• Top 3 Reasons Why I Think Triads Are Important

    in Beginners,Chords & Progressions,Experienced players,Piano,Theory

    Do you belong to the league of musicians who DO NOT believe that triads are important?

    I’ve played the piano for almost two decades now and just like every up and coming pianist out there, I started out with triads.

    As I progressed from the beginner stage to the intermediate stage, I started longing for more. My interest in phat chords made me to detest triads which are the simplest class of chords in terms of texture and harmony.

    I was progressed further to the pre-advanced level, my appreciation for triads came back and since then, I don’t take the simplicity of triads for granted.

    If you give me the next ten minutes or so, I’ll show you why triads shouldn’t be taken for granted.

    An Overview Of Triads

    Attention: We’re not going to dwell so much on this overview; we’re covering only the definition of the triad.

    So, what is a triad?

    A triad according to Jermaine Griggs “…is a collection of three related notes whether it’s played or heard together (as a chord) or separately (as an arpeggio).

    The above definition is my favorite because it highlights all the important details about triads. Let’s expound on this definition before we proceed.

    “…is a collection of three”

    The term triad literally means a set of three. (I’m sure you must have come across other words that are associated with three; words like trinity, triangle, etc.)

    In music, a collection of three or more notes forms a chord, consequently, the triad is a chord. If you define the triad as a chord of three notes, you are not wrong.

    “…related notes”

    A triad is NOT a collection of any three notes. Before a set of three notes can be considered to be a triad, there must be a relationship between the notes. There are two levels of relationship between the notes of a triad:

    • Scale relationship
    • Intervallic relationship

    “Don’t Worry! I’ll Explain”

    Scale relationship. The notes of a triad must be related by a given scale. The notes C, E, and G:

    …are a triad because they are related by the C major scale:

    …where they belong to, as the first, third, and fifth tones. In the same vein, the notes of a triad must be related by a scale.

    Intervallic relationship. An interval is defined by Jermaine Griggs as “…the relationship between two notes [whether played or heard together or separately] in terms of the distance between them.”

    The notes of a triad must have intervallic relationship, which determines the distance between the notes (aka – “chord tones.”) We’ll be focusing on triads built in intervals of thirds (aka – “tertian harmony“) in this lesson. For example, C, E, and G:

    …are not only related by the C major scale:

    …but in third intervals.


    …to E:

    …is a third:


    …to G:

    …is also a third:

    “…played or heard together(as a chord) or separately (as an arpeggio)”

    In a previous lesson, we learned how the relationship between notes (aka – “pitches“) can either produce melody or harmony.

    Melody is the relationship between pitches that are played (or heard) separately while harmony is the relationship between pitched that are played (or heard) simultaneously.

    A triad is usually played (or heard) harmonically as a chord, however, its notes can also be played (or heard) separately as a broken chord.

    3 Top Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Take Triads For Granted

    Over the years as an up and coming pianist, I graduated to seventh chords and also learned several chord classes and qualities that are quite advanced (especially from Gospelkeys 600 DVD course featuring Jonathan Powell.)

    Heck, I was even featured in the Hear and Play’s 16 week chord revival program.

    Through it all, I’ve not lost my regard for triads – not at all. If you’re losing yours, then this lesson is for you because I’ll be giving you three of the top reasons why I don’t take triads for granted and also think you shouldn’t.

    Reason #1 – “Triads Provide Basic Harmony”

    A chord is a collection of three or more related notes [agreeable or not] that are played or heard together or separately.

    The most basic level of harmony is found in triads. Remember that it takes at least three notes to form a chord, consequently, triads are first set of chords you’ll come across while stacking notes together.

    “I don’t play big chords all the time…”

    There are certain audiences, songs, or moments that don’t require big chords. Whenever I find myself in situations where all I’m required to do is to give a basic accompaniment to a song, I always fall back to triads.

    Reason #2 – “All Musical Orientations/Backgrounds/Tastes Embrace Triads”

    There are two different musical orientations; people who read sheet music belong to one class, others who play by the ear belong to another class. If there’s a third class, those who do both belong there.

    Triads provide musicians with harmony irrespective of their orientation. Sheet musicians and those who play by the ear all use triads.

    Triads are also used in all musical backgrounds because they are adaptable to the folk music tradition in different parts of the world.

    20th century African music has evolved because of the introduction of the melodic and harmonic ideas from the western world (aka – “acculturation”), however, it is important to know that triads are mostly used in African music.

    Irrespective of your musical taste, you’ll love triads. If classical, jazz, gospel, etc., musicians are listening to a piece of music together, if that piece must have a general appeal, the prevalent harmony has to be derived from triads.

    This is one of the several reasons why rock music sells out fast – appeal – rock music uses triads and suspended chords, consequently, it has a higher appeal than classical, jazz, and gospel music.

    Reason #3 – “Triads Can Be Used As Upper-Structures”

    Bigger chords can be broken down into triads. The C dom 13 [#11] chord:

    …is one of those big chords (aka – “extended chords”.)

    In actuality, it’s not possible for me to play the C dom 13 [#11] chord:

    …with one hand because it has seven notes and spans thirteen scale degrees:

    …and that’s 75% times larger than the octave:

    So, I use the upper structure voicing technique to play the C dom 13 [#11] chord.

    “Here’s how it works…”

    The top three notes of the C dom 13 [#11] chord:

    …are D, F#, and A:

    …and that’s for all intents and purposes the D major triad:

    Isolating the top three notes (the D major triad):

    …of the C dom 13 [#11] chord, I’ll be left with the C dominant seventh chord:

    My next step is to simplify the C dominant seventh chord:

    …by playing its third and seventh tones (aka – “skeleton”):

    …on the left hand.

    Altogether, if the D major triad:

    …is played over the C dominant seventh chord (skeleton voicing):

    ….this produces the upper structure voicing of the C dom 13 [#11] chord:

    “In a nutshell…”

    I don’t take triads for granted because triads (smaller chords) can be used to form bigger chords. Our case study in this segment is the use of the D major triad:

    …in the formation of the C dom 13 [#11] chord:

    Final Words

    Believe it or not, most piano players started their harmonic adventure with triads.

    For a variety of reasons, music teachers get their student started by showing them triads 99% [if not 100%] of the time.

    “Here are two common reasons why this is so…”

    1. The contain the stable tones in the key and have a way of building up the sense of key (aka – “tonality“.)
    2. They are easier to play because they are based in thirds (versus quartal chords that require a little bit more effort and stretching of the hand span.)

    Triads provide every beginner with the basic harmonic tool he/she can get started with. I’m sure this has explained why our Gospelkeys 101 DVD course focuses on harmonization using triads.

    Always remember that less is more. Bigger chords are okay, however, endeavor to always keep it simple.

    For the love of triads!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku 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.

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