• A Method To Guarantee The Proper Spelling of Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    proper spelling of chords

    In this lesson, we’ll be exploring a method that’ll guarantee the proper spelling of chords.

    The D major triad is spelled as D-F#-A:

    …and not as D-Gb-A:

    …for reasons we’ll cover in this post.

    Spelling chords becomes a bit challenging without knowledge of the proper spelling of notes, scales, and intervals.

    Therefore, I’d suggest that you check out our previous lessons on spelling guidelines before continuing with this post (1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5).

    How My First Sight Reading Lesson Can Help You Spell Chords Properly

    One of the preliminaries I covered in my first sight reading class back in the day was the lines and spaces.

    My teacher taught us a mnemonic that helped us memorize all the lines of the treble staff. If you’ve passed through a similar training, then you may have come across this or similar ones:

    Every Good Boy Deserves Favor Always

    This helped me and others in my class master the lines of the treble staff.

    Attention: If you want to know what the treble staff is and more sight reading lessons, click here.

    Beyond mastering the lines and spaces of the staff, the mnemonic I learned many years ago in school can help anyone who is serious about the proper spelling of chords.

    Harmony In Intervals Of Thirds

    Harmony is the relationship between notes that are heard together and as such, chords are harmonic.

    In the understanding of the relationship between the notes of a chord, one of the things to consider is the distance (or intervals) between the notes of the chord (aka – “chord tones”).

    Following traditional classical music guidelines, the proper thing to do is to stack notes in thirds. This explains why the C major triad, which consists of three tones – C, E, and G:

    …is played the way it is.

    From C to E:

    …is a third. From E to G:

    …in turn is a third. This is called tertian harmony.

    Using tertian harmony, we can add more thirds to our classic, award-winning C major triad. Using the C major scale:

    …as our underlying scale, a third from G:

    …is B:

    We can enhance this chord by adding another third to B.

    A third from B is D:

    A third from D is F:

    A third from F is A:

    …and another third from A takes us back to C:

    Here are the chords we’ve come across so far…

    C major triad:

    C major seventh:

    C major ninth:

    C major eleventh:

    C major thirteenth:

    There are two things I want you to observe from these chords.

    #1 Observation – Consistency

    Even though the chords got bigger, the use of thirds and the strict use of C, E, G…, was consistent throughout. Here’s the spelling of all the tertian chords we came across:

    C E G

    C E G B

    C E G B D

    C E G B D F

    C E G B D F A

    #2 Observation – Every Good Boy Deserves Favor Always

    Did you notice that the notes of the C major thirteenth chord:

    C E G B D F A

    …are in sync with the mnemonic I introduced earlier? If I remove the root of the chord (C), the remaining notes:

    E G B D F A

    …can be represented with:

    Every Good Boy Deserves Favor Always

    Check it out:

    E for Every

    G for Good

    B for Boy

    D for Deserves

    F for Favor

    A for Always

    Putting it together, you can look at the C major thirteenth chord and remember its notes with “every good boy deserves favor always.

    Tertian Harmony Template

    Provided tertian harmony is involved, the C-E-G-B-D-F-A functions as a template that determines the letter name of the notes of a chord.

    All chords, irrespective of the key they’re in must be spelled in such a way that they’ll fit into this template. Let me explain…

    All chords based on the letter name “C” belong to the same category in spelling. All C chords, C# chords, and Cb chords have something in common and that’s “C.”

    At the harmonic level of triads, all C, C#, and Cb chords can be formed using the C E G template as a foundation.

    C major triad:

    C# major triad:

    Cb major triad:

    Did you notice that all the C chords fit into the C-E-G framework?

    C-E-G

    C#-E#-G#

    Cb-Eb-Gb

    It’s wrong to spell C# triad as C#-F-G#:

    …even though this chord sounds like the C# major triad, it fails to qualify under the C-E-G template.

    Applying the same thing to seventh chords, all seventh chords based on the letter name “C” should be spelled to fit into the C-E-G-B template as a foundation.

    C major seventh:

    C# major seventh:

    Cb major seventh:

    All the C chords, irrespective of sharps or flats (aka – “pitch modifiers”), fit into the C-E-G-B framework.

    C-E-G-B

    C#-E#-G#-B#

    Cb-Eb-Gb-Bb

    The same thing applies to ninth, eleventh and thirteenth chords. They should fit into their corresponding templates:

    C E G B D for all ninth chords with the letter name C:

    C E G B D – C major ninth

    C# E# G# B# D# – C# major ninth

    Cb Eb Gb Bb Db – Cb major ninth

    C E G B D F for all eleventh chords with the letter name C:

    C E G B D F – C major eleventh

    C# E# G# B# D# F# – C# major eleventh

    Cb Eb Gb Bb Db Fb – Cb major eleventh

    C E G B D F A for all thirteenth chords with the letter name C:

    C E G B D F A – C major thirteenth

    C# E# G# B# D# F# A# – C# major thirteenth

    Cb Eb Gb Bb Db Fb Ab – Cb major thirteenth

    Template For All The Keys

    Let me show you how you can use this template to master spelling in all twelve keys. We’ll have to create several varieties of the mnemonic devices to make it suitable for all the keys.

    Since you’re already familiar with the C letter name, let’s check out the other letter names.

    All D chords

    Below is the template for all D chords:

    Triads – D F A

    Seventh Chords – D F A C

    Ninth Chords – D F A C E

    Eleventh Chords – D F A C E G

    Thirteenth Chords – D F A C E G B

    We can keep ourselves guided with the mnemonic by rearranging it in a way that it starts from D…

    Deserves Favor Always, C, Every Good Boy

    Feel free to explore the triads, sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths in the keys of D, D#, and Db.

    All E chords

    Next is the template for all E chords, whether E, E#, or Eb:

    Triads – E G B

    Seventh Chords – E G B D

    Ninth Chords – E G B D F

    Eleventh Chords – E G B D F A

    Thirteenth Chords – E G B D F A C

    You can remember all E chords with:

    Every Good Boy Deserves Favor Always, C,

    …the regular mnemonic I learned in my earlier days in school.

    All F chords

    To spell F chords properly, be guided by the template below:

    Triads – F A C

    Seventh Chords – F A C E

    Ninth Chords – F A C E G

    Eleventh Chords – F A C E G B

    Thirteenth Chords – F A C E G B D

    We can keep ourselves guided with the mnemonic by rearranging it in a way that it starts from F…

    Favor Always, C, Every Good Boy Deserves

    Feel free to explore the triads, sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths in the keys of F, F#, and Fb and be strict enough to make sure that all chord tones fit into this F A C E G B D template.

    All G chords

    Next is the template for all G chords, whether G, G#, or Gb:

    Triads – G B D

    Seventh Chords – G B D F

    Ninth Chords – G B D F A

    Eleventh Chords – G B D F A C

    Thirteenth Chords – G B D F A C E

    You can remember all G chords with:

    Good Boy Deserves Favor Always, C, Every

    …a slight variation of the regular mnemonic I learned in my earlier days in school.

    All A chords

    To spell A chords properly, be guided by the template below:

    Triads – A C E

    Seventh Chords – A C E G

    Ninth Chords – A C E G B

    Eleventh Chords – A C E G B D

    Thirteenth Chords – A C E G B D F

    We can keep ourselves guided with the mnemonic by rearranging it in a way that it starts from A…

    Always, C, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor

    Feel free to explore the triads, sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths in the keys of A, A#, and Ab and be strict enough to make sure that all chord tones fit into this A C E G B D F template.

    All B chords

    Finally, here’s the template for all B chords, whether B, B#, or Bb:

    Triads – B D F

    Seventh Chords – B D F A

    Ninth Chords – B D F A C

    Eleventh Chords – B D F A C E

    Thirteenth Chords – B D F A C E G

    You can remember all B chords with:

     Boy Deserves Favor Always, C, Every Good

    …a variation of the mnemonic I learned in my earlier days in school.

    Final Words

    Now that you’ve learned about the template for the proper spelling of chords, be sure to use it to spot chords that are wrongly spelled.

    For example, the D major triad we encountered earlier in this post (D-Gb-A):

    …is a wrong spelling of the D major triad because D-G-A doesn’t fit into our “every good boy deserves favor always” template.

    The proper thing is for F (Favor) to come after D (deserves) and not G:

    It may take a while before you master the spelling of chords, but once you do, it will pay off… guaranteed.

    I hope you find this helpful. See you next time.

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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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