• # Here’s a foolproof guide that’ll have you naming chords correctly… TONIGHT!

in Theory

Yesterday’s lesson was one of my longest yet. And it was worth it!

I took you through a foolproof method for naming chords correctly. And many of you were helped tremendously (per your comments and radio show feedback last night).

Today, I want to make it even plainer.

If you recall from yesterday, the whole idea was this — if your major, minor, dominant, diminished, augmented, and seventh chords skip one alphabet letter between each tone, then they pass the test. If they don’t skip one alphabet letter or skip more than one, then they fail. That’s why I call it “foolproof” because it’s too easy.

For example, if I write an F# minor chord as:

F# + A + Db

…it fails!

Why? Well, the first two letters pass because they skip an alphabet letter. In other words, between “F” and “A” is “G.” Get it? But the “Db” fails because it skips more than one alphabet letter. From “A,” I’ve not only skipped “B” but also “C” and that just can’t work.

Without getting too technical, erroneously using “Db” makes this interval a FOURTH. And major, minor, dominant, diminished and the rest of our friends aren’t made up of fourths… they’re made up of THIRDS.

(That’s review though because yesterday’s lesson covered all that.)

So what could we do with that Db to make it correct?

Change it to C#… which is what it should be anyway!

F# minor
F# + A + C#

Passes the test! I’m happy. The F# is happy because I’m spelling her name right. Everyone’s happy!

But even with that said, some folks had a little trouble so I want to make it even more plain in this lesson.

Notice that I’ve limited this foolproof test to certain chords.

(The good news is that there aren’t that many “other” chords that don’t work with the foolproof test… most do).

What do these chords all have in common:

Major seventh
Minor seventh
Dominant seventh
Augmented seventh
Major ninth
Minor ninth
Dominant ninth
Major eleventh

Major thirteenth (pretty much all the same variations as above: major, minor, dominant)

What do they have in common?

They are built on third intervals.

That’s most chords, too!

I mean, besides secundals, quartal and quintal chords (like tritones), and some others — all other POPULAR chords you’re used to playing and talking about are built on thirds.

For example:

• A major chord is a major third on bottom with a minor third on top (C to E is the major third… E to G is the minor third. Together they create C major).
• A minor chord is the opposite. A minor third on the bottom and a major third on top.
• A diminished chord is simply a minor third on bottom and a minor third on top.
• An augmented chord is a major third on bottom and a major third on top.

And all we do when we play seventh chords, ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths is add more THIRDS.

Yes! These chords get big but they can all be broken down into thirds.

And chords that are built with major and minor thirds are called TERTIAN CHORDS.

(Again, that’s most chords out there!)

So basically the foolproof test will work for almost anything because as long as it’s built with thirds, it MUST follow the rules.

It can’t extend more than 3 alphabet letters as a whole, which results in the “skipped” alphabet letter in the middle… ALWAYS!

Like C to E — that’s a third. It covers three alphabet letters: C, D, and E. The D is not played of course… just the C and E are. The “D” is the skipped alphabet letter I’ve been talking about.

Take F to A. It’s a third, too. Spans three alphabet letters in its interval: F, G, and A. Of course, G isn’t played but it’s contained in the interval. It’s the “skipped” letter.

So that’s how you can always check your naming. And that is always true on any part of the chord. Even if the chord has 6 notes, it should follow these rules (unless the notes start being altered, and, truth be told, even MOST altered chords will follow this rule… like a “flat 9” alteration, for example, should still be flatting the same alphabet letter, not changing it).

You know the diatonic chords of the scale? You know, the ones I’ve covered in several past lessons

Basically, the idea is if you take every other note (ummm, “foolproof method”) of the scale, you’ll naturally create certain chords on each tone of the scale.

Like if I take the C major scale and play every other note of the scale starting on C, I’ll get: C + E + G + B. If I scoot over to the right and do the same thing on D (using the same notes of the C major scale), I’ll get: D + F + A + C. As you keep doing that, you’ll get chords on every tone of the scale. Some will be major 7 chords. Others will end up being minor 7 chords. Another will be a dominant 7 and the last one will be a half-diminished 7 chord.

But that’s not what’s important here. You can find tons of lessons on that using the search box above.

What’s important is what I’m about to share with you.

Did you know that the chords created from this one C major example can help you PROPERLY name any tertian chord out there?

Take a look at this guide I made below…

What I’ve done is highlight the chords created off each tone of C major. They show up in red. Print this out. You will never misname a tertian chord again.

See the “C + E + G + B” row?

What this means is that any C chord (I don’t care if it’s major, minor, dominant, or diminished) should have some kind of C in it… some kind of E in it… some kind of G in it… and if it’s a 4-toned chord, some kind of B.

The only exceptions are various altered chords and non-tertian chords (ones that aren’t built off third intervals but that’s rare).

Let’s see if this holds true.

What’s a C major chord?

C + E + G

Does it pass? Yes!

What’s a C minor chord?

C + Eb + G

Does it pass? Yes!

(Remember, it doesn’t matter what kind of C, or what kind of E or what kind of G. All the foolproof test is concerned with is the alphabet letters that are being used. It’s your job to make sure you’re playing “Eb” versus “E” in a minor chord because the foolproof test doesn’t get that involved. It just makes sure you’re meeting the minimum naming requirements and not calling “Eb” a “D#”… believe me, it happens all too often.)

How about a C minor 7 chord?

C + Eb + G + Bb

It passes! Some kind of C, some kind of E, some kind of G, and some kind of B.

What about a tricky one… C diminished 7:

C + Eb + G + Bbb

(Yes, “B” double flat. We covered this yesterday).

Most people, and I’m guilty of this when I don’t want to say “B double flat,” will just say “A” there. Of course, it will still sound right when you play it. LoL, just cause’ you spell it wrong doesn’t mean you don’t know how to say it right. But in terms of musical grammar, a TERTIAN chord starting on C will always have some kind of C, some kind of E, some kind of G — and if it gets bigger than a triad, some kind of “B.”

Same goes for every other chord on my chart. Any D chord you write out should have some kind of D, some kind of F, some kind of A — and if it’s bigger, some kind of C.

You get it?

This chart is just not a list of diatonic chords in C major. It’s a list of what alphabet letters your chords SHOULD have in them to pass the foolproof test.

So print that chart out and any time we do an exercise, make sure your chords pass this test and contain the same alphabet letters as the guide above and you’ll be fine!

Until next time —

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#### Jermaine Griggs

Founder at HearandPlay.com
Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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