I love playing music on a variety of instruments and teaching my friends subtle patterns in music theory that I notice. I’m constantly learning new things each day as I explore the chords and how they interact with each other; so new information will constantly be added. During my entire life of studying music, I’ve found to prefer chord theory over sheet music. Sheet music tells you exactly what to play, but chord theory tells you the general pathway and its up to the musician to interpret the music in their own unique style. I feel that it gives more freedom to explore.
Music has been a huge part of my life since I was very little. Like everyone else, I started with the recorder flute; not a very exciting instrument. Shortly after, I picked up the viola and played that consistently for six years. I really loved the sound that it produced.
As I got older, I started playing guitar but then shifted my focus toward the bass guitar. Bass and drums set the foundation of songs. Originally I started with sheet music, but as my musical knowledge increased and started to notice many patterns in music, I moved toward chord theory. Thats when I started playing the piano. Thus far, piano has been my favorite and I feel I’m the most skilled at it out of all the instruments I’ve played. In my opinion, piano is very useful when working with MIDI.
What to Expect
What I’m going to teach in the upcoming entries, is the tonal relationship between two or more notes. The mood and feel of a song is created by the relationship between what note you just played compared to the note before it and the note your going to play after it. It’s quite easy to understand when you break it down to it’s simplest form and analyze it. All a note is, is a sound frequency and some frequencies sound better more so with some than others, based on a mathematical relationship. Now your probably thinking, How many notes are there? Aren’t there a lot? Well what if I told you there were only 12 notes and everything else is just a repeat of the original twelve. Thats right, it doesn’t matter what instrument you play, you just need to understand the relationship between twelve notes and you can be off playing ANY style of music.
A chord is a combination of notes that harmonize together. When notes are played in certain combinations, they create more complex wavelengths. The interesting part about this, is that certain chords have the same wavelength of specific emotional vocal patterns. And when people display emotions, people subconsciously pick up on them and feel them. That’s just human psychology. If I were to play a Dm6, it would invoke a sad emotion and if I were to play Cmaj, it would invoke a happy good feeling. That’s because those wavelengths mimic the tonal quality of those emotions.
There are only about 10 standard chords but in this lesson, I’m going to teach only the basic four. Chords may look different on the keyboard depending on where they were built but if you count the keys from the root, you’ll find that every chord type is the same. What makes a chord is making sure all the required keys are played, but they can be played in almost any order you want. Which is why there are over 100,000 chords. They are the same chords, they’re just inverted.
Structure of a Chord
A basic chord is constructed of three main parts: Root, 3rd, and 5th. Think of the root as the foundation as well as the name of the chord. Think of the 3rd as his right hand man, he’s going to really sway how the root feels, whether that be happy, sad, or etc. And finally the 5th, which is the root’s opposite; the yin to the yang.
A chord starts on it’s root, labeled “R”. The Root is determined by which Roman Numeral your currently on in the Chord Progression. We are going to start from the root on Roman Numeral ‘I’ and use both the black & the white keys. Start on C, then label every black & white key in order until you reach eleven. Because note #12 should be C of the next repeating section as Roman Numeral ‘I’.
Now just hold down all the numbers associated with the chord, on the keyboard. And there you have it.
Major is your most common chord; It’s the bulk of the song, or main course of dinner. It has the feeling of being happy. Most songs, meaning over 90%, use this chord somewhere in their song. Does this mean a song can’t be written without it? No, but it’s uncommon to find any like that. The next most common chord is the minor chord. It has a feeling of sadness.
Both of these two chords are determined by their 3rd. Now this is enough music knowledge to be off writing amazing songs, since most songs only ever use Major & Minor Chords. But if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole really goes and learn about tonal psychology, keep reading. lol
Diminished and Augmented Chords
The next two chords, Augmented & Diminished, aren’t used as much as Major & Minor, but do show up quite occasionally. If you think of Major & Minor as Left & Right, think of Augmented & Diminished as Up & Down. Aug being up and Dim being down. These two chords are mainly determined by it’s 5th. If you listen and compare the two, you’ll find that the Aug feels open, free, & floating; while the Dim feels evil & squished.
Practice those four chords. For more explanation with step by step instructional visuals, check out this page.
Diminished Chord Theory
What defines a diminished is a minor chord with a flatted fifth. Diminished chords are probably my favorite kind to play because they all carry a special link. The way they are set up creates these diminished bands. When you add a 7th to a diminished chord, you get four equidistant notes. If you play any three of the four notes, you will get a diminished chord of the same caliber. There are only four combinations, so there’s four chords to a band. There are twelve musical tones, so with a little math, we get three bands of four chords in total.
3 Diminished Chord Theory Bands
C#° – E° – G° – A#°
D° – F° – G#° – B°
D#° – F#° – A° – C°
What does this mean?
Whenever you play a diminished chord, you can play every other chord or note within its band. Since all four chords within a band share the exact same notes, you can invert them in any way you want. This allows you to play a chord that has a slightly different feel while still remaining within the same key.
For example, if you are in the key of D minor, E diminished is in the scale. Instead of playing the E diminished, you can play G diminished or any other chord within it’s band to achieve a slightly different tone.
Switching bands creates a sinister feel and can be used to change keys dramatically. Play this sound clip below for an example.
The chords below are the same as Major, Minor, Diminished, and Augmented, there’s just an extra note tacked onto the end of them. The extension note to these chords are called a 7th. There are 5 common types of seventh chords: Major 7th, Minor 7th, Dominant 7th, Diminished 7th, & Half-Diminished 7th. Seventh chords make any chord sound jazzy and sophisticated. A seventh is exactly what it is called in a chord. You have your Root, your 3rd, your 5th, and now tacked on after, your 7th.
So where does this extra note go in said chord? Well that depends what kind of chord your playing. Usually when playing a 7th, you don’t play the 5th. That’s because it makes it sound a little muddy and you don’t get as rich of a sound. To get around that, you spread the chord out across the piano but for right now we’re going to just remove the 5th for now. Later on I’ll explain how to spread chords out.
Building a 7th Chord
The five most common seventh chords are:
R 4 7 10 – Dominant 7th
R 4 7 11 – Major 7th
R 3 7 10 – Minor 7th
R 3 6 10 – Half-Diminished 7th
R 3 6 9 – Diminished 7th
A dominant seventh chord, or major-minor seventh chord, can often be seen labeled as: C7. This is your regular 7th Chord and will turn any chord into a jazzy sounding chord. It’s foundation is a Major chord build with a Minor on top. Whenever you play this chord, it makes the song want to move up a forth. (e.g. If your on C, you move to F; If your on A, you move to D.) If the chord sounds a little muddy, remove it’s 5th and play: R 4 10
A major seventh chord, or major-major seventh chord, can often be seen labeled as: CM7, CMaj7. This seventh chord has a very mellow sound and feel to it. It’s foundation is a Major chord build with a Major on top. If the chord sounds a little muddy, remove it’s 5th and play: R 4 11
A minor seventh chord, or minor-minor seventh chord, can often be seen labeled as: Cm7. This seventh chord has a calming and nostalgic sound. It’s foundation is a Minor chord build with a Minor on top. If the chord sounds a little muddy, remove it’s 5th and play: R 3 10
A half-diminished seventh chord, or diminshed-minor seventh chord, orminor seventh flat five, can often be seen labeled as: Cø7, Cm7(♭5). It’s foundation is a Diminished chord build with a Minor on top. This chord is found quite often in Jazz music. My knowledge on its uses in jazz and in general, needs more research before I post more. I will update this post as soon as I gather enough.
A diminished seventh chord, or diminshed-diminshed seventh chord,can often be seen labeled as: C°7, Cdim7. It’s foundation is a Diminished chord build with a Diminished on top. This chord is found quite often in Jazz music. My knowledge on its uses in jazz and in general, needs more research before I post more. I will update this post as soon as I gather enough.
This new chord called a 9th Chord happens to be my favorite. When adding a 9th, you don’t want to use too much. A 9th has it’s best results when used in small quantities. You can think of a Major 9th as of ‘something being there’ while a Minor 9th as ‘something missing’. That ‘something’ being a sedimental feeling toward something. What kind of sedimental feeling is being dictated by whether its Major or Minor and the chords surrounding it.
Building a 9th Chord
R 2 3 7 – Minor 9th
R 2 4 7 – Major 9th
When used with a Minor, it has a feeling of uncomfortable & uneasiness. It makes you want to lose the 9th as soon as possible and turn it back into a regular chord. This is why it’s best in small quantities.
When used with a Major, it almost gives a feeling of fulfillment. But can sometimes still give that feeling of uncomfortable & uneasiness.
Fulfillment: F – G – A9
It’s almost like the notes in the chord progression stumble upon each other and come to a halt. It gives that sense of fulfillment.
6th Chords are very interesting because they add some color to your progression. They give your progression something different without pushing it’s limits and keeping a stable chord. These are great and create very diverse tones depending on it’s surrounding chords. I’m starting to use them a lot in my music. Let’s start building our chords!
Building a 6th Chord
R 4 7 9 – Major 6th
R 3 7 9 – Minor 6th
These create a very colorful happy feeling. Its used to add some color and widen the pallet. It’s also great for smoothening transitions between chords, by having a stable chord with one more note in common with the next chord. If you actually look closer at a Major 6th, you’ll notice that it’s a Minor Seventh Chord in disguise. Because of this, it can easily be substituted. (e.g.: If your playing a C6, it could also be interpreted as Am; G6 can also be Em.) So basically a Major 6th is a Minor Seventh Chord.
These are the mysterious chord. When played, it creates a feeling of strangeness. It isn’t necessarily a bad feeling, it just feels different and like its floating. These are best used as a dramatic pause. When you play them, drag them out and it will really grab the listener’s attention.
Now that you’ve learned the chords, we can begin on the very basic starting point of Music Chord Theory & Chord Progressions. Don’t worry, it’s easy as cake. This bit of theory will be explained on a piano, but can be applied to any instrument.
So as you’ve noticed, the piano has many white & black keys with repeating sections. And if you count them, there are 12 keys in-between each repeat. Thats 7 white keys & 5 black keys. I call this region The Main Playing Field. What determines what note you start on, is what key your playing in. In the picture here, The Main Playing Field starts on C, because we are in the key of C Major.
As seen in the picture, the white keys are numbered 1-7 starting on C. So that means that C = 1 , D = 2 , E = 3 , F = 4 , G = 5 , A = 6 , B = 7. We’re starting on C because is the easiest key to start off on. They are all on the white keys. Now if you can think of the Main Playing Field as numbers 1-7, consider this next image. About 85% or more of the music you hear anywhere follows a path on this chart. More than one song can follow the same path. Ever wonder why a song sounded similar to another? Creating a path using the arrows and rules almost guarantees a perfect sounding song.
Instruction Steps & Rules
Start on #1.
From #1, you may jump to any number.
Now depending on what number your on, you must obey the direction of the arrows. The idea is to navigate your way back to #1.
Now repeat the cycle and you have a song!
That is your Resolution; aka. a Cadence. A Cadence is the build-up of notes until you reach a peak, usually on either #5 or #7, to end back at the start on #1. Now what you just created is whats known as a Chord Progression; a series of chords or notes to create a tonal effect. You don’t always have to follow the arrows, but you have to be an expert to know when break the rules. Don’t worry though, in a little bit, you’ll be an expert too.
Use this chart on the right for a simpler view of the rules. The roman numerals in the left column tells you which numbers you can jump to next, in the right column. The same rules apply. You start on number one and from there it’s a wild card. You can go to any number you want. After that, depending on which number your on, you have to obey which numbers you are allowed to go to next. And the idea is to get back home at number one while following all the rules. Its exactly the same rules, its just a different way of looking at it.
Finally if your really good a diagrams and charts. Here is an even simpler version of the chart; possibly too simple for a beginner. Now if this chart doesn’t make sense, then just ignore it and keep reading. It’s for people who want a simple clean chart with symbols to represent instead of explaining everything. It’s less clutter. The arrows that are filled in dark (ones pointing at 7 & 5), means that you can go back to the origin of the arrow. The little arm sticking out of the arrows (ones pointing at 2 & 5) means it has a regular arrow pointing at the entire column. Meaning it points at 4 & 7 as well. I also wanted to point out the arrows between 3 & 6. It looks like you can go back and forth to each note indefinitely, which is partially true. You can do that and then depending on which notes you end on decides whether you pick the top path or bottom path.
As a refresher, you start on number one and from there it’s a wild card. You can go to any number you want. After that, depending on which number your on, you have to obey which numbers you are allowed to go to next. And the idea is to get back home at number one while following all the rules.
So if you take a closer look at the chart, you may have noticed that the only numbers that can approach #1 are numbers: 5, 6, & 7. These are your resolution numbers, also known as a Cadence. Now which one should you use, 5, 6, or 7? Well that depends on the effect your going for. The seven is the leading tone, meaning it creates a great flow and push into the next verse of the song. This is when a seven is resolved, or played, back to one. While a five is more of a final resolution note. Playing a five before a one creates that feeling that its done and resolved. A five is the most powerful resolution because its the farthest away tonality wise. A seven is also a resolution note but not anywhere as powerful as a five.
So why even bother resolving with a seven when a five is way more powerful? While a five is better than seven, do you really want to lay all your good cards out at once? Or do you want to save them for the perfect moment? In poker, you save your good cards for the perfect hand instead of wasting them right away. In music, its a similar concept. You lay out some low value seven’s to create buildup and tension. Then when the moment is right, throw down the five to release all the tension and buildup.
Chord Progression: (song above) Medievil Kingdom
Key: A minor 1 – 3 – 4 – 5 A – C – D – A
Here are a couple common chord progressions to get you started in the right direction:
1 – 3 – 6 – 1
1 – 6 – 4 – 5
1 – 4 – 2 – 7
1 – 4 – 2 – 5
1 – 3 – 4 – 5
Now it takes a little practice and experimentation to figure it out and get it right. But when done correctly, you can compose some really dramatic & epic compositions. The best thing to do is practice, practice, & practice. Your never going to get good at playing if you don’t play. It’s as simple as that. I learned everything I know about music from reading a few online articles, for basic structure, then banging on the keys of my piano and experimenting what sounded good and what didn’t. Eventually you’ll start to notice patterns of what sounds good.
This chart shows all the different positions and how they transition to one another. Obviously this musical map has many paths and choices, so there isn’t any real right route. Which means it’s up to the composer which path they take. It can be short and sweet, or long, complicated, and adventurous. It’s up to you. All this map does, is tell where you are in relation to everything else and what’s coming up on the chord progression highway.
While it’s not hard to come up with a melody, I feel like this tool helps with the components & emotion of the melody. A strategically planned melody can appeal to a listener more when there is an emotional connection involved. Getting the right tones matched up with the correct emotion is specifically important, especially if your music is to sync up with a movie.
When playing a melody, there are many positions you can start from. Each starting point has a different feeling on the entire melody segment. While you can start anywhere, it’s best to start on a harmonizing note; even better if the harmonizing notes are different. Usually the starting point is dictated by where you left off in the last melody segment.
If u start on the root, you get a standard neutral melody with nothing special. It’s a good starting point for the very beginning of a song because nothing is established yet. Something you can do is start from the 5th from the octave below. This creates a starter jump note to start the melody with a little propulsion.
Starting on the 3rd is a great place to start when you want to jump into the middle of the melody. This is usually a fail safe starting point for any melody because it’s in the middle and its harmony is different from the root. From this point you can either increase the energy by moving up the spectrum, or decrease or maintain by moving down the spectrum.
Starting from the 5th starts the melody off with power, conflict, and close to resolution. No matter whether you go up or down on the spectrum, it’s going to resolve. Just going up or down decides how it’s going to resolve, whether that be high or low energy, happy or sad, etc. etc.
How to Use the Map
Start at any position in the first column. Move as little or as much, just don’t skip too many at a time and abide by the Key Signature’s Beats per Measure. When choosing your path, also know the Map Legend, so you know what kind of tone your going to encounter.
The progression on the chart repeats over and over again and it’s exactly the same. I only added ALL the symbols on the first segments so the entire chart wasn’t cluttered.
The best way to become a great composer, is constantly explore new sounds and chord changes. Hearing a simple obscure chord change could be all it takes to write a huge multi-piece compilation.