Music Theory For Non-Musicians
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!
S1 : E5: Happy Together
Sometimes when people really don’t care about something, they’ll say, “I could care less.” What they mean, of course, is, “I couldn’t care less.” It’s such a common mistake that many people don’t consider it a mistake anymore. If you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone who says “I could care less,” you won’t stop and correct them. You’ll understand what they mean based on the context of the sentence, and let it slide.
Likewise, musicians sometimes use “tonic” and “root” interchangeably, but they’re not really the same thing. In our previous installment, S1:E4, we learned that the tonic is the first note in the scale. For the key of G Major, the tonic is G. When we’re using Bb minor, it’s Bb.
The tonic is sometimes referred to as the root, but that’s slightly incorrect. The words may stand in for each other, but the tonic is the first note of the scale. The root is the base note of a chord.
That’s base, not bass, though they’re usually the same.
Anyway, chords are what you get when you play two or more notes at the same time. Some combinations of notes sound great together.
Others, not so much.
Some chords have only two notes, and the most common two are the root and the 5th. The 5th is halfway between the root and its octave. Remember we talked about how each pitch has its own wavelength, and how the wavelengths have their own frequencies, and the frequencies interact with each other? The frequency of the 5th interacts with the frequencies of the root very well.
It’s a powerful sound. In rock, we call this a power chord. In other genres, it would be called a 5 chord, like C5. It’s neither major nor minor. We’ll get to major and minor momentarily.
Some bands use nothing but power chords. The guitarist in my punk band Psycho knew two variations of the power chord. One was the root and the 5th above it. The other was the root and the 5th below it. He’d move those two shapes around the neck of the guitar and, presto, guitar hero. He didn’t know any other chords, but it hasn’t slowed him down. He’s still making records 40 years later.
Chords with three notes are called triads. When we talk about triads, we usually mean three notes with a specific relationship with each other. There’s the root note, the 3rd, and the 5th.
This part can be confusing at first. We don’t mean the tonic and the 3rd and 5th of the scale. We mean the root note of the chord, the note two up the scale from the root, and the note two more notes up from there. To put it another way, consider the root to be the 1st, and add the 3rd and 5th notes up the scale from it.
You probably remember that the notes in the C Major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then starting over again at C. So if the root note of our triad is C, we’d go up the scale two notes to the E, and then two notes from the E to the G. The C major chord then is C, E, and G.
I picked the C, E, and G in the middle of this diagram, but keep in mind it can be any C, E, and G across the keyboard. It just depends on whether you want high notes or low notes.
If we’re still in C Major, which means we’re sticking to the white keys, but the root note of the chord is F, we’d go up two notes to the A and up to more notes to the C. The notes of the F major chord are therefore F, A, and C. Make sense?
While we’re at it, let’s do G. The root is G, the next note is up two so it’s a B, and then two more to D. G, B, and D make G major.
I picked C, F, and G because they’re the three major chords in the key of C Major. What makes them major chords?
The difference between a major chord and its minor chord is the 3rd. If you take, for example, the G major chord with its notes of G, B, and D, and then flatten the 3rd so you now have G, Bb, and D, you now have the G minor triad.
Let’s count this out in half steps and whole steps. For a major chord, start from the root and go up two whole steps to the 3rd. For a minor chord, go up a whole step and a half step. Two whole steps up from a G is B. A whole step and a half step from G is Bb.
The 5th is the same in both major and minor chords.
So that’s three chords we know in the key of C Major. What about the others?
Let’s see what the D chord will be. We’ll start with the D, of course and, again sticking to the white keys, go two notes up the scale, which will be an F, and two more notes up from there, which will be an A. So the question is, is this D major or D minor?
Well, let’s count the steps from the root to the 3rd. D to E is a whole step, and E to F is a half step. When the interval from the root to the 3rd is a whole step and a half step, it’s a minor chord. It’s D minor.
To get a D major, we’d have to go up two whole steps. That would put us on the F#, which isn’t in the key of C Major so we use the F instead. (We don’t go up to the G because that’s the 4th of the scale. We’ll use the flattened 3rd instead.)
Likewise the E chord in the key of C Major would have to use G, so it’s E minor. And the A chord would have to use the C, so it’s C minor.
So far, that gives us C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, and A minor. What kind of chord will have B as its root in the key of C Major?
It’s complicated. We have to stick to the white keys in C Major, so let’s go up two notes from the B. It’s the D, which is a whole step and a half step up. That suggests it’s a B minor, but let’s keep going.
Remember that the 5th in both major and minor chords is up a total of three whole steps and a half step. If we were to do that starting on the B we’d get the F#, which isn’t in the key of C Major. We’ll have to flatten it and use the F. That makes the chord’s notes B, D, and F.
Chords with a flattened 3rd and a flattened 5th are called diminished chords, so this is a B diminished. We can call it a B dim, for short.
Some people say there’s only one other type of triad. It’s called the augmented chord and it uses the root and the major 3rd, and it sharpens the 5th. A C augmented, or C aug, would therefore use the notes C, E, and G#. (This one obviously isn’t in the key of C Major.)
Other people say suspended chords or any chord with three notes is a triad. It’s complicated and not really worth arguing about. We’ll get to these chords down the road..
So, to go back to the start of this article, every note in a scale can be the root of a chord within that scale, but the scale itself can only have one tonic. You know that, and I know that, but people will still use “tonic” when they mean “root” and vice versa. Now that you know the difference, however, you can let it slide. You could care less.
That’s enough for one day, but let’s look ahead to some questions we can ask:
• Do chords always have to be played with the 1st on the bottom?
• Can chords have more than three notes?
• What’s for lunch?
I can’t answer all your questions, but I’ll try. Just ask below.
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