Last time in this two-part treatise on chords and songwriting, we talked about the six basic chords you can use to create your songs. This time we're going to get a little deeper into chords and talk about their meaning in our songwriting.
If you're just reading this article without reading the first one, you should probably now go back and make sure you've got that down.
The feeling or sound that a chord has is called its quality. What makes up quality in chords? Chords get their sound or their flavor from the distance between the notes inside them. These distances are called intervals. So when we say that chords sound happy, sad, epic, or sinister, its usually really just because of these distances or intervals Let's look at some examples.
Let's start off with the major chords in a key. Last time we noted that in every key the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords were what's called 'major' chords. If we were in the key of C, then the C chord, F chord, and G chord, would be major.
To put it simply, major chords sound happy. When we typically refer to a G chord, a C chord, or a D chord, we're really saying a G major chord, a C major chord, or a D major chord. They sound happy, complete, bright, or friendly.
A major chord is major because of the distances between its notes. In a major chord, the distance or interval between the 1st and 2nd note is 4 notes and is called a Major 3rd. The distance between the 2nd and 3rd note is a minor third.
Think of the Major 3rd as like the "happy interval".
Major Chord = Major 3rd + Minor 3rd
The notes in a G major chord are G, B, and D. The distance between G and B is 4 (G->G#->A->A#->B), and the distance between B and D is 3 (B->C->C#->D). G->B is a major 3rd, and B->D is a minor third - Thus this will sound like a happy major chord.
Remember: Don't include the note you're starting on when counting the distance. Distance is about how far you've got to go to get to the next note in the chord, so don't make the mistake of counting the first note AND the last note, just count the spaces between them.
Minor chords sound sad. They can't help it, really. Remember, the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th chords in each key are minor. So if you were in the key of C again, then the minor chords would be 'd minor', 'e minor', and 'a minor'.
In a minor chord, one of the intervals is 3 notes and the other interval is 4 notes. For example, if you look at a d minor chord, the notes in that d minor chord are D, F, and A. If you count the distance from D to F, you'll find that it's a distance of 3 (D->D#->E->F). This is the Minor 3rd; think of it as "the Sad Interval". Then from F to A makes a major 3rd. (F->F#->G->G#->A)
Minor Chord = Minor 3rd + Major 3rd
Last time I mentioned briefly the existence of chords that are called diminished chords. In any key the chord based off of the 7th note in the scale will be diminished. So in the key of C (C D E F G A B C) you'll get a B diminished.
Kind of like a major chord is major because it has two major 3rd's, a diminished chord is diminished because it has two minor 3rd's. It works this way with other chord qualities too, and once you know the secret you can build the chords yourself from scratch. Here's a list of a few other qualities and intervals:
If you like to memorize things here's a list of intervals. This is good to have at least for reference.
If you're still wanting more ideas, check out extensions. Extensions can add complexity to the feeling of the chord and give you more options when you're creating your song. When you hear things like C major 7, or C min 9, these numbers at the end are called extensions. First let's talk about the most basic extension: 7th's.
There are basically four different types of 7th's:
Triads: All the chords we've talked about previously have been what are called triads. Triads are simply three note chords. When we add extensions, we're adding notes on top of these triads.
When we talk about a 7th chord, we're saying that we're adding the 7th note of that scale to the chord. So in a C major 7th or CM7 chord, we're taking the 7th note of the C major scale (B), and adding it to the major triad it making a full CM7 chord: C E G B. Here are the intervals:
Maj7 chord = Major 3rd + Minor 3rd + Major 3rd
These chords sound classy and sometimes sexy. They're the warm, romantic characteristic chord quality you think of when you hear jazz music.
Minor 7th's add the 7th note from the minor scale. We haven't talked about minor scales yet so instead just know that for a minor 7th chord you're going to be adding the 7th to the minor triad. This is 1 note lower than the major 7th would be. So in a D minor 7th chord (Dm7), the notes would be D, F, A, C (not D, F, A, C#).
Min7 chord = Minor 3rd + Major 3rd + Minor 3rd Minor 7th's sound fun and exciting to me. They're like the party chord and are frequently used in music from flamenco to pop.
Diminished 7th's are built from the a diminished triad with a 7th that is 2 notes lower than the major 7th. So a B diminished triad would be B, D, F and a B diminished 7 chord would be B, D, F, Ab. Intervals:
Dim7 chord = Minor 3rd + Minor 3rd + Minor 3rd
Diminished chords sound abrupt and can be used to create immediate tension. A cool trick about diminished 7th's is that if you shift all of the notes up another minor 3rd (3 notes), then you get the same exact chord just in a different order. (B D F Ab -> D F Ab B -> F Ab B D)
Dominant chords are chords that have a minor 7th (1 lower than a major 7th) but instead of having a minor triad, they actually have a major triad. These are the characteristic chords of blues music. C dominant 7 (C7) would be C E G Bb. Intervals:
Dominant 7: Major 3rd + Minor 3rd + Minor 3rd
One last one I'll leave you with is what's called a minor 7 flat 5 chord or m7b5. These are chords that have a diminished triad but with a min 7th extension. A Bm7b5 chord is B D F A.
m7b5: Minor 3rd + Minor 3rd + Major 3rd
If you're thoroughly overwhelmed at this point that's ok. There are lots of different types of chords and they all feel a little bit different. However, if you want to bookmark this article and come back to it when you're writing, it will help expand your songwriting to new dimensions. Starting out, you're still probably going to just use the basic six chords. But if you have a musical idea that doesn't fit, try one of these more advanced chords. Remember, you can always build your own chords by adding together the intervals that are listed. Always trust the music you're imagining and use these to help you narrow in on your progression.
Until next time,