How are chords constructed?

In a simple sense, chords are constructed by combining every other note in a music scale. For example, the C major scale looks like this:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

All basic major chords have three notes, the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes in the scale with that chord’s name.  In other words, the C major chord, based on the scale above, is just C, E, and G.  This is known as a triad, which is the most basic kind of chord and already defines the main feeling of any more complex chords that are built on top of it. In other words, there are major (happy) and minor (dark) triads.  There are also diminished and augmented triads, which create tension or dissonance, but we won’t get into them here.

Taking this a step further, adding a fourth note (the seventh note in the scale) produces a “seventh” chord. Therefore, C major seventh is made up of

C, E, G, and B.  Seventh chords are a little more colorful than simple triads, and usually form the basis of jazz chord progressions, where they may be mutated or elaborated on in many ways. Four notes are the most you can use to define a basic chord.  Notice, this is because if you go up another every-other note, up the scale, you go into a higher octave, whose notes may be used as “extensions” adding a little more color to the basic chord underneath.

Minor chords have a “flattened” third; this means that the second note in the chord, which is the third note in the scale, is one half-step lower than in the major version. In the C-chord example, the E would be lowered one half-step to E-flat. Therefore, the C minor chord is C, E-flat, and G.  Usually, when we write chord-names on a piece of music, we just write the normal capital letter for the major chords, “C,” and “Cm” for C-minor, although there are some other style of notation.

Overview of some of the most basic chord types

  • Major chords: These are the most basic-sounding chords, often creating a feeling of happiness, or that everything is in place (major chords create no sense of tension or movement on their own). They are the most used chord types in music.
  • Minor chords: Minor chords tend to evoke sadness or other dark feelings.  For example, if someone writes a song about their girlfriend or boyfriend breaking up with them, there’s a good chance they will use minor chords. But don’t think minor chords are always sad; they can create a lot of different feelings depending on their context.
  • Major seventh chords: Adding a fourth note to a chord usually makes it a seventh chord (there are exceptions). Just like the basic major and minor chords, a major seventh chord is usually a happy chord without tension.
  • Minor seventh chords: A minor seventh chord is a basic minor chord with the seventh note in the scale added. Just like the basic minor chord, the minor seventh chord may feel sad, or perhaps a subtler feeling, such as reflection, but always a little dark.
  • Diminished chords: Diminished chords create a feeling of discord, or movement; they feel like they want to change to another chord! A diminished triad has both the third and the fifth note flattened from what they would be in the major chord; a diminished C chord is C – E-flat – G-flat. And you can also form diminished seventh chords.
  • Augmented chords: An augmented chord is the opposite of a diminished chord. Inan augmented triad, you have a major third (just like in the major chord), but a sharpened fifth (the fifth degree of the scale raised a half-step); the augmented C chord is C – E – G- These chords feel unfinished or like they need to resolve to something. Augmented chords generally do not sound or feel comforting; in musical terms it’s that we want to hear that raised note come back to its natural place.

Identifying chords in music

If and when you learn to read sheet music, you will see how chords are represented and learn how to play them.  Over time you will see patterns. Many chord progressions are used over and over, in many songs. These will become familiar to you as a music student. With enough practice, they will become so natural that you will be playing them with no thought at all.