• Third Day Of Christmas: Three Primary Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    primary chords

    Over twelve years ago, our president and founder – Jermaine Griggs said, There’s finally a way to transform your one-finger melodies into full-sounding songs in just three simple steps.”

    It’s amazing to know that those words have ever remained true. Today, in the spirit of the season, we are reviving the technique of harmonization that is sure to help everyone out there harmonize any melody using three triads.

    Even though this post is for beginners, the harmonic analysis here is for everyone. Therefore, don’t be in a haste to leave this page because there’s so much in store for you.

    Primary Triads – Chords I, IV and V

    Primary triads are triads based off the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale. Using the C major scale as an example:

    C is the first degree, F is the fourth degree, and G is the fifth degree. Therefore, primary triads (in the key of C major) are triads that are built on these scale degrees – C, F and G.



    The chords above are referred to as triads. Triads are chords. The use of the term “triad” makes it obvious that the above chords have three notes per octave. This post features three-note chords (triads). Therefore, we’ll use the terms triad and chord interchangeably and all will refer to chords that have three notes per octave.

    In a previous post, Voice Leading Techniques for Triads, I exposed you to the connection between these primary chords and how to make playing them effortlessly in all 12 keys.

    In this post, I’ll show you, step by step, how to harmonize every degree of the major scale with these same three triads.

    Melody Notes

    Irrespective of the quality or the number of notes in a triad, the highest sounding note is called the melody note. Considering that chords can be formed when a choir is singing, especially triads (which consists of soprano, alto, and tenor voice parts), have you ever wondered why soprano singers (who usually sing the melody/tune of the song) sing the highest part?

    The highest note (which is the melody note) has the highest frequency and that makes it easy for the ear to distinguish it from other pitches.

    We covered frequencies and pitches in HearandPlay 110 – All About Notes.

    If the root position of the C major triad (C-E-G) is sounded:

    G is the highest sounding note. Therefore, G is the melody note of the root position of the C major triad.

    If we use the first inversion, which is E-G-C:

    C is the highest sounding note, aka – the “melody note.”

    Using various inversions of a triad exposes you to the various melody notes the triad can harmonize. For example:

    C major chord can be played in three possible ways:

    Root position – C-E-G ‘G’ as melody note

    First inversion – E-G-C ‘C’ as melody note

    Second inversion – G-C-E ‘E’ as melody note

    Considering the melody notes that each of the ways of playing C major affords, we can carefully note that:

    C can be harmonized using E-G-C

    E can be harmonized using G-C-E

    G can be harmonized using C-E-G

    (Note: With our popup midi player, you can easily transpose this up or down to any key by pressing the pitch +/- button.)

    Harmonic Analysis – Chord I

    The number of tones a chord can harmonize is equal to the number of tones in the chord. C major has three tones – C, E and G. Therefore, C major can harmonize three scale tones – C, E and G.

    In the key of C, the C major triad, aka – the “tonic triad” (which is one of the three primary chords) has what it takes to harmonize C, E and G (which are the first, third and fifth tones of the C major scale [the key we’re in]).

    If the tonic triad can harmonize three out of seven notes, then that’s pretty much 43% of the major scale harmonized. The major scale has seven notes. 50% of 7 is 3.5 right? This means that the harmonizing potential of the tonic triad is a little bit below 50%, which means you have half of the job done.

    Below are the three primary chords of C major.

    They account for 100% of the harmonic possibilities in basic harmonization. Considering that the three primary chords are 100% of harmonic possibilities, then the power of one triad is 33% (mathematically, one-third of 100% is 33%).

    The C major scale above represents all the possible notes that we can harmonize (this doesn’t mean that other notes outside the scale cannot be harmonized – of course they can). Remember, however, that our focus in this lesson is the major scale, which has seven notes.

    If these seven scale tones are 100% of melodic possibilities, then the harmonization of three scale tones using one primary triad (by virtue of the three possible ways it can be played [root position + two inversions]), has done three-sevenths of 100%, which is 43%.

    With that, you can see that 33% of the harmonic possibilities in the key of C major (which are C major, F major and G major) can harmonize 43% of the Melodic possibilities (C D E F G A and B). C Major harmonizes 43% of the major scale (C, E and G) and we’re left with 57% (D, F, A and B).

    Harmonic Potentials of Primary Triads

    C major harmonizes 43% of the major scale and so does F major and G major:

    • C Major harmonizes 43% of the major scale (C, E and G)
    • F Major harmonizes 43% of the major scale (F, A and C)
    • G Major harmonizes 43% of the major scale (G, B and D)

    If we invest 3 primary chords, they have the potential to yield 129% of harmonization benefits and that’s 29% surplus. Putting our analysis together, it will sound like this:

    While using primary triads, 100% of the harmonic possibilities, if put to work, will yield 129% of melodic possibilities.

    This means that harmonization using (just three) primary triads exceeds our melodic possibilities (the major scale) by 29%.

    Just in case you are finding this too mathematical…

    I really have no intention of boring you with lots of calculation. There’s a DVD course on harmonization reserved for you – Gospel Keys 101 – Hymns and Congregational Songs. Visit http://www.gospelkeys101.com to purchase this comprehensive DVD course on basic harmonization where our president and founder will take you by the hand and show you exactly what I’m talking about.

    Alright, for those who find this interesting, let’s continue.

    Harmonization using Chords IV and V

    Now that we’ve covered harmonization using chord I, let’s look at chords IV and V which are called the subdominant and dominant triads, respectively. In the key of C major, chords IV and V are F and G major, respectively.

    The F major triad can be played in three possible ways:

    F-A-C – ‘C’ as melody note

    A-C-F – ‘F’ as melody note

    C-F-A – ‘A’as melody note

    Considering the melody notes that each of the ways of playing F major affords, it’s crystal clear that F, A and C can be harmonized using the subdominant triad (F major).

    C can be harmonized using F-A-C
    F can be harmonized using A-C-F
    A can be harmonized using C-F-A

    The G major triad can be played in three possible ways:

    G-B-D – ‘D’ as melody note

    B-D-G – ‘G’ as melody note

    D-G-B – ‘B’ as melody note

    Considering the melody notes that each of the ways of playing G major affords, we can deduce that:

    D can be harmonized using G-B-D
    G can be harmonized using B-D-G
    B can be harmonized using D-G-B

    Now, let’s combine the melodic possibilities of all the harmonic possibilities – which is another way of saying, “let’s combine the possible number of melody notes that can be harmonized using primary triads.”

    C Major (43%)
    • C can be harmonized using E-G-C
    • E can be harmonized using G-C-E
    • G can be harmonized using C-E-G

    F Major (43%)
    • C can be harmonized using F-A-C
    • F can be harmonized using A-C-F
    • A can be harmonized using C-F-A

    G Major (43%)
    • D can be harmonized using G-B-D
    • G can be harmonized using B-D-G
    • B can be harmonized using D-G-B

    If the melody notes are rearranged alphabetically, this will produce:
    • C – E-G-C
    C – F-A-C
    • D – G-B-D
    • E – G-C-E
    • F – A-C-F
    • G – C-E-G
    G – B-D-G
    • A – C-F-A
    • B – D-G-B

    If you look at the possibilities above, you’ll see there are two ways to harmonize the C melody note:

    • C – E-G-C – Using Chord I
    • C – F-A-C – Using Chord IV

    There are also two ways to harmonize the G melody note:
    • G – C-E-G – Using Chord I
    • G – B-D-G – Using Chord V

    When I established that 100% of primary chords will give us 129% of melodic options, I meant it!

    We can only harmonize 100% of scale tones using 100% of chords. Therefore, we are sacrificing the extra 29% for now because we need 100%. Question is, what do we sacrifice, and why?

    The chord tones of the tonic triad are called stable tones. This is because they give us a sense of gravity, attraction, or pull towards the tonic. Therefore, in basic harmonization, it’s harmonically satisfactory to harmonize the chord tones of the tonic triad (C, E and G [stable tones]) using the tonic triad. C Major has C-E-G as its tonic triad. Therefore, it is harmonically satisfactory to harmonize C, E and G, which are the first, third, and fifth scale degrees using the tonic triad.

    C D E F G A B C

    Therefore, the following will sound harmonically unsatisfactory and opposed to the key:

    • Harmonization of C using Chord IV
    • Harmonization of G using Chord V

    These two harmonization options (the 29% surplus) can be reserved to fit into certain harmonic environments they can thrive in (For example, in “Yes Jesus Loves Me” in C major, on the word “me,” the melody is “C” but an F major chord is used to harmonize it).

    Below is a table of melody notes distribution across the three primary triads:

    Triad

    Melody Notes

    Percentage

    Tonic

    (Chord I)

    1st,3rd & 5th

    42%

    Sub-dominant

    (Chord IV)

    4th & 6th

    29%

    Dominant

    (Chord V)

    2nd & 7th

    29%

    Chords IV and V have a melody note distribution of 29% each while Chord I takes care of 42% of melody notes. This is because Chord 1 is the tonic triad and its chord tones are stable tones.

    Let’s put it to work by harmonizing the C major scale using primary triads as follows (all notes and midi player included):


    E-G-C first inversion of Chord I
    G-B-D root position of Chord V
    G-C-E second inversion of Chord I
    A-C-F first inversion of Chord IV
    C-E-G root position of Chord I
    C-F-A second inversion of Chord IV
    D-G-B second inversion of Chord V
    E-G-C first inversion of Chord I


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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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    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    1 Angela

    Great reading your very clear explanations. Its useful to know about melody notes and chord inversions. Now to practice………………………

    Thanks for your help in making Christmas merry and musical! Happy Christmas!

    Reply

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