• Harmonic Functions Of The Major Triad (Part 1)

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano,Theory

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    In today’s lesson, we’ll be looking at the harmonic functions of the major triad.

    A knowledge of the harmonic function of the major triad would let you know how it can be used or applied.

    “If the purpose of a thing is not known, abuse is inevitable.” Dr. Myles Munroe

    To get started, let’s do a quick review on triads.

    Review On Triads

    A chord is a collection of related notes and a chord of three notes is called a triad.

    Pursuant to strict traditional principles of chord formation the notes of the chord are related by a scale and in interval of thirds (aka – “tertian harmony“.) Using any given scale, you can stack notes together in interval of thirds.

    Anybody can form triads using the C major scale:

    …with the knowledge of thirds. Starting from the tonic (which is C):

    …and adding a note that is a third above C (which is E):

    Adding another third to C – E (which is G):

    …produces a triad:

    In our free 16-week chord revival program, we covered four classes of triads…

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    “What Is The Major Triad?”

    The major triad is a triad that has a major quality. The term major quality is inherited from tonality.

    Tonality creates an attraction towards a particular tone and this attraction pulls other notes towards this tone, making it a central note (aka – “the tonic.”) Considering that there are two varieties of tonality:

    • The major tonality – the major key
    • The minor tonality – the minor key

    …chords, scales, chord progressions, songs that are related to the major key are said to have the major quality while those that are related to the minor key are said to have a minor quality.

    In a nutshell, the major triad is adapted to the the major key.

    Notwithstanding that every triad has a combination of major and minor traits, the dominant trait of the major triad is what makes it a major triad. Here are two of those dominant traits:

    • The underlying scale
    • The intervallic constituents

    The Underlying Scale

    The major triad is derived from the major scale – the natural major scale. The simplest and easiest major scale to play on the keyboard is the C natural major scale:

    …which is basically all white notes from C to C.

    The C major scale is the parent scale of the C major triad.

    In other words, the notes of the C major triad are derived from the C major scale and most importantly, the C major triad takes its root from the tonic of the C major scale.

    Take a look at the tones of the C major triad:

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

    Alright, let’s look at the intervallic components of the C major triad.

    The Intervallic Constituents

    In music, interval refers to the relationship between two notes in terms of the distance between them.

    If the major triad is broken up into intervals using the root as a reference, we’ll have:

    C and E:

    …a major third interval.

    C and G

    …a perfect fifth interval.

    In a nutshell, the major triad is a product of two intervals – the major third and the perfect fifth and these two intervallic constituents have a lot to say about the [quality of a] major triad.

    The Major Third

    The quality of third in a chord [or scale] determines its overall quality. The major triad has a major quality because it has the major third as its third quality.

    The Perfect Fifth

    Although the perfect fifth is way out of our discussion, permit me to comment on it. The quality of fifth – the perfect fifth, that the major triad has, is a universally stable interval. There are acoustic and musical reasons to support the universal stability of the perfect fifth interval.

    Having covered the major triad, let’s get into the harmonic functions of the major triad.

    The Harmonic Functions of the Major Triad

    Now you know what a major triad is, its harmonic function talks about its application. The harmonic function of the major triad has to do with the roles of the major triad in harmony.

    Let’s look at three harmonic functions of the major triad – as the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chord in the major key.

    As The Tonic Triad

    The chord of the first degree of the scale is known as the tonic. The major triad can function as the tonic chord in the major key.

    In the key of D major:

    …the quality of the triad on the tonic (D):

    …should be a major triad – the D major triad:

    In the key of A major:

    …the quality of the triad on the tonic (A):

    …should be a major triad – the A major triad:

    Irrespective of the major key you’re in, the tonic chord would invariably be the major triad. Summarily, the major triad functions as chord one in any major key.

    As The Subdominant Triad

    The major triad functions as the chord of the fourth degree of the major scale. In the key of C major:

    …where the fourth degree of the scale is F:

    …the F major triad is the chord of the fourth degree.

    This is another function of the major triad.

    The same thing is applicable to every other note on the piano. In the key of Eb major:

    …where Ab:

    …is the fourth tone of the scale, the Ab major triad:

    …functions as chord four in the key.

    In the key of A major:

    …where D:

    …is the fourth tone of the scale, chord four is the D major triad:

    As The Dominant Triad

    The fifth degree of the scale is known as the dominant and the major triad functions as the dominant triad, which is the chord of the fifth degree.

    In the key of E major:

    …where B:

    …is the fifth tone of the scale, the B major triad:

    …functions as the dominant triad [the chord of the fifth degree] in the key of E major.

    In the key of G major:

    …where D:

    …is the fifth tone of the scale, the D major triad:

    …functions as the dominant triad.

    Final Thoughts

    The major triad basically has three tonal functions – as the tonic chord, the subdominant chord, and the dominant chord.

    Every given major triad has three of these functions.

    The C major triad:

    …functions as the tonic triad in the key of C major:

    …the subdominant triad in the key of G:

    …and the dominant triad in the key of F:

    Let’s continue this discussion in another post. All the best!

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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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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Leonor

    If the 4th degree of the key of G is C, then the subdominant chord would be C. If the 5th degree of the key of F is C, then the dominant chord would be C. Correct? I’m confused by the last part of the blog which indicates F# as the subdominant chord of the key of G and Bb as the dominant of the key of F. ?????

    Reply

    2 Anthony Romo

    The F# and the Bb you’re seeing is only highlighted to show they’re black keys. C chord is the tonic in the c scale, the 4th chord in G scale, and the 5th chord in F scale. All are major quality.

    Reply

    3 David Scott

    I’m thinking that Jermaine’s ‘rule’ major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished is of help in understanding this yes?

    Reply

    4 mario urbina

    the information is great, but it wound be better if there was a book on all this theory. I COULD read it or study it more. The internet is o.k but material can get lost, on the other hand the book is always there. Thank you

    Reply

    5 Pete

    They have many courses mario. Check out their 300pg course, “The Secrets to Playing Piano By Ear”

    Reply

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