Theory for Idiots: What are Chords?

Something that you may not have thought about: just what exactly is a chord?

what is a chord? Learn beginner chord construction in this music theory lesson

Apart from probably being the very first thing you learn how to do on guitar, chords are important to understand. Knowing more about what a chord is will help you with everything from strumming round a campfire, to playing that epic solo.

Also, I’ll give you a clue: these things weren’t invented by people mashing random notes together. If you do that enough then you’ll find a combination that fits together. That is true. There is actually more theory to it, however.

So, in this lesson, I’m going to explain how to build a chord from scratch. It’s definitely not as difficult as it sounds! All you need to know is the musical alphabet (A to G), and the ability to count to 13…

Chord Construction

There are essentially just three notes that you need to create a chord. These form the core of the chord, and every chord is just a variation on this theme. We call this core the “Triad” (‘tri’ meaning ‘three’).

Sometimes more notes will be added, sometimes notes taken away, and sometimes they are moved around. However, these three notes are the key to understanding every single chord in existence.

These notes can be in any order you want, and can appear more than once. Lets look at each of them separately.

The Root

This is probably the most important note in the chord. This is the note that the whole chord is based around, and it gives the chord it’s letter name.

So, a C chord, for example, starts on a C note. This is true for any C chord- C major, C minor, C minor 7 flat 5… The important part is the ‘C’, as this is telling us where to start.

The C doesn’t have to be the lowest note, and when the root isn’t the lowest note we say the chord is ‘inverted’. Although it is the note from which we work out all the other notes in a chord.

The Third

The second most important note in a chord is the third. This lives three letters above the root. So, if our root is a C, the third has to be some kind of E note (C D E- three notes). It can be E, E flat, or even E sharp, but it has to be three letters.

You may have noticed that ‘E sharp’ is actually the same as ‘F’…but if we called the note ‘F’, it would then be four letters up from C, and so not a third.

It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter a chord with an E sharp, but it makes a point. A third is three letters above the root.

a third is three letters above any root note

Again, it could also be below the root note, in a different octave. It would still be worked out by going three notes above the root note. So, in a C chord, we would still need some kind of E, but would be playing an E below our C.

When the third is the lowest note in a chord, we say it’s in ‘first inversion’.

Apart from being three letters from the root, the actual distance in semitones (or frets) between the root and third tells us if the chord is major or minor. C to E makes a major third, and C to E flat makes a minor third.

C to E sharp technically makes an ‘augmented third’, which will probably never come up…

The Fifth

The fifth is possibly the least interesting part of the chord. In fact, you could leave it out entirely and it wouldn’t change the chord too much. What it does is act a ‘thickener’, harmonising with the root and adding depth to the chord.

The fifth lives (surprise!) five letters up from the root. So, in out C chord, the fifth would be a G (C D E F G- five letters). G sharp, or G flat would technically also be possibly, but for most chords we have what’s called a ‘perfect’ fifth (i.e. neither major, nor minor).

a fifth is five letters above the root in a chord

C to G flat would be called a ‘diminished fifth’.

Perfect fifths (and roots) on the fretboard form the shape of a powerchord. When the fifth is the lowest note in the chord, we say it’s in ‘second inversion’.

In Conclusion

To sum up, your basic chord is made of three notes- called the ‘triad’. This contains:

  • A root- which gives a chord it’s letter
  • A third- which tells you if it’s major or minor
  • A fifth- which adds depth and thickness to the sound

On a guitar this usually ends up creating a fairly random-looking pattern on the fretboard. That’s why we end up having to memorise chord shapes.

However, on something like a piano, where the notes are arranged in pretty much a straight line from low to high, there is a different story. If you need notes 1 (root), 3 and 5, those are odd numbers.

Therefore, if you go up to a piano keyboard, and take just the white notes. Play one note, miss the next, play the next, then miss the next and play the next note. You would have just played a triad.

If you do this with any scale, you’ll create some kind of chord. Just keep playing a note and missing a note until you have three notes. If you want to take this further, you can also add a 7th…but that’s something for another lesson…

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