simple and compound intervals.

    Simple intervals are intervals that falls with the compass of an octave while compound intervals are intervals that exceed the compass of an octave.

    Considering that an octave means eight, you won’t be wrong to say that simple intervals are intervals that don’t exceed an eighth in width while compound intervals are intervals that span from a ninth to a fifteenth.

    In the key of C:

    …intervals within the compass of C to C:

    …are simple intervals. For example…




    Intervals that exceed the compass of the octave like the ninth (C-D):

    …tenth (C-E):

    …are compound intervals.

    I’ve said enough about intervals already, let’s get into or focus for today – chord tones.

    An Exposition On Chord Tones

    The notes of a chord are known as chord tones.

    In this segment, we’ll be looking at chord tones that are obtainable during chord formation. But before we do so, let me take you back to what we learned in an earlier segment:

    Every set of chord tones must have scale and intervallic relationship

    The relationship between the chord tones of the chords we’ll be forming chords in this segment will be based on the C major scale (scale relationship) and in third intervals (intervallic relationship.)

    “Pay Attention…”

    We’re basically starting from C:

    …which is known as the root, and stacking other notes in third intervals.

    “Here’s How It Works”

    A third from C:

    …is E:

    …the third tone of the C major scale.

    Another third from E:

    …is G:

    …the fifth tone of the C major scale.

    Another third from G:

    …is B:

    …which is the seventh tone of the C major scale.

    Another third from B:

    …is D:

    …which is the ninth tone of the C major scale.

    Another third from D:

    …is F:

    …which is the eleventh tone of the C major scale.

    Another third from F:

    …is A:

    …which is the thirteenth tone of the C major scale.

    Another third from A:

    …is C:

    …which is the fifteenth tone of the C major scale and that’s a duplicate of the first chord tone (aka – “root note”.)Although there’s a fifteenth, the farthest chord tone from the root is the thirteenth.

    Submission: A regular scale has eight degrees. However, when I’m saying ninth tone, the eleventh tone, and the thirteenth tone of the scale, I’m simply stating the distance between the root and that note.

    In the chord formation we just did, we highlighted seven notes:

    • The root
    • The third
    • The fifth
    • The seventh
    • The ninth
    • The eleventh
    • The thirteenth

    …and we’ll be breaking them down step by step.

    The Root

    The root is usually the lowest chord tone when a chord is played in root position. The root is the foundation of the chord, and it is called the root because the chord takes its name from the root of a chord.

    Any chord played with C as the root (for example the C major triad):

    …is named a C chord – it doesn’t matter whether it is a major or minor chord.

    The Third

    The third chord tone determines the quality of a chord. If you want to know the quality of a chord (whether it’s a major or minor chord), check out its third tone.

    The interval of the third tone from the root determines the quality of a chord. If the interval between the root and the third tone is a major third, then the chord formed will also have a major quality, conversely, if the interval between the root and the third tone is a minor third interval, then the chord formed will have a minor quality.

    In the triad below:

    …the interval between its first and third tones (C and E):

    …is a major third, consequently, the triad will have a major quality.

    In a nutshell, the third is one of the chord tones that determines the quality of a chord.

    The Fifth

    Although it can be omitted sometimes, the fifth tone is one of the most important chord tones in a chord and this is because it goes a long way to determine the stability of the chord.

    There are three known intervals that the fifth tone can form with the root. They are…

    • The perfect fifth
    • The diminished fifth
    • The augmented fifth

    Chords where the fifth tone forms a perfect fifth interval with the root note are known to be stable while chords that their fifth tone form diminished and augmented fifth intervals are classified as unstable chords.

    The difference between this chord:

    …and this one:

    …is stability. Although both of them are major seventh chords, however, the second one with a G# note:

    …which forms an augmented fifth interval (C-G#):

    …is not stable like the first one that has its fifth tone forming a perfect fifth interval (C-G):

    The Seventh

    The next chord tone is the seventh. The seventh chord tone just like the third, determines the quality of a chord. The relationship in distance between the seventh tone and the root can produce the following intervals:

    • The major seventh
    • The minor seventh
    • The diminished seventh

    The major and minor seventh intervals are usually formed between the root and seventh tone in most seventh chords (read more.)

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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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