~ • ~ • ~ • ~
If the chord contains only consonant intervals, it will sound
consonant. But if it contains even one dissonant interval, the whole
chord will sound dissonant (Table 36 below; Figure 41 below).
TABLE 36 Consonant and Dissonant Intervals
Aug 4th or Dim 5th
Minor 6th or Aug 5th
C – E♭
C – E
C – F
C – G
C – A♭
C – A
C – C
chord C major in root position (C, E, G) consists of a major third interval (C –
E) with a minor third interval stacked on top (E – G). Two consonant intervals.
(These are called the internal
interval from the root to the top note (C – G) is a perfect fifth, also
consonant. (This is called the outer interval.) See Figure 41.
Intervals—C Major Scale
chord C major in first inversion (E, G, C) consists of a minor third (E – G)
with a perfect fourth stacked on top (G – C). Two consonant internal intervals.
The outer interval (E – C) is a minor sixth, also consonant.
chord C major in second inversion (G, C, E) consists of a perfect fourth (G – C)
with a major third stacked on top (C – E). Two consonant internal intervals. The
outer interval (G – E) is a major sixth, also consonant.
you look, nothing but consonant intervals. So why the heck don’t the first and
second inversions sound balanced and “consonant,” like the chord in root
Here’s what happens. In a chord, whichever note
occupies the bass
position with respect to the other notes of the chord will carry more
harmonic weight by virtue of its necessarily more powerful (loud)
fundamental and overtones (i. e., compared with the fundamentals
and overtones of its higher-pitched chord-mates).
fact, the lowest note of a triad with respect to the other two notes wields so
much power over the sound of the chord that the distribution of the other two
notes doesn’t really matter.
example, in first inversion, the order of the notes could be either E, G, C or
E, C, G. The chord will still have a characteristic “first inversion” sound (in
this example, the sound of “the chord C Major with E in the bass”).
In the context of a scale, every note is unbalanced to some
degree, with respect to either scale degree 1 or 1 (8). Except, of
course, scale degrees 1 and 1 (8) themselves, with respect to each
other. So, having an unbalanced chord note (third or fifth) in the
bass position (as is the case with first and second chord inversions)
creates a certain amount of disturbance in the sound of the chord,
despite the absence of dissonant intervals.
To a hear a completely balanced, completely stable, completely
consonant triad, you have to play it in root position.
To get a major triad, such as the C major chord,
you stack two “third” intervals on top of each other. A major third interval
(four semitones) goes on the bottom, and a minor third interval (three
semitones) sits on top. Note that the minor third interval has scale degree 3 as
its bottom note.
a minor triad such as the C minor chord (C, E♭, G), you flip the two intervals.
The minor third goes on the bottom, the major third on top. Now the minor third
interval (C – E♭) has scale degree 1 as its bottom note.
minor chord sounds stable, at rest ... except ... it has that spooky “minor”
sound. When you play a C major chord followed immediately by an C minor chord,
you hear, unmistakably, a drastic difference in perceived mood.
the discussion in Chapter 5 about the three versions of the minor scale. It
doesn’t matter which scale you use—natural minor, melodic minor, or harmonic
minor (or “grand minor”)—they all still retain the characteristic “minor” sound
because they all have a minor third interval in relation to the tonic note
(scale degree 1).
the same applies to the minor chord in harmony. The minor triad consists of
exactly the same internal and outer intervals as the major triad. The only
difference is that the two internal intervals are flipped the other way around,
so that the minor third relates to scale degree 1 instead of the major third
relating to scale degree 1. The perceived “mood” of the chord changes
the major triad, the minor triad does not have all that internal
overtone-reinforcement (Table 35). This could well be what causes the brain to
perceive the minor triad as emotionally negative. That is, the discrepancy
between what you’d expect an “ideal” triad to sound like (the sunny sound of a
major triad) and what the minor triad actually sounds like (sad) could be due to
lack of overtone-reinforcement. (More on chords and their emotional implications
near the end of this chapter.)
IN A NICE
So far, you’ve heard the results of stacking a
minor third atop a major third, creating a major chord. And stacking a major
third atop a minor third (creating a minor chord). In both cases, you get a
stable, balanced-sounding, consonant chord.
What happens when you stack two minor thirds, one atop the
sound loaded with tension. Completely unbalanced and dissonant. Not “bad”—just
unbalanced and dissonant. Even though it’s comprised of two consonant intervals,
this chord doesn’t sound in any way self-contained, like the major and minor
triads. How come?
that cloven-hoofed interval from Hell itself, the tritone—the most dissonant of
intervals (also known as the diminished fifth), making its appearance as the
chord’s outer interval. The chord you get when you pile two minor thirds atop
each other is the diminished
triad, or simply the diminished chord.
How about stacking two major thirds, one atop the other?
You get another rootless, restless-sounding chord. Again,
unbalanced and dissonant, but not as dark sounding as the
As with the diminished chord, both of the internal intervals are
consonant (major thirds). The outer interval is a minor sixth, also
known as an augmented fifth. Also consonant.
This chord is called the augmented triad.
It presents yet another harmonic paradox: the augmented triad is a mighty
disturbed-sounding chord, yet it’s comprised entirely of consonant
intervals, both internal and outer.
As discussed in Chapter 4, dissonance and imbalance usually
result when you divide the octave into small equal intervals to create
a scale. This is also what happens when you divide the octave into
large equal intervals, such as three equal intervals of major thirds or
four equal intervals of minor thirds.
the internal intervals are identical, both the diminished and augmented triads
have no roots. That’s why they sound so unbalanced, and that’s what makes them
harmonically interesting and useful.
IN THE WORLD
What do you hear when you play either a major chord or a minor
chord in root position? A completely balanced sound. No tension.
do you hear when you play a tune consisting of an octave interval, 1 – 1 (8), or
even several octave intervals? Same thing. No tension whatsoever.
If you decided you wanted to write a monumentally boring song,
how would you go about it?
• Use only octave intervals.
one chord, the major triad. (Don’t use the minor triad; it’s too inherently
emotional because of the minor third.)
sure the major triad is in root position—scale degree 1 at the bottom.
Such a tune would, in the immortal words of Monty Python, send
bricks to sleep.
goes for intervals goes for chords: music doesn’t begin until dissonant chords
take the stage. At every level, what’s called “music” emerges only when your
brain perceives something interesting, challenging, evocative: sonic
unrest, imbalance, instability.
major or minor triad (depending on whether you’re playing in the major or minor
mode) serves the same purpose in harmony as the tonic note of the scale serves
in melody. It establishes and
from the major triad to create dissonant harmony serves the same purpose
harmonically as deviating from predictable scale patterns serves in melody. It
creates interest and suspense. Any time you’re not playing a simple triad,
you’re playing a dissonant chord. The ear expects that, eventually, dissonance
will resolve back to consonance.
Your brain cannot experience sonic imbalance
without a frame of reference. It has to experience “balance” before it can
perceive and appreciate imbalance. That’s why a piece of music must first
establish tonality. Hence, as mentioned previously, the typical four- or
eight-bar instrumental introduction to a song.
Once your brain knows where scale degree 1 is, it wants to light
out for the Territory of tonal tension. The road trip takes place on
several sonic levels:
1. Movement of pitches. A succession of intervals (not
individual notes) creates variety by generating tonal tension
and relieving it at a fast pace.
2. Movement of chords. A succession of chords (chord
progression) creates variety by introducing dissonances,
manipulating tonal tension at a slower pace than the tune
A well-constructed chord
progression simultaneously maintains tonal coherence by “pointing” to the tonal
centre of the dynamic field.
When chords change without
purposeful direction, harmony still moves, but it doesn’t seem to get anywhere.
It wanders around, sounding unpalatable, lost in the desert, with vultures
circling. It’s Deputy Fester himself, lost, removing his hat, fanning his face
and muttering to his horse, “The tonality, the tonality ... “
3. Movement of keys.
Tonicization and modulation create variety on a larger scale by taking tonality
itself into parallel universes—different keys altogether. Usually (not always),
tonality returns to Dodge City, like Marshal McDillon after Ms Puma forgave him
and let him have his old job back because she missed the big galoot. And because
she didn’t want the responsibility of being the marshal and having to keep track
of Deputy Fester’s whereabouts.
The music in harmony, like the music in melody, has a hard time
getting noticed if it does not move. Chords may move slower than
the notes of a tune, but move chords must.
... not always. For instance, Bob Dylan’s scary, unforgettable “Ballad of Hollis
Brown” uses one chord throughout, a minor triad. Look it up on the GSSL—Appendix 1.)
So far, this chapter has discussed two flavours
of one type of chord—the triad:
1. Balanced, consonant triads: major and minor chords;
2. Unbalanced, dissonant triads: diminished and augmented
only one other main type of chord: the seventh. To get
a seventh chord, you simply pile three “third” intervals atop each other.
you’ve got a four-note chord. Unlike basic three-note major and minor triads, all seventh chords are dissonant.
First, as an example, have another look at the intervals of the C
major scale (Figure 42).
Intervals—C Major Scale
major chord consists of the notes C, E, G, which is made up of two consonant
intervals, C – E (a major third), and E – G (a minor third). If you’re going to
stack on another third interval, it can only be either G – B♭ (a minor third
interval), or G – B (a major third).
In either case, two things apply:
last remaining note of the chord is either a flatted seventh of the scale (B♭ in
this example), or a natural seventh (B). Which is why this type of chord is
the note you add is a flatted seventh (B♭) or a natural seventh, (B), this added
note will always be dissonant because it’s either a whole tone or a
semitone removed from the tonic note (C, in this example).
And you found out in Chapter 4, whole tone and semitone
intervals are always dissonant (Table 36).
even one interval of a chord is dissonant (internal or outer), the whole chord
is dissonant. That’s why all chords except major and
minor triads are dissonant.
They’re just triads and sevenths dressed up in
fancy duds. They all have four or more notes, so they’re all dissonant.
In fact, you can reduce all of the substance of harmony in the
Western tonal system down to two measly chord types, the triad and the
seventh, and their embellishments. Imagine that ... Beethoven,
Mozart, Ellington, The Beatles ... all just two-chord wonders.
a “ninth”-type chord, for example, you just grab another note, as though it’s
from the next octave up. There’s nothing to stop scale degrees from continuing
on, like this . . .
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1 (8), 2 (9), etc.
However, unlike in melody, where you have low-pitched notes
(the lower end of the scale) and high-pitched notes (the upper end),
there’s no such thing as a low-pitched chord or a high-pitched chord.
This concept is so important in harmony, it bears repeating in
There’s no such thing as a low-pitched chord or a high-pitched chord.
chord is just a chord, as you’ll find out later in this chapter.
Meanwhile, the best way to envision where the notes come from
to create extended chords such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths is to consider
octaves as “overlapping.” So, for example, in the key of C,
the note “C” is scale note 1
the note “D” is scale note 2
the note “E” is scale note 3
you get to the end of the scale (the “C” at the end of the octave is the 8th
note of the scale), you just continue on with higher numbers. So the note “D”
becomes the 9th note of the scale, in addition to being the 2nd note. The note F
becomes the 11th note (in addition to the 4th), etc. Like this:
For example, here are the component notes of some seventh and
ninth chords ...
• The chord C7 (C seventh) is comprised of these notes played
C E G B♭
The term “seventh chord”
always means that the seventh note of the scale is a flatted seventh.
• The chord CM7 (C major seventh) is comprised
of these notes
C E G B
The term “major seventh
chord” always means the seventh note of the scale is a natural seventh (not flatted).
• The chord C9 (C ninth) is comprised of these notes played
C E G B♭ D
The “seventh” chord (the
four-note chord with the flatted seventh) is the underlying chord, and
the “ninth” note (the D) is added.
With this chord, or any chord, the arrangement of the notes can
be in any order, because there’s no such thing as a low-pitched chord or a
high-pitched chord. The chord remains the same chord. For example, you could
play the above C9 chord on the piano as above, or you could play it like this:
C G B♭ D E
or like this:
E B♭ D G C
It’s still the same C9 chord. You’ll see why in
the discussion coming up about how chords actually change.
• The chord CM9 (C major ninth) is comprised of these notes:
C E G B D
This one is called a “major
ninth” chord because the underlying chord is a major seventh (the chord with the
natural seventh). The “ninth” note (the D) is added to create the chord C major ninth.
• The chord Cm9 (C minor ninth) is comprised of these notes:
C E♭ G B♭ D
In this case, the chord is
called a “minor ninth” because the underlying chord is a minor chord (actually a
minor seventh chord, Cm7).
The nomenclature of such chords comes from the application of
a few basic rules. If the name of the chord has the word ...
in it, such as “C minor seventh” (Cm7) or “C minor ninth” (Cm9), then it’s a minor triad, usually with an added
flatted seventh (and more notes may be added)
in it, such as “C major seventh” (CM7) or “C major ninth" (CM9), then it’s a major triad, usually with an added
natural seventh (and more notes may be added)
in it, such as “C suspended fourth” (Csus4) or “C suspended second” (Csus2),
then it’s a triad in which the note in scale position 3 has been removed and
replaced with the note in scale position 4, or 2 (e. g., instead of C, E, G,
you’d have the notes C, F, G, which is Csus4, or C, D, G, which is Csus2)
To get extended 9th, 11th, and 13th chords, all you do is stack
more thirds atop the underlying 7th chord.
• If you pile
a third on top of a 9th, you get an 11th chord:
C11 = C
E G B♭ D
• If you pile
a third on top of an 11th, you get a 13th chord:
C13 = C
E G B♭ D
you’ve got six- and seven-note chords. So you need two hands to play them on the
keyboard. As for six-string guitar, to play a 13th chord, you have to leave out one of the notes (normally the
brain processes 9th, 11th, and 13th chords as though they’re some fancy species
of 7th chords. All such chords are dissonant.
Just keep in mind that all chords are triads and sevenths, or
variations of triads and sevenths.
These extended chords are very common in jazz and romantic
music of the 19th Century.
What Is That Mysterious Beatles Chord?
It’s one of the most famous chords in rock music. That “krrraannggg!” chord
right off the top of the Beatles’ classic, “A Hard Day’s Night.”
What is that chord?
No one in the Beatles’ organization would tell. Not even George Martin. So,
arguments raged for decades about the mysterious chord. Fights broke out in the
streets of Wichita and Dodge City. Frightened horses galloped away in clouds of
dust. Doc Yada-Yadams spent hours treating the injured and sipping hooch from
his still. Nobody could agree on the identity of that chord. Even Ms Puma, who
normally knows everything, had to admit she was stumped.
Finally, from out of the frozen northern wastelands of Nova
Scotia, Canada, a stranger rode into town, a mathematics
professor named Jason Brown. And what did the stranger do?
Why, he took off his hat and tossed it on a peg, and then he sat
down at a computer and digitized that dang chord real good. And
then Dr. Brown spent six months deconstructing it. When it was
all over and the dust had settled, the mathematical stranger had
solved the mystery.
What did Dr. Brown find?
• George Harrison played the notes D, A, C, and G on his
12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar.
• Paul McCartney played the note D on his bass.
• George Martin played the notes D, F, E, and G on the
• John Lennon may have played the note C on his 6-string
• Put them all together and you get: D F A C E G, which is
the chord Dm11 (D minor eleventh), which is the same as
the chord D minor (D F A) and the chord C major (C E G)
The next chord on the record is the tonic chord, G major, which
begins the verse. The Dm11 chord, then, is a jazzy variant of the
dominant seventh chord.
Some ornery folks dispute Dr. Brown’s findings. Marshal McDillon was thinking
seriously of locking them all up for the commotion they cause, because that’s a
cliche of law ‘n’ order in a Classic Western like this one. Then Ms Puma wisely
reminded Marshal McDillon of the importance of free inquiry. She poured him a
double bourbon and he drunk it down in one swallow and didn’t cough like the
late Billy Joe up there on Boot Hill.
In most song books showing words and chords, or words, melody
line, and chords, you will see chord notations such as these:
These chords are called slash chords, as in "C slash A" or "G
slash D". Although musicians usually say, "C over A" or "G over D".
In slash chord notation, such as G/D:
• The note before the slash signifies the actual chord (in this
example, the chord "G").
• The note after the slash is a bass note (in this example, the
bass note "D") played simultaneously with the chord.
Therefore, a slash chord is not generally considered to be a
"unique" chord. Literally any chord can be turned into a slash chord.
If the bass note following the slash is one of the notes in the
chord itself, then you just need to make sure the note following the
slash is the lowest note in the chord.
"Play an ordinary G major chord and make sure the lowest note (the bass
note) is D."
If the bass note following the slash is not one of the notes in the
chord itself, then the note following the slash is just a bass note that
you add to the chord.
For example, C/A ("C over A") means:
"Play an ordinary C major chord and at the same time, add an A note as a
You can play the added "A" in the bass on your own instrument
(guitar or piano). Or, alternatively, your bass player can hit the "A"
bass note as you simultaneously play the "C" major chord. The
musical effect is the same.
The bass note following the slash can be any of the 12 notes in
the chromatic scale. It does not have to be even remotely related to
for instance, you can play "slash chords" such as D/E♭ or D/C. When the bass
note following the slash is not a note in the chord itself (for example, the "A"
in C/A), it's often a brief passing note as you step through a series of chords,
such as the chord progression C – C/A -- F.
You can add any bass note to any chord under the sun and call
it a "slash chord." For example, major chords:
Or minor chords:
musical composition generally, and harmony particularly, the bass part plays a
central role in establishing and maintaining tonality, and also in signalling
changes in melodic and harmonic direction. That’s where the bass power of slash
chords can be useful.
A power cord is cable that connects an appliance such as a guitar
amp to a power source such as a power bar or wall socket.
A power chord is a type of chord that had to be invented after
electric guitar players started overdriving preamplifiers and speakers to create
massively distorted sound. Heavy metal, heavy rock, and punk music
characteristically employ power chords.
legendary rock guitarist Link Wray is generally credited with inventing the
power chord. He pioneered the use of distortion and feedback in electric
guitar playing. For example, he would deliberately punch holes in the speakers
of his guitar amp in order to achieve a satisfactorily distorted sound.
Recall earlier in this chapter, the following distinction:
For practical purposes, think of
a chord as three or more different-pitched notes played or sung
simultaneously. Not two. Consider two notes, whether sounded
simultaneously or in succession, an interval.
The power chord is the exception. A power chord consists of only
two different notes played simultaneously, the tonic and fifth notes
of the scale.
• The root of the power chord (tonic note of the scale) is
usually in the lower-pitched position.
• However, the fifth may be in the lower-pitched position.
• The root may be doubled, an octave higher or lower.
• The fifth may be doubled, an octave higher or lower.
defining property of a power chord is that the third is missing. The reason has
to do with distortion. If you play an ordinary major or minor triad on an
electric guitar through an amp with tons of distortion, the overtones are so
muddied-up that your brain has a hard time figuring out that it’s even hearing a
chord, let alone what kind of harmony it’s supposed to be. All your brain can
discern is formless noise.
However, if you leave out the third,
then your brain can usually distinguish a basic harmonic interval, a perfect
fifth—even with all the distortion. Although it’s only an interval, and not a
chord in the normal sense of the word, at least it is harmony. The overwhelming
dissonance of the electronic distortion provides the sense of power (see
“Emotional Effects of Intervals," Chapter 4).
Since power chords consist of only two different notes, you can
learn to play them pretty easily. You can finger a power chord
anywhere on the guitar fretboard. But without a doubt, the heaviest,
darkest, most powerful sounding power chords are those you play
on the bass strings. Low pitch plus massive dissonance combine to
create a dark, ominous feeling.
A couple of final points about power chords:
• A power chord is usually symbolized by combining the
of the root note with the number 5. For example:
C5 or C fifth
the third is missing, you can’t tell whether the prevailing mode is major or
minor. Heavy metal songwriters exploit this characteristic by making use of the
Church modes for melodic purposes, resulting in a distinctive or signature
Before continuing on to chord progressions, a
word or two about harmony by drone—ubiquitous in some musical cultures.
Europeans did not “discover harmony” in the 16th and
17th centuries by developing the Western tonal system, with its 12
major keys, 12 minor keys, and equal temperament. Our ancestors
doubtless were harmonizing vocally tens of thousands of years ago.
drone-based harmonic systems have existed for ages. The major difference between
drone-based harmonic systems and the Western tonal system is that you can’t
change key while playing a drone-tuned instrument. You have to stop and retune.
A drone is a sustained note (or group of notes) that accompanies
a developing melody. Drones can take several forms:
• A single note
• Two or more notes of identical pitch
• Two or more notes pitched in octaves
• Two notes in related pitches
Sometimes the drone note sounds continuously:
• Various kinds of bagpipes.
• Hurdy gurdy: the player cranks a wheel that vibrates strings
that sustain the drone note.
a musician strums or plucks a single note rhythmically (a “rhythmic drone”) to
sustain the drone effect and also provide rhythmic accompaniment.
While normally instrumental, some drone traditions feature
vocalists singing drone syllables.
sounds are found in many of the world’s musical cultures:
• Indian classical music
harp (jaw harp) playing
• Fiddle traditions such as Celtic, eastern European, and
• Australian aboriginal didgeridoo playing
the drone tone is the tonic note—though not necessarily in the Western diatonic
tonal music tradition. Sometimes a single drone tone is not the tonic.
When the drone is the tonic note, it serves the same function as
the tonic note in Western diatonic harmony. It acts as the musical
centre of gravity, an important unifying role when employed with
scales other than diatonic major or minor scales (or close relatives
such as pentatonic scales).
A drone sound makes it possible to play modal melodies while
providing harmony, because every melodic note automatically
harmonizes with the drone, except melodic notes identical to the
drone. Some are close harmonies (related by simple frequency
ratios), others are dissonant harmonies.