• This will spice up your major chords… guaranteed!

    in Theory

    Today’s post is about something many people haven’t heard of.

    But it’s something that can really make your progressions sound nice. I started talking about this concept in 2003 and included sections about it in my GospelKeys 202 worship course in 2004. In this post, I just thought I’d bring it back to the forefront.

    The good news is that you already understand the basics of forming this type of chord — I’ll just point you in the right direction.

    I’m talking about the quartal chord.

    Unlike the major and minor chords you’re used to, this chord has no major or minor thirds in it.

    For example, you already know (from past posts) that a major chord is formed like this:

    major third + minor third

    For example, C to E is a major third. E to G is a minor third. If you combine them, you’d get: C+E+G, the C major chord.

    The opposite is true for the minor chord:

    minor third + major third

    quarter.jpgFor instance, C to Eb is a minor third. Eb to G is a major third. Combine them and you get: C+Eb+G, the C minor chord.

    But the quartal chord is a different beast! (The good news is that you don’t have to worry about major and minor thirds… there’s just one type of interval in this chord).

    Can you guess what interval I’m talking about?

    Just think about it…


    You should have guessed FOURTH!

    circle of fifths

    So basically, if you go counter-clockwise around this circle (in the direction of C to F to Bb to Eb and so on), these are fourth intervals.

    Rather than thinking of them as separate major keys like we usually do when analyzing this circle, let’s actually start playing these notes together as chords.

    Yes, as chords!

    Let’s start by grouping every 3 neighbors as chords.

    So that means you’ll take C, F, and Bb (in that order), and play them together.

    C Quartal chord:

    You can practically take any 3 tones on the circle (going counter-clockwise), play them together, and you’ll have yourself a quartal chord!

    It’s that simple.


    Can you figure out each of these quartal chords?

    C + F + Bb
    F + __ + __
    Bb + __ + __
    Eb + __ + __
    Ab + __ + __
    Db + __ + __
    Gb + __ + __
    B + __ + __
    E + __ + __
    A + __ + __
    D + __ + __
    G + __ + __

    Here are the answers…

    C + F + Bb
    F + Bb + Eb
    Bb + Eb + Ab
    Eb + Ab + Db
    Ab + Db + Gb
    Db + Gb + Cb
    (or C# + F# + B)
    Gb + Cb + Fb
    (or F# + B + E)
    B + E + A
    E + A + D
    A + D + G
    D + G + C
    G + C + F

    Here’s how to use them

    Quartal chords have a real open sound. So much so that you can almost play a random quartal chord over any bass note, and it probably won’t sound bad. (How many major chords can you do that with?)

    Why? Well, notice in the chords above that each quartal chord seems to be apart of the previous one. Each one is a part of the next.

    In fact, quartal chords don’t have to stop at 3 notes. You can have a quartal chord with 4 and 5 notes:

    C + F + Bb + Eb

    Notice, this is like two chords in one… “C + F + Bb” and “F + Bb + Eb.”

    So needless to say, quartal chords are real flexible.

    I promise to follow-up with other posts about them but here are some ways to spice up your 1-chord with quartal chords…

    Let’s say you have a song in the key of C major that starts with the 1-chord. Obviously, in this key, that would be some type of C chord… usually C major.

    Depending on the melody, you can opt to play a quartal chord on your right hand.

    And the method you can use is to simply try a quartal chord on every tone of the C major scale until you find good matches:

    C + F + Bb
    D + G + C
    E + A + D
    F + Bb + Eb
    G + C + F
    A + D + G
    B + E + A

    Now, I take out the chords that don’t fit well as substitutes for a major chord:

    (Keep in mind, all of these chords will be played on a C bass… I’m just really substituting my right hand chord to add flavor. I’m not changing the key note. It will still be a 1-chord.)

    C + F + Bb (hmm, doesn’t work to me, but it has use if I wanted a suspended sound)
    D + G + C (I like, I like)
    E + A + D (This one works too)
    F + Bb + Eb (hmm, not for my 1-chord right now)
    G + C + F (probably not this one either)
    A + D + G (oh yeah, I like this)
    B + E + A (this is good, too)

    So you end up with these possibilities:

    D + G + C /// C bass
    E + A + D /// C bass
    A + D + G /// C bass
    B + E + A /// C bass

    What’s great about these chords is that you’ve got one that puts your tonic (C) on top so you can probably get away with it if the melody uses “C.” You’ve got another chord with the 2nd tone of the scale on top. Another with the 5th on top and one with the 6th on top. This gives you some flexibility when it comes to finding a close match with your melody.

    (I also recommend you go back and try those other chords we discarded. Just keep playing C in your bass and play any random quartal chord you want. Actually, as your fingers get used to playing fourths as chords, you’ll just hit the right notes without thinking of them. Quartal chords just feel good. You’ll see as you play them).

    Heck, even try quartal chords that are not a part of the scale. You’ll find that playing quartal chords from the black keys (even though you’re in C) will work too. Just experiment and have fun!

    Until next time!

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    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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