Get rid of confusion surrounding chords. Learn the main chord types, their sound and their construction. Doing this will not only help you improve your musicianship, but your ear as well...
When building melodic and harmonic content in your song, it can be easier for some people to start with the melody – and then build the chords later. If you can do this, kudos to you. Others may find it easier to build the chords first, and then the melody later.
One thing that can really make a song boring, uninspiring, and overly simple is using the same "basic" sounding chords over and over again. Sometimes this can work, (and there’s nothing wrong with just making an extremely simple chord progression). BUT, sometimes we want a little more than that. We want to know how to make our music more interesting, and give it a specific mood.
When giving our music a mood, we don’t want to spend hours on end looking for that perfect chord. Who doesn't get sick of plotting random notes on the guitar waiting for one to jump out?To avoid all of this, you need options. Let's look at a few...
If you want to be good at building chord progressions, you’ve got to be familiar with chord qualities in each key.
In every key there are specific chords that contain a certain feel, or character. You could also call this harmonic mood or quality. Chord qualities are like colors, in the simplest sense.
Almost all music theory is important, there are arguably some things that are rendered unimportant due to advancement in DAW technology (and other things including music genres that contain a lack of harmonic content). But in saying this, I think knowing the different chord qualities is important because it eliminates the need to spend hours on end looking for that special chord that comes next in a progression. You won’t need to jump around the guitar plugging in random notes.
It’s really about creating mood. Want a more saddening chord? Pick a minor. Want something a little more energetic? Choose a ninth.
The 9 Different Chord Qualities:
There are 9 relatively common chord qualities that you should be aware of. Some of these aren’t used often, others are used extensively:
- Major and minor
- Major and minor seventh
- Dominant seventh
- Major and minor sixth
- Suspended fourth
You may have heard of a few of these, others may be foreign. It’s alright though, we’ll be having a look at them all "One by One."
We’ll start with major as it is the foundational chord in music.
The player above is generating an "E Major" chord on guitar.
Major chords sound happy and simple, and the fact is – they are simple. To build a major chord you simply use the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes in whichever scale you’re using. Let’s use the scale of C Major as an example, (C Major has no sharps or flats):
The Minor chord is the second most popular chord in music.
Minor chords are considered to be sad, dark, or ‘serious.’
To build a minor chord, you follow the same pattern as a major chord except you will need to drop the third degree of the scale down a half step.
An E Major chord consists of a E, G#, B
An E minor chord consists of a E, G, B
Although they seem almost identical, the difference is significant. Listen to the audio clips above for the Major chord and then the one for the minor.
Major Seventh (7th):
Major seventh chords are considered to be thoughtful, or soft. You’ll hear many seventh chords used in Jazz music.
Major 7th played on a piano:
Major seventh chords are built from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th tones of the Major scale. In the scale of C Major, this would be C, E, G, B.
Another way to think about it is a Major chord plus an extra note which is a tone down from the root on the scale. In terms of half steps, a Major seventh would be exactly the same as a standard Major triad, except for the fourth note being added 4 half steps above the 5th degree (G in this case):
Minor Seventh (m7):
Minor seventh chords are different to Major seventh chords in the fact that they’re a lot more moody, or contemplative.
Minor 7th chord sound:
To create a Minor 7th chord you can follow the same concept we showed above, but starting with a minor chord instead. The minor seventh uses the 1st degree, a flat 3rd degree, 5th degree, and flat 7th degree of the major scale.
Instead of C, E, G, B. We’d have C, Eb, G, Bb for a Minor 7th.
Dominant Seventh (7):
Dominant seventh chords are strong, unstable, and adventurous sounding.
These are very similar to minor sevenths except for the second note not being flat. Instead of C, Eb, G, Bb. It would be C, E, G, Bb. Dominant seventh chords are made from the 1, 3, 5, and flat 7 tones of the major scale.
Major Sixth (6):
Major sixth chords are fun and playful.
A major sixth chord uses the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degree of the major scale:
To build a major sixth chord, simply follow the build for a major triad, and then add the sixth degree or two more half steps.
Minor Sixth (m6):
Minor sixth chords are almost identical to major sixth chords apart from their lowered 3rd degree. They sound a lot darker and a little bit on the mysterious side.
A minor sixth chord is built from the 1st, flat 3rd, 5th, and 6th degrees of the major scale.
Suspended Fourth (sus4):
Suspended fourth chords are majestic in nature, and sound ‘proud’ almost.
Suspended chords are a little different to the rest, as they don’t follow a major or minor pattern. To build a chord like the Suspended fourth, you would use the 1st, 4th, and 5th notes of the major scale, (notice that the 3rd is omitted):
Ninth chords are very energetic and full of life.
To build a ninth chord, we’d use the 1, 3, 5, and 9 tones of the major scale. This particular chord passes over two octaves, as you can see below.
Note: a minor ninth is built in a similar way except the E is lowered by a semitone to an Eb.
Diminished chords are dark and edgy.
To build a diminished chord you’d use the root, flat 3, and flat 5 tones of the major scale.
Augmented chords contain quite a lot of movement and sound suspenseful.
To build an augmented chord we use the root, 3, and sharp 5 tones of the major scale. This is basically the same as a major chord, but with the 5th degree raised a half step.
There are far more chords than these. If you’re getting started with chords then these are ideal ones to learn about at first.
As with anything in music – the mood and feel of chords is a general and very subjective thing. You have to discover what chords that you like yourself. If something doesn’t sound suspenseful, happy, triumphant, or dark to you, then be clear on how it does sound. This will help you apply it.
Another thing to be clear on is that these chords can sound completely different when following other chords. Certain chords may sound dissonant when on their own, but when used in a progression they might sound far more balanced.
Try some of these out, experiment with them in progressions, and most of all – have fun producing!
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