3 – Basic Chords


Your First Chords, and Major/Minor Explained

In this lesson you’ll be able to start adding chords to your tunes, and I’ll explain what the real difference between major and minor is.  You’ll need a keyboard capable of playing at least four notes at once to do this (or program your music software accordingly)

Playing Chords

We’ll start with the major scale.  On the keyboard this is represented by all the white notes from C to C.  We can number this scale too, from 1-8 (C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, and so on…).

The most common basic chord is called a trichord, and it comes from playing notes 1, 3, and 5 of your scale.  So, play the 1, 3, and 5 notes of the C major scale.  These are C, E, and G.  You’ve just played the C Major chord.

Before moving on, take five minutes to mess around with the C major chord.  Play it rhythmically, play a chord with the left hand, and with your right hand, run up and down the scale from C to C, hitting random notes.  You should be able to write a short five-second melody with a C Major chord in there somewhere.

Now we’ll skip right onto the A minor scale, which on a keyboard is all the white notes from A to A.  So the first trichord will be notes 1, 3, 5 of the A minor scale.  A, C, and E.  This is the chord known as “A minor”.

Again, write a little microtune, this time in A minor.  Use the A minor scale on your right hand, and the A minor chord on the left (or the other way round!)  Notice the difference between the sound of major and minor

A Scale of Chords

Every scale has it’s scale of notes, but it also has a complete scale of chords in it too.  This is very simple, it’s just the same chord shape moved up one note at a time up the scale.  To explain better, we’ll start with our C Major scale.

Make a C Major Chord (1, 3, 5 – or C, E, G).  That’s chord no. 1.  Chord no. 2 is 2, 4, 6 – or D, F, and A.  Chord no. 3 is simply 3, 5, 7, chord no 4. is 4, 6, 8, and so on, until you’re back at the C Major chord, but an octave up from where you started.  No black keys are included in this scale.

So to play with this newfound knowledge, play a simple, slow melody of four or five notes, starting on C.  Now match that melody with a melody of chords.  If you play C, D, E, B, C as your little melody, for instance, play the C chord, then D chord, then the E chord, then the B chord, and then C.  Or how about playing just the C chord, E chord and final C chord, filling in the D and B with single notes?

Now we’ll shift focus to the minor scale.  Play the A minor scale of chords, starting with 1, 3, 5 of the A minor scale, moving up one chord at a time to reach the A minor chord an octave up.  Mess about with this a bit, like you did for the major scale above.  Write a simple tune using the A minor scale, and play it over the A minor chord.

Now you should be able to start progressing beyond tiny little tunes and into fuller melodies and progressions, but before you do, we’ll do a tiny bit of music theory.

Major and Minor?

The distance from one key on a keyboard to the next, whether it’s black or white, musically speaking, is called a semitone.  From A to A, or C to C, there are twelve semitones.  That’s all the notes, including the black ones.  So from A to B is two semitones.  B to C is one semitone.

Play a C Major chord.  Now an A Minor chord.  What’s the difference?  They both use 1, 3, 5 notes of their scales, but the difference is in the jump from the 1 to the 3.  In our C major chord, the 3 is an E.  That’s a leap of four semitones (C-sharp, D, D-sharp, E).  On the A minor chord, the jump to the 3 note from the 1 is only three semitones.  Four semitones is a major gap, three semitones is only a minor one.

The 5 note in a 1, 3, 5 chord usually stays the same.  It is a climb of seven semitones from the 1.

So it’s easy to change the C major into a C minor, or the A minor into an A major, by fiddling with that middle note.  To change a C major to a C minor chord, C, E, G changes to C, E-flat, G.  To change A minor to A major, A, C, E, changes to A, C-sharp, E.

Knowing this, we should be able to make any chord.  Say we wanted to make the D-sharp minor chord.  D-sharp is our first, then up three semitones (minor) – E, F, F-sharp.  Seven semitones from D-sharp is E, F, F-sharp, G, G-sharp, A, A-sharp.  So a D-sharp minor chord is D-sharp, F-sharp, and A-sharp.  A nice trichord shape for the hand.  Try F-sharp major.  Four semitones (major) from F-sharp is F-sharp, G, G-sharp, A, A-sharp.  Seven semitones up from F-sharp is G, G-sharp, A, A-sharp, B, C, C-sharp.  Another nice simple chord on black notes. F-sharp, A-sharp and C-sharp.

Picking Apart the Scale of Chords

Now we can tell the difference between the major chords and minor chords, let’s examine our scale of chords a little bit.  We’ll start by looking for chords that “match” the scale.

Start with the C major scale.  We know the first chord, C, is major.  Shift to the next chord up the scale.  This is D, and there’s three semitones to the next note in the chord, so this is D minor.  The third chord is E, which is minor.  The fourth chord in the C major scale is F, which is major, so we have a “match”.  G has a major leap of four semitones to get to the next note, so that’s major.  Another “match”.  A is minor, so it doesn’t match.  What about the seventh chord, B, D, F?

Well, looking at it, it has only three semitones from B to D, which is minor.  But it’s not a normal chord like we’re used to, as it only has six semitones from the B to the F.  If we were to turn it into a normal B minor, we would use B, D, F-sharp instead of B, D, F.  The last note of the chord is less of a climb up the scale than a normal B minor chord.  We call this kind of chord “diminished” (which means “less”, or “smaller”, and comes from the same Latin word as “minus”).  The diminished B has a strange, spacey sound, but resolves nicely into the C.

But which ones matched?  The first, fourth and fifth chords were all major, so they match.  Every time you play a minor chord from a major scale, it creates tension, so the first, fourth and fifth chords are like the “main” chords of the scale.  Let’s look at the A minor scale.

First is A, which is minor.  Second is that weird diminished B minor chord, so that’s a maybe.  Third, is C major.  Fourth is D minor, and Fifth is E minor.  Sixth and Seventh are F and G major.  So the main chords once again are the first, fourth and fifth chords (with a “maybe” as the second).

So much of rock ‘n roll and blues are based around progressions made with these chords.  When people joked that Status Quo could only play three chords, these are the three chords they were talking about!  A lot can be done with only three chords…

Try this exercise.  Take the C major scale, play a C major chord with the left hand, counting from “one” to “four”.  Only play the chord once, on the count of “one”.  When you get to the next count of “one”, play another chord, either the F major, or the G major.  Count “one, two, three, four” and play another chord.  When you’re comfortable with how they sound, you can try the other trichords as inbetweeny chords on the count of “two”.  You’re playing “C major”, 2, 3, 4, “F major”, 2, 3, 4.  “G major”, 2, 3, “B minor (dim.)”, “C major”, 2, 3, 4 and stuff like that.  Just play about.

You can now play up and down the scale with your right hand.  Notice how the scale sounds different when there’s a different chord under it.

Try the same exercise, this time with the A minor scale.  Write a simple chord progression, and a simple melody to go over it, stick mainly to chords one, four, and five, but don’t be afraid to play around with the other chords.

You should now be able to write a short, simple melody over a small chord progression.  If you keep going, repeating the chords you’ll be writing a full on tune!  You can make a small tune long enough to be a decent ringtone on your phone, for instance.

Just a little extra stuff to fit in your brain before the recap.  Chords are sometimes written in Roman numerals.  So I, IV, V means the first, fourth and fifth chords.  That won’t matter unless you’re researching chord progressions, you can think or write them down in any way you like!

Recap

  1. Trichords have three notes.  They have the pattern 1, 3, 5
  2. The first chord of the C major scale is the C major chord.  The first chord of the A minor scale is the A minor chord
  3. A major chord has a jump of four semitones from the first note to the next (and seven from first note in chord to the third)
  4. A minor chord has a jump of only three semitones from the first note to the next (and seven from first note to third in chord)
  5. Each scale has a scale of chords, the same 1, 3, 5 pattern moved up by a note in the scale at a time
  6. The B minor trichord in the C major or A minor scale is actually diminished as it only has six semitones from the 1 to the 5
  7. The chords that best “match” the scale are the first, fourth and fifth chords in either the major or minor scale.

Play around with your new knowledge.  You could look up some jazz standard progressions and try them out, or simply play around with them in your spare time, improvising around the keyboard or your music software’s piano-roll input screen.

Most importantly, mess about and have fun!

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