6.1.1 What’s a Chord?
6.1.2 The Jimi Hendrix Experience without Jimi: Why Melody-free
Harmony Does Not Stand on its Own
6.1.3 Harmony’s Own Organizing Principle
6.1.4 Properties of a Major Triad (This Looks Familiar)
6.1.5 Exploring the Innards of the Major Triad
6.1.6 Stacking Intervals, Then Turning Them Upside down and
~ • ~ • ~ • ~
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.
of chords—chord progressions—are the units of harmony. Just as successions of
intervals are the units of melody.
as discussed in Chapter 3, harmony provides aural “depth” to melody’s height and
rhythm’s length. Harmony has nothing to do with pitch-like “height.” You’ll find
out why later in this chapter.
When you play a melody comprised of the notes
that make up a chord, such as C – E – G – E – C, your brain recognizes the
underlying chord because the sequence goes by quickly. But when you play all the
notes of a chord simultaneously, your brain hears a single unified sound—not the individual notes that comprise the
can recognize a tune—a succession of notes—as a piece of music all by itself. No
harmony whatsoever. A national anthem, or “Happy Birthday,” or a bugle call, for
yet, paradoxically, a harmonic progression—a succession of chords without
a tune—does not sound like “complete” music at all. It sounds like the Jimi
Hendrix Experience without Jimi.
Unlike harmony-free melody, melody-free harmony does not
stand on its own.
If you were to play the chords
to “The Star Spangled Banner” without playing or singing the succession of
pitches that forms the tune, no one would recognize it as one of the world’s
most widely-known songs.
other hand, a lone, completely unaccompanied tune is like a movie storyboard—a
sequence of sketches, much like the sequence of panels forming a comic strip.
The storyboard outlines the shot-by-shot sequence of a scene—the essentials of
the “story” for that scene. You can discern what the story is from the
storyboard, but it lacks color, depth, and liveliness.
Chapter 4 discussed the “organizing principle”
that underlies the construction of brain-friendly, “musical”-sounding scales:
use the simple ratios of frequencies of the harmonic series, such as 2:1, 3:2,
and 4:3, to define the notes. When you do that, you get Pythagorean scales,
including the scales of the diatonic order.
Is there a similar organizing principle that applies the construction
of brain-friendly, musical-sounding chords?
Yes there is.
with chords, it’s a matter of “organizing,” so to speak, the scale degrees
associated with the overtones of the harmonic series, instead of the overtones
that the term “scale degree” refers to the designation of the notes of a major
or minor diatonic scale using numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 1 (8), where 1
is the tonic note of the scale, 7 is the leading tone, and so on. It turns out
that most of the strong overtones—1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 9th—of a
given fundamental tone (scale degree 1) correspond to the pitches associated
with scale degrees 1, 3, and 5 of the major diatonic scale (Table 33 below). And
when you play these three scale degrees—1, 3, and 5— simultaneously, you get a
Fundamental and First 9 Overtones of the Tone “C”
you play the notes C, E, and G (scale degrees 1, 3, and 5) simultaneously on
your guitar or piano, you hear a beautiful harmonic sound. It’s the major triad,
so-called because it consists of three notes (scale degrees 1, 3, and 5) of the
major scale. Specifically, it’s the C major triad or C major chord.
This simple triad forms the basis of all harmony in the Western
OF A MAJOR
When you hear a major triad, your brain
interprets it as a single, unified sound, even though the chord consists of
three different pitches played or sung simultaneously. The phenomenon of a
unified “chord” sound is analogous to the unified “tone” sound you hear when
someone plucks or plays a single note (Table 34).
TABLE 34 Comparing the Properties of a Single
Tone with the Properties of a Chord (Major or Minor
A Single Tone ...
A Chord (Major or Minor
Consists of a fundamental
tone plus a series of
overtones at higher
Consists of a root
note (so-called because it’s the chord’s lowest note, scale degree 1) plus
additional notes (scale degrees 3 and 5) at higher pitches (in the chord’s
Most of the overtones are
different notes from the
fundamental (i.e., not in
an octave relationship).
The other notes of the chord
are different notes from the
root (i.e., not in an octave
The fundamental and all
the overtones occur
The root and the other notes
are played or sung
Although you don’t hear the separate overtones, your brain nevertheless
recognizes and processes them.
Although you don’t hear the notes as separate pitches, your brain nevertheless
recognizes and processes them.
The overtones create “tone color,” which enables you to distinguish the
difference between the sound of, say, a guitar, from the sound of a piano.
Sounded together, the notes of the triad create “harmony,” which imparts a
feeling of color and depth to music.
Without the context of a key, the sound of a tone is “at rest"—no tension.
Without the context of a key, the sound of a triad is balanced and stable—no
When you think about it, then, a single vibrating string or
membrane contains within it all of the acoustical components of both
melody and harmony:
• It incorporates the same ratios of frequencies that yield all the
major and minor scales of the diatonic order.
• It includes the same scale degree notes, sounded
simultaneously, that correspond to the root and the other
notes of the major triad and other chords.
Once your brain had evolved the circuitry to distinguish simple
ratios of frequencies from each other, it also had the necessary
built-in capability to automatically process intervals, tunes, keys, and
probably inevitable that at some point in human history musicians would
eventually discover and develop Pythagorean-type scales and associated harmony
that made possible Handel’s “Messiah,” Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me,” and John
Lennon’s “In My Life.”
OF THE MAJOR
Have a look at Table 35 below. When you play a C
major triad, here’s what the music modules in your brain actually pick up and
process (fundamental and strongest overtones):
“C” fundamental, together with a series of overtones, including C itself
(repeated several times as an overtone), plus the notes E and G.
“E” fundamental, together with a series of overtones, including E itself
(repeated several times as an overtone), plus the notes G♯, and B.
“G” fundamental, together with a series of overtones, including G itself
(repeated several times as an overtone), plus the notes B, D, and other
TABLE 35 Fundamental and First Five Overtones of
C Major Triad
f x 2
f x 3
f x 4
f x 5
f x 6
1 : 1
1 : 2
2 : 3
1 : 2
4 : 5
2 : 3
the “C” column, you can see that all three notes of the C major triad (C, E, and
G) appear as overtones of the single C tone.
the “C” and “G” columns, both the E tone and the G tone of the C major chord add
the overtone corresponding to scale degree 7 (the note B). This is the scale
degree associated with the semitone interval that “points” strongly at C (scale
degree 1): the leading tone.
overtones include D, which also points strongly at C, and G♯, which seeks to
resolve to G (scale degree 5).
So, when you play the notes C, E, and G simultaneously on your
guitar or piano (forming a chord, a major triad), all of the overtones
common to the three tones reinforce each other. This is the
acoustical phenomenon called resonance, discussed in the section
of Chapter 3 on musical instruments and how they work.
major triad is a completely balanced, satisfied-sounding chord that doesn’t want
to go anywhere.
More Potential Mixed up Confusion
Chords have roots, whereas scales and keys are centred on
Do not refer to the first note of a scale as a “scale root”—there’s no such
thing. Scales do not have roots. Chords
As you’ll see shortly, a chord is named for its root note. When the root note
of a chord happens to be the same note as the tonic note of a scale, that chord
is called the tonic chord.
The three notes of the major triad are called the root, the third, and
the fifth. As long as you play these three notes simultaneously (more
doesn’t matter which octave you play them in;
doesn’t matter which order you play them in.
Your brain will still recognize the same chord.
Although recognizably the same chord, the order of the
component notes does affect the overall sound of the chord.
the root of the chord is “at the bottom”—in the lowest pitch position—the chord
will sound completely balanced. This is called root position.
the third is at the bottom, the chord will sound, paradoxically, balanced and
yet somehow distinctly disturbed. (You’ll see why in a minute.) This is called
the first inversion.
3. If the fifth is at the bottom, the chord will sound balanced, but
still slightly disturbed, compared with root position. This is
called the second inversion.
chords are just stacks of intervals—major and minor thirds. Any time you pile
thirds on top of each other, in any combination,
you get chords. The intervals have to be thirds.