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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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