What is a chord, and what makes chords that sound good together? Building chords is a lot easier than you think once you understand the music theory.
Chords make up the modern and traditional music of our world. Vocalists sing to chords, drummers create their rhythm, and electronic music producers create melodies to chords. For any great song, nice chords and chord progressions are vital.
Check out the FREE Chord Generator.
This article will teach you what a chord is, what intervals are, and how you can use scales to create the chords you want.
You will also learn the difference between minor and major chords, including what seventh and diminished chords are.
Let’s dive in.
What Is A Chord?
When you take several notes in harmonic pitches, you get a chord. And in music theory, nothing is random.
There are clear formulas behind combinations for each of the notes, from C up the next octave. We’ll go through these in a minute.
Modern music theory says you need at least a triad to form a chord, meaning three notes stacked together. On a piano or in Ableton Live, that’s three piano keys.
However, some say two notes together is enough for modern music. But for simplicity's sake, let's go with triads for now.
But if you want to make a C major chord, how do you know where to go from C?
Don’t worry. Once you understand the basics, forming chords in all keys becomes a walk in the park.
A Word On Frequencies
Different notes correlate with different frequencies, meaning waveforms that cycle at different speeds.
Lower octaves and darker notes cycle at lower frequencies while higher octave sounds cycle faster.
That’s how the sounds get different pitches.
These pitches or notes have harmonic qualities that you can combine to form a fuller sound – a chord.
Let’s explain what music intervals are and how you can use them to form chords.
What are music intervals?
To understand how you build chords, you need to understand the relationship and difference between the notes.
For that, we use something called intervals, which is the relationship between your root note (the foundational pitch your chord starts from) and the other notes.
For example, the relationship between C and E or between C and G.
We use two letters to map out the sequence:
- W = a whole tone (whole-step)
- H = a semitone (half step)
But what do a whole and half step mean?
Whole Step (W)
A whole step between notes on a piano roll means going to the next key.
That can mean one or two semitones up if you consider the black (sharp) keys on your piano.
A whole step means going to the next key. Depending on where you are on your piano roll, it can either mean one or two semitones up.
If you count the black (sharp) keys, it’s two semitones, but if you don’t (from E to F or B to C), it’s one semitone.
- A whole step from the C note is D
- A whole step from the D note is E
Half Step (H)
A half step between notes on a piano roll means going to the next key, including the black (sharp) keys.
When you go a half step up, it always means one semitone.
- A half step from the C note is C#
- A half step from the E note is F (no black keys)
With this code, you can map out the scales for different chords, modes, and keys.
Names Of The Intervals
The interval or distance in semitones from your root note to the next note has names. So if you're starting from C and go seven semitones up to G, it's called a perfect fifth.
These distances between notes are the building blocks of chords.
All twelve semitones from one note to the same note in the next octave have names. We use these to make up our chords.
This fact will be clearer when you look at chord names after reading this article.
Here are the names of the intervals:
Click here for a larger image.
These are the intervals looking at the number of semitones from your root note:
- +0 semitone = perfect unison
- +1 semitone = minor second
- +2 semitones = major second
- +3 semitones = minor third
- +4 semitones = major third
- +5 semitones = perfect fourth
- +6 semitones = diminished fifth/tritone
- +7 semitones = perfect fifth
- +8 semitones = minor sixth
- +9 semitones = major sixth
- +10 semitones = minor seventh
- +11 semitones = major seventh
- +12 semitones = octave
But instead of counting semitones, we rely on the interval codes you learned before, half step (H) and whole steps (W).
When you learn intervals and their names, you can quickly use them to form your triad chords.
For example, if you start in C and add a major third and perfect fifth, you have a C major chord.
What Is The Difference Between Major And Minor Chords?
The difference between major and minor chords is where you put your 3rd. But to understand what the third means, you need to know about scales.
Remember the interval half steps (H) and whole steps (W)? We use them as a type of code for creating scales and music modes.
The interval code for major scale (Ionian mode) is:
For a C major scale, that means the notes C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C.
The major chord triad contains the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the major scale.
That's why a C major chord has the notes C, E, and G – the first, third, and fifth note of the scale.
So, going back to the difference between major and minor chords...
In minor chords, we take the major 3rd a half step down, meaning one semitone.
The interval code for natural minor scale (Aeolian mode) is:
For a C minor scale, that means the notes C-D-D#-E♭-F-G-A♭-B♭-C.
If you want to change a C major to a C minor, we take our E note one-half step (semitone) down to D#.
That makes a C Minor triad the notes C, E♭, and G.
What Is A Diminished Chord?
There are many other types of chords. A diminished chord contains a minor 3rd (three half steps or semitones above your root note) and a diminished 5th (six half steps or semitones above your root note).
For C Dim, that means the notes C, D#, and F#. See the picture for piano chord notes:
The sound is dark and unsettling, with a lot of tension. Musicians often use them to bridge between chords. When they resolve, it's a satisfying listen.
What Is A Seventh Chord?
A seventh chord is typically a triad plus a 7th note above the root note. For a C Major 7th, that means using the notes C, E, G, and B. See the picture for piano chord notes:
It can also mean including a Minor 7th in a major triad, which makes it C, E, G, and A#. See the picture for piano chord notes:
Once you wrap your head around the foundations of music theory, it’s not too difficult. But it takes a while to get it.
Come back to this article or take the Music Theory: Harmony and Chord Progressions to fast-track your music theory learning.
Bonus Tip: If you use Ableton Live 11, try the Scale Mode to map out the entire interval sequence directly in your piano roll. It makes it a lot easier to create chords.
You have now learned the basics in music theory to start creating chords and taking your music knowledge to the next level.
If you have a MIDI keyboard or piano, sit down, and try to recreate minor and major chords you have read about in this article. Add sevenths and get a feel for how you build chords.
It’s amazing what this knowledge will do to your music production.
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Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.