Building chords from intervals

We have already seen how to build chords using major scale degrees. But we can also build chords from intervals, by stacking minor third and major third intervals on top of the root tone.

For example, let’s look at a major chord, C major. It consists of the tones C – E – G.

The interval from C up to E is a major third (4 half-steps).
The interval from E up to G is a minor third (3 half-steps).

This interval formula, root + major third + minor third, applies to all major chords. The other chord types have their own formulas:

Chord name Formula
Major root + maj 3rd + min 3rd
Major 7 root + maj 3rd + min 3rd + maj 3rd
Minor root + min 3rd + maj 3rd
Minor 7 root + min 3rd + maj 3rd + min 3rd
Minor major 7 root + min 3rd + maj 3rd + maj 3rd
Dominant 7 root + maj 3rd + min 3rd + min 3rd
Diminished root + min 3rd + min 3rd
Diminished 7 root + min 3rd + min 3rd + min 3rd
Half-diminished root + min 3rd + min 3rd + maj 3rd
Augmented root + maj 3rd + maj 3rd

The table above only lists chords that are built using thirds. Of course, you can think of all other types of chords in terms of intervals too.

For example, the interval formula for a suspended chord like Csus4 (C-F-G) is: root + perfect fourth + major second. And a major 6 chord such as Cmaj6 (C-E-G-A) is: root + maj 3rd + min 3rd + major 2nd.

And so on… Figuring out the interval formulas for all the other possible chord types is left as an exercise for the reader. :-)

Alternatively, you can look at intervals this way: A major chord consists of the root, the tone a major third up from the root, and the tone a perfect fifth up from the root. After all, C up to G is a perfect fifth interval.

Personally, I don’t often think about chords in terms of intervals, but I do believe that learning this skill will add to your understanding of the language of music.

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


  1. roger bose says:

    thank you, great site with clear, descriptive explanations. my fave so far!

  2. Peter Gibson says:

    God bless you because your teachings is a catalyst in piano playing.

  3. Marcel Tchaou says:

    Just amazing!!!

  4. philkeys says:

    wow!, i mean wow! this is the begining of a journey to professionalism. Thanks for these tips, they are really eye openers. Great job!

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