Simplified Music Chord Theory
Scale in key of C
Understanding chords really begins with understanding a scale. Let us use the key of C for our scale since that will yield simplest results. A scale is generally taken as 8 notes, which is also considered one “octave”. The scale begins on a note and ends when it reaches that same type of note. Let us look at a simple C scale looking at it three different ways:
Scale, Key of C to a Singer
Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do! (note that it has 8 notes, and begins and ends on “do”)
Scale, Key of C by name
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C (8 notes again, and begins and ends on C)
Scale, Key of C by number
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (8 notes again, but this time we called the 8th note 8)
The above three representations are all really the same. How do we use this for chords? Well let us start with a simple major chord. A major chord is always made up of the first, 3rd, and 5th notes of its scale. So C Major is simply C, E, and G. Not so hard, eh?
What would a sixth be? Can you guess? Well we begin with a major chord, and then add the sixth note. So a major sixth (normal sixth) would be: C, E, G, A.
Now the C scale above is not all of the possible notes. It is merely the 8 notes making up the C scale. If we think in terms of a piano, the C scale is all of the white keys. It does not use any of the shorter black keys, which are sharps and flats. When we look at all of the possible notes, we call that a chromatic scale. All of the possible notes in a chromatic scale, not counting any repeats, not even one, are 12 total. They are:
C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, (and then C would repeat next)
Of course, that shows the chromatic scale using all sharps. A sharp sign # means to raise a tone one half step. So C# is one half step higher than C. For every sharp representation, there is also a flat representation possible. Instead of raising C one half step to get C#, we could have also lowered D one half step to get a Db. The “b” sign is for “flat” just as the “#” sign is for sharp. C# is the same note as Db. There are just two ways of showing it. Sometimes it s more convenient to show it as a sharp, and sometimes as a flat.
Minor chords, Dominant 7ths
It was necessary to talk about chromatic scales before talking about some chords, such as minors and dominant 7ths, since they go off of the normal C scale and involve half steps. We had said that a major chord was made up of the first, third and fifth notes of the scale, C, E and G. A minor is close, but it “flats” the third. So a C minor chord would be: C, Eb, G. Note that we could have shown this also as: C, D#,G since D# and Eb again are the same note.
When we talk about 7th chords, one would think that we take a major chord such as C,E, and G, and add the seventh note of the scale, which would be “B”. That in fact is exactly what we do for a C major 7th chord. However, when we just write 7th, it is taken to mean a “dominant 7th” which flats the 7th note. So, C 7th is: C, E, G, and Bb. This again can also be written as C, E, G, A#.
So, the above covers the 7th chord. The C major 7th chord would in fact be what you would have guessed: C, E, G, B - where B is clearly the 7th note of the scale.
Now, how about a minor 7th chord? Let us begin with the minor, which flats the third, and then add the 7th. So, let us begin with C minor which is C, Eb, G and we will add the 7th which again is Bb and we get: C, Eb, G, Bb. Recall that when we just say “7th” it refers to the dominant 7th, which is a flatted 7th of the scale. There is a version of a minor chord that uses the major 7th, it is called mmaj7th. It is a somewhat confusing name, being a minor, major7th. I would agree that minor-major in the same sentence seems like a contradiction of terms, but they refer to two different parts of the chord. The minor refers to the first three notes, C Eb, G. The major 7th means that we do not flat the 7th note of the scale. So, therefore a C mmaj7th would be: C, Eb, G, B.
Well, if you follow all of that, many of the rest of the chords should make sense. An augmented chord is also called a + chord, or a +5 chord. You can probably guess what that chord does. It raises the fifth note of the scale one half step. So a C major chord again is C, E, and G, which are the first, third and fifth notes of the scale. So, a +5 would cause the chord to become C, E, G#.
On the other hand there is a -5 chord. So, a C-5 would be C, E, Gb or C, E, F#.
One strange “chord” is simply called a “5”. It really is only two notes, the first and the the fifth of the scale. So, a C5 is merely C and G. Note that this chord is also sometimes called C major no 3rd. Can you see that? If C major is C, E, G, then C major with no 3rd is simply C and G.
9ths, 11ths and 13ths are somewhat understandable, but they do add some confusion. The understandable part is that they do in fact add the note that one would think. They also add a few more however. But let us start with the reasonable part. A C 9th would add a “D” as one might expect - the ninth note in the scale. A C 11th does add an “F”, the 11th note in the scale, and a C 13th does add an “A” which is the 13th note in the scale. However, C9th also adds a dominant 7th and therefore is: C, E, G, Bb, D. The 11th adds not only the dominant 7th but also the 9th and therefore is: C, E, G, Bb, D, F. The 13th is similar to the 11th and becomes: C, E, G, Bb, D, A.
The minor versions of 9th, 11th and 13th? They really follow the same formula but begin with the minor rather than the major chord. So C minor 9th is: C, Eb, G, Bb, D.
Scales / Chords other than C
If the above makes sense to you, you are getting close to understanding the basic make up of chords. Some is simple mathematics, and some is convention, established years ago. Of course you could say that all this is in the scale and key of C. Other keys are harder. Yes and no. The other keys may have odder looking sequencing, but they follow all of the same rules. This is where the mathematics come in. To look at a D scale, for example, note that a D is two half steps in the chromatic scale higher than C. Use that then to calculate all of the notes of the D scale. Doing that a D scale is:
D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
A D major chord is still the first, third and fifth of the scale, and is: D, F#, A.
D minor is similar with the third “flatted” and would be: D, F, A.
D 7th would be D, F#, A, C since flatting C#, the 7th note in the D scale is really just C.
D major 7th would be D, F#, A, C# (the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of the scale)
If you understand the above, you may in fact be able to even figure out some of the unique chords that guitar players continue to come up with. I just noted a new one in one of my song books. It was a D major add 2. What? we might say? But then we would get a grip on ourselves. We would put together the D major chord of D, F# and A, and then merely add the 2nd note of the scale, an E. Then we would get D, E, F#, A. Voila ! See? not so bad.
If you are like me and appreciate the mathematics, but then have a hard time memorizing 28 chords versus 12 notes of the chromatic scale, 336 possibilities. And even less likely to memorize the guitar fingerings for those 336 down 12 frets making 4032 possibilities, then you might need a simple aid.
Music Chord Progressions
Have you ever wondered how certain musicians seem to do very well picking up new songs? One might think or suggest that they have a great "ear" for music. And well they might. But for many popular songs - pop or rock, picking up a new song is often a combination of two things. One of those is indeed sounding the song out, but the other is that many popular songs follow what we might call a chord progression - or at least close to a standard progression or pattern.
What is a Chord Progression?
A chord progression is made up of the several chords that might be used in a popular song and includes the order that they are played in. We will show examples mostly in the key of C, but -please keep in mind that chord progressions can begin on any base note / chord of the chromatic scale. The most common of all chord progressions is three chords - often called a "three chord progression". See? Not so hard. The chord for that shown first in major chords are:
C,F,G (C Major, F Major, and G major)
The base notes of the chords comprise the first note, fourth note and fifth note of the scales. Often this simple three chord progression uses a dominant 7th chord for the third chord and would be therefore:
C,F,G7 (C Major, F Major, and G 7th)
The original songwriters might think this too simplistic, but several popular songs can simply be played using three chords. Some examples of that are "Twist and Shout", "Jamaica Farewell", "Do you Love Me?", "Ole Time Rock and Roll" and many others.
The Rock Key Twist
I have said that I would do this section in the key of C mainly for simplicity, but let us digress a bit for Rock music players. The key of C as shown above is very popular for piano players and other keyboard players, since it has no or at least few sharps and flats. However, to a guitar player, they are more comfortable often in keys that can bother a keyboard player - such as the key of E or the key of A. Many, many rock songs are in the key of E or A. The three chord progressions in those keys would be:
Key of E: E,A,B or E,A,B7 (E Major, A Major, B Major or E Major, A Major, B 7th)
Key of A: A,D,E or A,D,E7 (A Major, D Major, E Major or A Major, D Major, E 7th)
More Complex Three Chord Patterns
It is also very possible that the song may have only three chords, but use a slightly different pattern for the chords in the song. For example a very popular three chord pattern as below is used in a number of songs, and is often used by some bands right before their breaks:
C, C, F, C, F, G, C
In this case the F and the G played together near the end of that, are given about half of the time as the other chords. And yes, if you are guessing that G 7th is sometimes used instead of G Major in that pattern, you would of course be right. The pattern shown there is just simply an easy pattern for band members to follow and may easily be in an ad-lib session.
We have talked mainly here about chords - which would be the background and structure of the song. The chords might be played by guitars, keyboard players, or made up of notes played by many orchestra instruments. A good question now is, what would the notes that comprise the melody be?
The quick answer to that is that the notes of the melody will often - but not always - be the notes of the chords themselves. When the melody note is not a note within the chord, it is sometimes called a "passing" note. Therefore a musician trying to learn a song without sheet music would first try the notes within the chord itself. For example, while C Major chord is playing, the notes within this chord are C, E, and G. A musician would first try and listen with their ear to see if one of those three is the melody note.
Melody notes that are far from the chord itself and lasting long are unusual. That is because the overall sound of that melody note when added to the chord may in fact sound displeasing, or at least different.
Refrains / Chorus
If the pop song that we are working on has a chorus or a refrain where the melody changes abruptly, there is also a common convention for that. For the chord progression C, F and G, the main melody and verses will follow the C, F, G pattern - or at least loosely. When the chorus approaches, it often begins with the base note of the fourth note of the scale - F in this case. One would expect the chorus to begin with an F major. The whole structure for a three chord progression song with a different melody in its chorus would be:
verses: C, F, G (several times)
chorus / refrain: F, C, F, G (or something similar)
note also that both verses and choruses tend to end their progression using the chord made up of the fifth base note of the scale - G in this case.
Four Chord Progressions
There also are some popular four chord progressions. The ones that come to my mind first, are the ones that really are the three chord progression shown above, but with a minor added right after the first chord. Some popular ones:
C, Am, F, G (C Major, A minor, F Major, G Major. and of course G Major could be G 7th)
C, Em, F, G (C Major, E minor, F Major, G Major. and of course G Major could be G 7th)
For folk music enthusiasts, "Puff the Magic Dragon" seems to somewhat follow the last 4 chord progression. Although the version of it that I know is in a different key, the key of G. Transposing it would be:
G, Bm, C, D
Unusual Chord Progressions
Yes, there can be pop songs and chord progressions that are none of the above, and ones that may include many unique chords. For this, try listening closely to chord sounds - you can often distinguish the chord type. Now here, this next part gets very subjective, and your ear may in fact tell you other things that come to its mind rather than my opinion. However a Major chord just simply sounds "right". A minor chord, often sounds more "wistful" or "sad". A 6th and a 9th tends to sound like a more complete, thorough, chord than a major. And an augmented chord - sounds like an augmented (smiles). Sustained chords - sus 4 and sus 2 just sound like passing chords - meaning they do not seem that stable by themselves. Diminished chords seem "full" to "overflowing". And not sure what to say about 7th chords, but they also sound somewhat distinct.
Again, learning a popular song can be a combination of two things, sounding it out and also looking for patterns. Between a good use of those two, many of us can do, even without sheet music, for at least some of the simpler songs.
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