The different types of chords

Let’s start by looking at chords. In future articles I’ll go into greater depth: how to construct chords, how to use them, and why you would want to use them — even if you’re a classical player.

But for now, a quick overview.

What is a chord?

If you’re wondering exactly what a chord is: You make a chord by playing 3 or more tones together. That’s it, as simple as that.

But which tones? Well, that depends on what you want to use the chord for.

Not all chords are the same. There are roughly six different types of chords and each of these types has its own function in the language of music.

The most important tone in the chord is called the root tone. This is the tone that the chord gets its name from. For example, the C major chord is built on the root tone C and is of the type major.

You can use each of the 12 unique tones on the piano as the root to build a chord on, but in this article we’ll just look at C.

Here are the different chord types:

The major chord

This is the C major chord:

C major chord

Major chords are the most common chords in our music. The tones in this particular major chord are: C (the root tone), E and G.

The minor chord

This is the C minor chord:

C minor chord

The minor chord has two tones in common with the major chord, but the middle tone is different: an Eb instead of the E. Minor chords are often labeled as having a “sad” sound.

The dominant-7 chord

This is the C dominant-7 chord:

C dominant-7 chord

Chords can have more than 3 tones. It is possible to “extend” major and minor chords with additional tones, but most of these do not change the type of the chord: it stays major or minor.

However, by adding a Bb to the C major chord we do change its character and thereby its function. The resulting chord is called the dominant-7 chord (or just “7 chord”).

The diminished chord

This is the C diminished chord:

C diminished chord

It looks a little like the C minor chord but with a Gb instead of a G. You can make a diminished chord by lowering the highest tone of a minor chord, or the top two tones of a major chord.

The augmented chord

This is the C augmented chord:

C augmented chord

Not only can you lower tones, you can also raise them. Here, we have raised the G to a G# to form an augmented chord.

An augmented chord has the same function as a dominant-7 chord, and they can substitute for each other. (Often they are combined into one chord.)

The suspended chord

This is the C suspended chord:

C suspended chord

By taking a C major chord and playing an F instead of the E, the chord becomes suspended. These types of chords create tension that is often resolved by playing a major chord.

Try it: play the C suspended chord followed by C major. Can you hear how C major relieves the tension created by the suspended chord?

An audio example

As you can see in the pictures above, what causes the differences between these chord types are the distances between the tones that make up the chord. These distances are called intervals and we look at those in detail here.

To illustrate these different chord types, I have made a recording that plays these chords in the order they are listed in the article: first C major, then C minor, and so on. The recording ends on a final C major chord.

Listen to the example (Help?)

Read more articles on Piano Clues:

Basic Theory

Chords and Harmony

The Circle of Fifths

Arrangement, Improvisation and Composition

Reading Music and Sheet Music

How to Record Piano

Software and Virtual Instruments

Scales and Exercises

Digital Pianos

Links and Other Stuff


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