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Understanding Chords and their Construction – Part 1

Will this article and the one that follows (part 2) be one of the most important music theory lessons for you EVER? Yes! So, read on!

How many of you know how to play this chord?

D Maj

And how many of those who said yes to the above question knowhow to play this one

Dmaj9add4add6(b13)(b5)

Haha! I intentionally chose a seemingly difficult one to illustrate the example. Honestly even I don’t know how to play the second chord, but if you were to give me a minute to just analyze the notes, I’ll be rocking on this same chord like there’s no tomorrow.

And that, my friends, is what the intent of this lesson is going to be. To develop the ability to analyze and understand any chord that exists in the music domain.

But for that we first need to understand 2 important music theory concepts which we shall be covering in this article. Armed with that information is when we will move on to the next post which shall cover the chord construction bits.

So, what are these 2 concepts?
  1. Notes
  2. Intervals

Let’s take them one at a time. Read on even if you think you know these 2 as there will be lots of nuggets that I am sure will be new for you, no matter what your music theory awareness level

Notes

So how many notes are there in music?

If you said 7, I won’t blame you. We often hear the phrase “saat sur” in Hindi. For the western peeps, Do Re Mi will be a standard that makes us believe that there are 7 notes in all.

Well that’s the wrong answer.

In total we have 12 notes.

These 7 notes are what we call natural notes in music. Think of a keyboard and you will see white keys and black keys. The white keys are all Natural notes and go around in circles.

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C    D   E   F   G   A   B   C        and so on

So yeah! There’s no H in music and we go from C to G to A to B and then the cycle restarts

So, 12 notes in total out of which 7 are natural. What about the balance 5?

These 5 notes are called Accidental notes and are the black keys that you see on a keyboard

So where do these 5 accidental notes lie?

Let’s relook at the 7 natural notes

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

We have an accidental between the following 5 pairs

C  –  D
D  –  E
F  –  G
G  –  A
A  –  B

Which means that there is no accidental between B and C and E and F. All other pairings have an accidental between them

Yes! There is a reason as to why we do not have an accidental between these 2 pairs (BC and EF) but I will be covering that in a more detailed article very soon. Right now, let’s just remember these facts so that we can solve the bigger issue – understanding chords

So, the 12 notes would essential be the following

C  –  D  –  E  F  –  G  –  A  –  B  C

Where the ‘-‘ represents the accidental note.

 Clear so far? If no, then re-read the article and you will understand. Read on if everything is clear so far!

So how do we write down these accidental notes?

Accidental notes are written in 2 ways

Sharps – represented by #, a sharp is when you raise by a note. By raising I mean, that you play the higher fret (the immediate fret to the right) on a guitar; or the key that comes right next on a keyboard. So, you play any fret or note on the instrument, and now play the one right next to it. This new note will be the sharp of the previous note

So, the note that come right after a C, will be C sharp or C#

Flats – represented by b, a flat is when you lower by a note. By lowering I mean, that you play the lower fret (the immediate fret to the left) on a guitar; or the key that comes right before on a keyboard. So, you play any fret or note on the instrument, and now play the one right before it (on its left). This new note will be the flat of the previous note

So, the note that come right before a D will be the D flat or Db

But wait a sec! There was space for only one accidental note between a C and a D, right? But we just learnt about 2 accidental notes – C# and Db

 Well you’re absolutely right. These 2 notes are the same but are spelled differently depending on the context (For Music theory enthusiasts, these are called enharmonic notes) Again, there is a very valid reason for this and I shall cover this later too. But let’s just understand this strange phenomenon.

 The note between a C and a D can be called either a C# or a Db. Similarly, the note between an F and a G can be called an F# or even a Gb.

So, the 12 notes in music can be written as

C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E  F  F#/Gb  G  G#/Ab  A  A#/Bb  B  C

If your mind is full of “why’s” right now, trust me, we will address those later. But right now, let’s just focus on the “what” and memorize everything we have learnt so far.

Quick Summary
  1. 12 notes in total
  2. 7 natural notes – C D E F G A B
  3. 5 accidental notes
  4. Sharps (#) – Raise by one note – C#, D#, F#, G#, A#
  5. Flats (b) – Lower by one note – Db, Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb
Intervals

The 2nd concept that we need to understand is that of music intervals.

I had previously written a post about music intervals and their kinds and how to internalize them, so feel free to read about here. This article will just a be a quick summary about key things that you need to know to understand the bigger concept of chord construction.

In simple words, music intervals are names given to address the distance between notes.

Before we learn about the intervals, lets understand this distance concept first.

Here are our 12 notes again

C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E  F  F#/Gb  G  G#/Ab  A  A#/Bb  B  C

For simplicity, we will remove all flats and keep the 12 notes in the sharp format only

C  C#  D  D#  E  F  F#  G  G#  A  A#  B  C

The shortest distance between any 2 notes is called a semi-tone. So, C# is a semi-tone away from C. Similarly, F is a semi-tone away from E.

Also, D is 2 semi-tones away from a C. 2 semi-tones can be called Tone too. So, D is a tone away from C. and G# is a tone away from F#.

So far, so good? Read on!

Music intervals, like I shared earlier, are names given to these distances.  So instead of saying that G is 3 whole tones and one semi-tone away from C, will be a lot easier to give this a name, right?

So, we have 13 intervals in total.

From a C to the same C – interval is called a Unison (0 semi-tones away)
C to C# – Minor 2nd (1 semi-tone away)
C to D – Maj 2nd  (1 Tone away)
C to D# – Min 3rd  (1 Tone and 1 semi-tone away)  
C to E – Maj 3rd  (2 Tones away)
C to F – Perfect 4th  (2 Tones and 1 semi-tone away)  
C to F# – Tritone (3 Tones away). This is also called a Diminished 5th (Dim 5th) or Augmented 4th (Aug 4th)    
C to G – Perfect 5th   (3 Tones and 1 semi-tone away)  
C to G# – Min 6th (4 Tones away)  
C to A – Maj 6th (4 Tones and 1 semi-tone away)  
C to A# – Min 7th (5 Tones away)  
C to B – Maj 7th (5 Tones and 1 semi-tone away)  
C to the next C (by next C, I refer to one that comes later after the cycle of C to B is completed) – Octave (6 Tones away)  

For this lesson, we need to know the Min 3rd, Maj 3rd, Perfect 5th and the Dim 5th

So, all intervals have a Quality followed by a number. E.g. Maj 2nd, Min 4th, Perfect 5th. Except Unison and Octave

Do note that some intervals can also be addressed as Augmented/ Suspended but we will skip that as they are not needed right now.

Also, will be a cool thing to know the Rule of 9th in the case of Intervals.

So, from a C to D, the interval is that of Maj 2nd. What if I were to ask you the interval of the inverse? That is from D to C.

According to the rule of 9th, the inverse of any interval will follow this simple principle

For Quality

  • Maj becomes Minor and vice versa
  • Augmented becomes Suspended and vice versa and
  • Perfect stays Perfect

For Number

Subtract the number from 9

So, the inverse of Maj 2nd will be a Min 7th

That for a Min 6th will be a Maj 3rd

For Perfect 4th , it will be a Perfect 5th

Everything clear so far? If yes, then you may proceed to the next article. Else just re-read this one or write to me n the comments with any doubt that you have. Will reply back ASAP.

 

 

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