• Skeleton In The “Chordboard”

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    skeleton of a chord

    The phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” is probably the first thing that came to mind after seeing the title of this post – Skeleton in the “Chordboard”.

    Skeleton in the cupboard is a saying that refers to a fact or thing that is kept secret because of how embarrassing its exposure might seem.

    However, beyond the literal meaning of the skeleton in the cupboard idiom, we’re using it in this post to represent the part of chords (that are sometimes hidden), that if exposed, would help you recognize any chord at sight.

    The Skeleton

    Biologically, it is skeletons that give support (rigidity) to living organisms.

    Right where you are, you can stand, sit, walk, and cope with other activities because you have a skeletal system. Your support and balance, and to a large extent, your physical appearance, depends on it. Even at death, the skeleton takes a longer time to decay compared to every other system in the body.

    Organisms like snails, periwinkles, tortoises etc., derive their support from their shell, which is pretty much an outer skeleton.

    The third and seventh of a chord are also known as its shell or skeleton. These tones are considered so because chord quality (what makes a chord major or minor), largely depends on these tones.

    Similar to the process of death and decay, if we omit other chord tones (flesh and muscles) and play only the third and seventh (skeleton) of a chord, we’ll still be able to identify the chord.

    Knowledge of the skeleton (which is an outline of the basic structure of a chord) is of the most valuable importance in chord recognition and this post, “skeleton in the chordboard,” is sure to inspire you to start considering chords (no matter how phat) like an x-ray generator.

    An x-ray generator (talking about you) goes beyond the surface, beyond muscles and tissues (which are other chord tones) in the body to expose the skeleton (the third and seventh).

    In chord recognition, the skeleton of a chord may not necessarily tell you its extended components, like the kind of ninth (whether it’s 9, b9 or #9), eleventh, etc., however, it can help you ascertain whether the chord is major, minor, or dominant, and that’s over 60-90% of the work done.

    “60-90%… Why am I not precise about the percentage of work done?”

    I can’t say precisely the percentage of work done, and this is because when you’ve known the third and seventh (aka – “skeleton”) of a chord, you’ll still consider other extended components (if they are there).

    Heck, there are chord types where you’ll even have to consider the fifth tone.

    Chord Quality

    The distinction between two chord types is in their quality.

    When we talk about “quality” here, we’re referring to the harmonic identity of a chord, whether it is major or minor. Chords inherit their harmonic identity from the intervals they are made up of (aka – “intervallic components”).

    To know what stuff a chord is made of (its intervallic components), all you need to do is break it down to intervals (two-note ideas).

    In this segment, we’ll be looking at the intervallic components of three common seventh chord qualities – the major seventh, minor seventh, and dominant seventh. I call them common chord qualities because they are associated with the major 2-5-1 chord progression.

    A 2-5-1 progression in the key of C is a chord progression between chords 2, 5, and 1 (Dmin7 → Gdom7 → Cmaj7). Here’s a break down of the chords used in a 2-5-1 chord progression:

    Chord 2 – Dmin7


    …can be broken down into:


    …a minor third.


    …a perfect fifth.


    …a minor seventh.

    Out of all three intervallic components, the D minor seventh chord above clearly inherits its quality from two intervallic components – the third and the seventh.

    Minor 3rd + Minor 7th = Minor seventh

    It’s obvious that the overall association of this chord with the minor quality is because of the quality of third and seventh it has and both are minor in quality.

    Chord 5 – Gdom7


    …can be broken down into:


    …a major third.


    …a perfect fifth.


    …a minor seventh.

    This seventh chord has a mixed quality.

    It actually wouldn’t be wrong to call it a major minor seventh because of its components. However, the name associated with this special chord came from the technical name of the degree of the major scale where it is built from.

    The technical name of the fifth degree of the major scale is dominant. Therefore this chord is conventionally known as the “dominant seventh” chord. The term dominant does not describe its quality.

    Major 3rd + Minor 7th = Dominant seventh

    Chord 1 – Cmaj7


    …can be broken down into:


    …a major third.


    …a perfect fifth.


    …a major seventh.

    Out of all three intervallic components, it is clear that the C major seventh chord above inherits its quality from two intervallic components – the third and the seventh.

    Major 3rd + Major 7th = Major seventh

    Thirds and Sevenths

    Here are three important nuggets on thirds and sevenths:

    Nugget #1 – The 3rd and 7th degrees of a chord usually determine what type of chord you’re playing.

    From what we’ve covered so far, it is clear that out of all the various tones present in a chord, the 3rd and 7th tones are mainly what determine the quality of a chord.

    There are three chord types that are commonly used – major, minor, and dominant. These are the same chords we covered in the 2-5-1 chord progression above. After analyzing each of them, we came to the conclusion that the 3rd and 7th were the tones that differentiated each of them. In fact, in each case, you could remove the 5th degrees of the chord and it wouldn’t make a difference.

    Major 3rd + Major 7th = Major seventh

    Minor 3rd + Minor 7th = Minor seventh

    Major 3rd + Minor 7th = Dominant seventh

    Note: Add the next important degree – the 5th – and you’ve got the ingredients for diminished, augmented, and half-diminished chords as well.

    Nugget #2 – Extended chords only come to play AFTER you’ve determined the base chord (major, minor, dominant, diminished, augmented, etc.).

    There are other higher chord classes that contain compound intervals. Compound intervals are intervals that extend beyond the octave.

    These chords are known as extended chords.

    Although ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords belong to this chord class, they are basically seventh chords with these compound intervals (extensions) added on top.

    There is typically nothing a 9th, 11th, or 13th can do to alter the basic seventh chord it stems from.

    Nugget #3 – Compound intervals are basically extensions that upgrade the size and NOT the quality of regular seventh chords.

    If the two main intervallic components of the major seventh chord:

    Major third:

    …and major seventh:

    …are present in a chord, that pretty much solidifies things as a major type of chord:

    When you add compound intervals (aka “extensions”) like the ninth:

    …to the basic major seventh chord, it upgrades the chord to a ninth:

    However, the overall quality of the chord (major) will remain the same. It won’t change the chord quality from major to something else like minor or dominant. The chord above is a major ninth.

    In the same vein, if the two main intervallic components of the minor seventh chord:

    Minor third:

    …and minor seventh:

    …are present in a chord, that pretty much solidifies things as a minor type of chord:

    When you add compound intervals (aka “extensions”) like the ninth:

    …to the basic minor seventh chord, it upgrades the chord to a ninth:

    …a minor ninth, to be exact.

    Heck, you can even upgrade this chord by adding the eleventh:

    …to the minor ninth chord to upgrade it to a minor eleventh chord:

    Irrespective of the additions we’ve made, the overall minor quality of the chord will remain the same. It won’t change the chord quality from minor to something else like major or dominant.

    In another post, I’ll be showing you how to use these skeletons to quickly recognize any chord on the piano in the shortest time possible.

    Until then.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 8 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Michael Harris

    Hi Jermaine
    I have noted that in some musical progressions where the dominant 7 is used the 5th tone is omitted. Can you explain this


    2 Jermaine Griggs

    Michael, the only important tones are the 3rd and 7th. The third and seventh determine the quality. The third will usually be major or minor.

    If major, the chord will be of major, augmented, or dominant quality.

    If minor, the chord will be of minor or diminished quality.

    Since both major, minor, and dominant chords have the same perfect fifth, omitting it doesn’t change the chord. The only places you’d definitely want the 5th present is where it counts – diminished, augmented, and altered chords. In the case of the diminished chord, the the fifth is flatted. In the case of the augmented chord, it is raised. And with altered chords, it can be either raised or lowered (my favorite is the #9#5). In super altered chords, sometimes both the b5 and #5 are present.

    It’s not that the fifth should always be left out. That’s up to the musician. Some just choose to transfer it to the left hand, leaving the right hand to play the 3rd and 7th (or whatever else is present). But know that leaving it out of the chords mentioned above does not change the quality of the chords.


    3 Zino

    Good , nice and okay


    4 jayagopi jagadeesan

    Hi Jermaine,

    Noticed a small mistake in your article.
    It says Minor 3rd + Minor 7th = Major seventh, while it actually should be
    Minor 3rd + Minor 7th = Minor seventh.
    Otherwise excellent stuff buddy.
    Thanks and awedsome :)


    5 Jermaine Griggs

    Thank you. This has been corrected. Sorry for oversight.


    6 jayagopi jagadeesan

    Just wondering. What would a minor 3rd + major 7th give rise to in the scale of C ?
    Just a thought.


    7 Jermaine Griggs

    That’s a minor-major 7th chord. See the chord guide at:


    8 modénéla

    thank you for these intructive stuffs you sharing freely
    i’d like to know more about string playing and or how to accompanny another keyboardist in background
    thank you


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