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  • In geometry, a chord of a circle is a line segment whose endpoints both lie on the circle. The perpendicular bisector of any chord passes through the circle's center.
  • In reference to aircraft, chord refers to the distance between the front and back of a wing, referred to as the leading and trailing edges, measured in the direction of the normal airflow. The term chord was selected due to the curved nature of the wings surface. See chord (aircraft)
  • In music theory a chord is a number of pitches, usually at least three, sounded simultaneously. Some particular kinds of chord are named according to the notes of the scale that they contain.

The remainder of this article is about the musical chord. Chord learning site: http://www.chordspeller.com

A chord is usually thought of as containing at least three notes. However, it is possible for only two notes to serve the same function as a chord with more notes. For example, within the context of C major, the two notes F and B have the same function together as a full dominant seventh chord (see below), even though two of the notes, G and D, are missing. Such a two-note chord is called a dyad or diad (see interval for more details).

It is even possible to give the effect of a full chord with only one note sounding at a time. This is most often done by way of broken chord of arpeggios, where each note in a chord is sounded one after the other. One of the most familiar broken chord figures is Alberti bass.

Any combination of three or more notes is a chord, although in western music some combinations have traditionally been given more prominence than others. These more frequently used chords have particular names assigned to them, from the triad, the most simple three-note chord, to far more complex chords. Below is an explanation of some of these.

Table of contents

The Triad

The most commonly used chords in western music, triads are the basis of diatonic harmony, and are composed of three notes: a root note, a note which is an interval of a third above the root, and a note which is an interval of a fifth above the root.

For example, an octave of the C major scale consists of the notes: C D E F G A B C.

Fig 1. The C major scale

The triad formed using the C note as the root would consist of C (the root note of the scale), E (the third note of the scale) and G (the fifth).

Fig 2. C, E and G - The C major triad

Using the same scale (and thus, implicitly, the key of C major) a chord may be constructed using the D as the root note. This would be D (root), F (third), A (fifth).

It should be immediately apparent on hearing these two chords that they have a different quality to them: one which does not stem merely from the difference in pitch between their roots C and D. Examination at the piano keyboard will reveal that there are four semitones between the root and third of the chord on C, but only 3 semitones between the root and third of the chord on D.

The triad on C is thus called a major triad, or major chord, and the interval from C to E a major third. The smaller interval from root to third in the D chord is called a minor third, and the chord is D minor.

A triad can be constructed on any note of the C major scale. These will all be either minor or major, with the exception of the triad on B, the leading-tone (the last note) of the scale, which is diminished. See also Mathematics of the Western music scale.

Types of triads

As well as major and minor, there can also be augmented and diminished triads. These four are referred to collectively as the quality of the chord. For instance a triad built on top of a root D in the key of C would be said to have a minor quality.

Augmented triads are composed of a major 3rd but an augmented 5th (meaning the top note has been increased by one semitone.) Diminished triads have a minor 3rd and a diminished 5th (same as a minor triad, except the top note has been lowered by a semitone.) These rules summarise the type of triads encountered so far:

  • Major triad: root, major 3rd, perfect 5th
  • Minor triad: root, minor 3rd, perfect 5th
  • Augmented triad: root, major 3rd, augmented 5th
  • Diminished triad: root, minor 3rd, diminished 5th

Each note has a function within the chord, the note the chord is built on is called the root of the chord, the second note a third above it is called the third of the chord, and the third note a third above the second note is called the fifth of the chord. This is true of all triads, regardless of key, inversion, or quality. For example, in an F chord, F is always the root, A (sharp, natural or flat) is always the third, and C(sharp, natural, or flat) is always the fifth.

Tonal music relies upon a key to indicate the natural relationships between the major and minor chords that result from the natural diatonic relationships. For instance, in any major key, the quality of a chord built on the fifth note of the scale will be major. This is because of the constant relationship between the tonal intervals of major scale. Chords are notated by the scale degree of their root, although there are many different conventions for indicating the quality and inversion of the chord. For Example, since the first scale degree of the C major scale is the note C, a triad built on top of the note C would be called the one chord, which might be notated 1, I, or even C in which case the assumption would be made that the key signature of the particular piece of music in question would indicate to the musician what function a C major triad was playing, and that any special functioning of the chord outside of its normal diatonic function would be inferred due to context.

Chords are also said to have a function in their diatonic scale, which relates to the expected resolution of each chord within a key. The strongest form of motion has root movement by fifth, which is the characteristic sound used as finality in most music of the baroque and classical periods, and is also exploited to modulate a piece of music into a different key. The chord function for a major scale is as follows:

  • The I, III and VI chord are said to have a Tonic Function, due to the fact that they have a stable sound and do not have a tendency to resolve. When a chord progression resolves to a III or IV chord, it is called a Tonic Substitution, because the stable III or VI chord is being used as a substitute for the expected I chord.

  • The VII and the V chord are said to have a Dominant Function, and they have a strong tendency to resolve to other chords. The five down a perfect fifth to the I chord and the VII chord up a minor second to the I chord, due to the expected resolution of the tritone, or the highly unstable diminished fifth which is present in a diatonic VII chord.

  • The II and IV chords have Subdominant Function, partially due to the fact that they are a fifth away from the Dominant chords of a key, and partially because in their own Tonic keys, their respective Dominant chords are built on the root notes of the stable Tonic function I and VI. They are also referred to as Dominant Preparation chords, and are used to approach a Dominant function chord. The progression IV-V-I, (subdominant, dominant, tonic) is by far the most common chord progression in all of music, and can be found in an astonishingly wide variety of styles, forms, and genres.

The spellings of the diatonic triads of the C major scale are given in the following table, along with their quality, name, and function"

 I       -- C E G -- major -- C major -- tonic
 ii      -- D F A -- minor -- D minor -- subdominant
 iii     -- E G B -- minor -- E minor -- tonic
 IV      -- F A C -- major -- F major -- subdominant
 V       -- G B D -- major -- G major -- dominant
 vi      -- A C E -- minor -- A minor -- tonic
 vii dim -- B D F -- dim.  -- B dim   -- dominant 

There is another type of chord function, Subdominant Minor[?], which is reserved for non-diatonic chords, or chords that do not occur naturally in the diatonic key, and will be dealt with separately under the heading Modal Interchange.

Inverted Triads

Triads are said to be inverted when a note other than the root is the lowest note played. There are three types of inversions, or positions, for triads.

  • Root position is when the chord is played in ascending thirds with its root note in the bass.

  • First Inversion when the chord consists of a major or minor sixth and a major or minor third, and the third of the chord is in the bass

  • Second Inversion when the chord consists of a perfect or, less common, augmented or diminished 4th, and a major or minor sixth, with the fifth of the chord in the bass.

Various compositional techniques in classical music have made use of inversion for a variety of interesting effects.

Naming and Chord Notation

In Musicology, triads are named using the Roman numerals for the scale degree of the root note in the key of the moment. For example in the key of C major, any triad with C as its root is named I. A triad beginning on a E (the third note of the scale of C major) would be named III etc... Written in lowercase next to the roman numeral of the triad is its particular inversion (a description of which notes have been moved up an octave.) A first inversion triad has an 'a' in its name (eg. the first inversion of chord V is Va.) A second inversion triad has a 'b', and a third inversion triad has a c.

Possibly more common is the use of figured bass as a means of notating chord inversions, particularly in music from the baroque period. Figured bass uses a combination of Roman numerals and Arabic numerals to indicate the function of the chord (given by the roman numeral) and the chord's inversion (given by the arabic figured bass). For instance, a first inversion chord would have the designation 6/3 since there is a note a sixth and a third above the bass note. Common practice shortens this to just the 6 since it is the characteristic interval of the inversion.

Patterns with the type of chords found in major keys can be seen when using this naming scheme:

  • In a major key, the major triads are: I, IV, V
  • In a major key, the minor triads are: II, III, VI
  • In a major key, the triad on VII is diminished

Another common form of notation makes use of lower case roman numerals to denote minor chords, so the chords would be written I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii dim.

There are a number of ways that a diminished chord can be notated, the most common being the use of a small superscript circle, or the abbreviation dim. being written next to the chord.

Also common is the use of a minus sign to indicate minor chords. Using this system, the triads of the major scale would be written: I, II-, III-, IV, V, VI-, and VII dim. The superscript circle is also occasionally used to indicate a diminished chord in this system.

Suspended chords

A suspended chord is a chord in which the third is replaced with either a fourth or a major second, although the fourth is far more common.

This type of sound is borrowed from the contrapuntal technique of suspension, where a note from a previous chord is carried over to the next chord, and then resolved down to the third, suspending the previous chord.

Suspended chords are most commonly found in folk and pop music, and do not necessarily prepare the ear for a resolution.

Seventh Chords

The next natural step in composing chords is to add the note a third above the fifth of the chord, or the seventh of the chord. In its earliest usage, the seventh was introduced solely as an embellishing or nonchord tone. The seventh destabilized the triad, and allowed the composer to emphasize movement in a given direction. As time progressed and the collective ears of the western world became more accustomed to dissonance, the seventh was allowed to become a part of the chord itself, and in modern music, and jazz in particular, nearly every chord is a seventh chord.

Types of Seventh Chords

There are 6 types of seventh chords composed of the following intervals:

  • Major Seventh: root, major third, perfect fifth, major seventh
  • Minor Seventh: root, minor third, perfect fifth, minor seventh
  • Dominant Seventh: root, major third, perfect fifth, minor seventh
  • Minor/Major Seventh: root, minor third, perfect fifth, major seventh
  • Half Diminished Seventh: root, minor third, diminished fifth, minor seventh
  • Full Diminished Seventh: root, minor third, diminished fifth, diminished seventh

The dominant seventh

Of all the seventh chords, perhaps the most important to understand is the dominant seventh chord. Called the Dominant Seventh because its intervallic relationships occur naturally in the seventh chord built on the dominant scale degree of a given key, the dominant seventh chord was the first to begin to appear regularly in Western music.

The dominant seventh chord is useful to composers because of the fact that it is a major chord with a very strong sound, that also includes a tritone between the third and seventh of the chord. In a diatonic context, the third of the chord is the leading-tone of the scale, which has a strong tendency to pull towards the tonal center, or root note, of the key. This, in combination with the strength of root movement by fifth, and the natural resolution of the dominant triad to the tonic triad, creates an incredibly satisfying resolution with which to end a piece. Because of this original usage, it also quickly became an easy way to trick the listeners ear with a deceptive cadence.

The most important usage, though, is the way that the introduction of a non-diatonic dominant seventh chord which is borrowed from another key, can allow the composer to modulate to that other key.

This technique is extremely common, particularly since the classical period, and has lead to further innovative uses of the dominant seventh chord such as secondary dominant, extended dominant[?], and substitute dominant chords.

Major and Minor Seventh Chords

(needs writing and possibly corrections)

Minor seventh chords are pretty much like dominant seventh chords, except that they have a minor triad instead of a major one. Their sound is more harmonious than that of a dominant seventh due to the lack of a tritone. However, there is still a major second interval providing some dissonance to the chord. A minor seventh chord can also double as a major sixth chord (e. g. C-Eb-G-Bb-C represents both Cm7 and Eb6). Major seventh chords are, I believe, a more recent invention, and consist of a major triad with a major seventh on top. Due to the minor second interval, these chords frequently sound very dissonant, but can sometimes have a very melancholy flavor.

Half Diminished Seventh Chords

Seventh Chords not from the major key

Sixth Chords

Nonchord tones/Tensions

Modal Interchange

Hybrid Chords


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