Tag Archives: Chords

Common Chords

By: Aaron Zimmerman

A chord is multiple notes played together.  We name chords based on patterns that the component intervals form. These patterns, common chords,  are the building blocks of harmony. Mastering chords lets you play almost anything by ear, and will greatly enhance your ability to appreciate music.

I’ll break down the most common chords, using three sections, Triads, Seventh, and Contextual Chords.  Fair warning, the contextual chords get a bit theory heavy.


The common triads are the workhorses of harmony.  Pretty much any song can be harmonized with these four, especially major and minor.  You’d miss the color and subtlety of other chords, but you can play most any song with major and minor. Triads are made of two thirds, one on top of the other. Thirds are also classified as Major and Minor, so to avoid confusion, when referring to an interval, I’ll use a single letter, M for major, m for minor. When referring to a chord, I’ll write out Major or Minor. These four triads are the possible combinations of the two types of thirds.

Triad first third second third outer interval
Major M m fifth
Minor m M fifth
Diminished m m tritone
Augmented M M minor sixth

Comon Triads

Common Triads

Major and Minor are considered stable, consonant, whereas diminished and augmented are not. Alert systems such as train whistles, police sirens, are often based on these latter two chords, as they are dissonant and attention grabbing.  Major and Minor chords are used as the basis for most of functional harmony.  See this post for more.


Seventh chords are those that include a fourth note (when compared with triads), a seventh above the root of the chord.  Like the above triads, they are based on stacked up major and minor thirds.

Chord first third second third third third
Major M m M
Dominant M m m
Minor m M m
Diminished m m m
Half Diminished m m M

Seventh Chords

Seventh Chords

The Major seventh chord is used as a tonic chord, a more colorful version of a I chord.  It is often used in pop and jazz.  The first chord heard in John Lennon’s Imagine is a I chord, the fourth beat of the first measure, this chord extends to include a major 7th.

Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC)

Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC)

The Dominant seventh chord is used in place of a plain V chord in much of western music.  The second and fourth notes of this chord resolve to the first and third of the I chord, in what is knows as a Perfect Authentic Cadence.  So, the C Dominant seventh is the V of F major, and the E resolves to an F, the Bb down to an A.  This harmonic movement is perhaps the most common in all of music.  It is used at the end of many pieces as a way to resolve any harmonic drama, landing the piece in a clear final key.

ii - V - I

ii – V – I

Jazz is built around the chord progression ii-V-I.  The V chord is the dominant used above, and the ii is a minor seventh.   C minor seventh is the ii chord in the key of Bb major.  The progression to the right demonstrates the full ii-V-I in the key of Bb major. The Diminished Seventh chord is a symmetric chord – if you add another minor third on top you are back where you started. This makes it harmonically ambiguous, the C diminished 7 is the same note for note as the Eb, Gb and A. It is a close relative of the octatonic scale in that regard.  In fact, the octatonic scale is often called the “diminished” scale for that reason.  The lower half of a Half-Diminished Seventh is the same as the fully diminished, but the top note is a half step higher, fitting nicely into many jazz progressions.


The above chords were objective, interval based definitions.  These chords are different, they are more context based.  That is, note for note, they could be classified as something else.  Used in a specific context, they have other names, and more importantly, other functions.  So rather than base the chords off of a C root as above, these examples are chords, as they would be used in the key of C Major.

Neapolitan Sixth


Neapolitan Sixth

This is another name for an inverted flat second chord.  In the key of C Major, that means a Db major chord, inverted once, (making F the lowest note).  It resolves to a V chord (G, in the key of C Major).  It is used in the song “Do you want to know a secret” by the beatles.  The second time the word “really” is heart at the beginning, it is on top of a neapolitan chord that resolves to the V.

Augmented Sixth

Augmented Sixth Chords

Augmented Sixth Chords

An augmented sixth chord has the interval by the same name as its outer interval, with a third above the root as well.  In this plain form, it is called an “Italian” augmented sixth.  If we add the second degree of the scale (D in C major),  it becomes a “French”, and if we add the flat third (Eb), it is called a “German”.  The Italian is enharmonically equivalent (it has the same pitches) as a dominant seventh chord.  The difference is that it resolves to the V of the tonic.  The chord above would resolve to a G chord, the V of C major. Used as a dominant chord (Ab7), it would resolve to a Db major chord.


Picardy Third

Picardy Third

A picardy third is when a Major third is used to end a piece that has been in minor key.  It was used a lot in the renaissance, as a major third is a more mathematically pure interval than a minor third.  So this makes the major third more consonant, and more appropriate for the end of a piece.  More about math and acoustics in a future post!

Secondary Dominant

Secondary Dominant - V of V

Secondary Dominant – V of V

A secondary dominant is a dominant seventh that is borrowed from another key.  The most common usage would be borrowing from the V key – so the secondary dominant is the V of the V.  In the key of C major this means a D Dominant Seventh, resolving to a G (the V), which in turns resolves back to the I.

Music Theory Rocks

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Music Theory Rocks

Music theory sometimes gets a bad rap.

People tend associate music theory with tediums like naming notes, labeling chords, and determining form.   These are good skills to develop, they help answer questions about music that come up frequently.  But they are not at the core of music theory.

Music theory is an attempt to answer a simple question:

Why is this music good?

This is a different question than what makes music good.  That is a rabbit hole I’ll not venture down at the moment.  Rather, lets first just assume that a given piece is good, and try to figure out why.  What worked for this symphony?  What made this rap song memorable?  Theory is observations about music that has been created.  We learn about chords, scales, harmonies, because these form the basis for almost every piece of music we encounter.  When someone discovers a new way to make good music, we label it, share it, and discuss it.  Music evolves over time, as innovators discover new ways to create it.  Music theory is a reaction, a formalization of these discoveries.

Music theory is context, vocabulary, and enjoyment.

Most people can identify the chorus of their favorite pop songs.  This is an internalization, a labeling, of something they like in music.  Verse-chorus is a form, a pattern for organizing musical ideas.  It is an easy form for the listener to identify. There is a chorus that is always the same and a verse that is the same except for the lyrics.  By giving this pattern a name, we create three advantages:

Context –  We can identify where we are in the song, we can understand how the music will flow.

Vocabulary – We can talk about the song together – “I really like the chorus of that song”.  “I like American Pie, but it has way too many verses”, etc.

Enjoyment – We can identify what we like in music, and compare one piece to another.  A lot of music is an aquired taste, you have to develop a base line theoretical understanding of that music in order to appreciate the beauty therein.

Music theory changes how you listen.

If you listen to a pop song that doesn’t follow verse-chorus, it might take longer to appreciate, it might feel a bit awkward, and the end result could be something you like or something you don’t like. The more music you listen to, or study, the greater experience you will acquire.  The more music you have experienced, the larger your vocabulary, the more context you will have from which to appreciate a new piece you listen to, and the more enjoyment you will get from music of all kinds.

Music Theory Rocks

Along with other posts about teaching and learning piano, I’ll post an occasional analysis of a popular piece of music.  I’m not really sure how to define popular music, so I’ll just stick to the self-evident definition of “music that people seem to like”.

The purpose of the analysis is to think about why people like the piece in question.   Along the way I’ll try to point out core music theory concepts where they apply.  I’ll also be forced to use some of the jargon, I can’t explain what a scale is in every post, etc.  If you need a refresher on some basics, check out this post.

photo credit: rockfingrz Photography via photopin cc

FUNctional Harmony

By: Aaron Zimmerman

hognestad083008-4.JPGYou turn on the TV.  You see 20 or so people dressed in bright colors and helmets.  They are just standing around, and then suddenly they run full force into each other.  One person runs as fast as they can and another person throws him an oblong ball.  The receiver catches it and runs a little ways before flinging the ball at the ground and starting to dance.

To the average American adult, this is not such an odd sight, but imagine if you had never seen a football game.  How much more do you appreciate the game after learning the rules, understanding the objectives, and appreciating the strategy?

This is what it is like to learn harmony.  Harmony is the language of music, learning even a little will change the way you listen to music forever.

The three building blocks of harmony are intervals, scales, and chords.




An interval is a name for the distance between two notes.  Starting from a C, a ‘minor second’ or ‘half step’ takes you to the note directly to the left (B) or right (C#)  A whole step would be two half steps, so a D or a Bb.


C Major Scale

C Major Scale

A scale is a pattern of whole steps and half steps.   The most common scale, “major”, is the pattern, w,w,h,w,w,w,h.  This pattern can be started on any note to create the “major” scale for that note.  The vast majority of melodic material in music comes from a single scale.  A composer selecting a scale is like an artist picking out the colors of paint they will use for their next work.


C Major Chord

C Major Chord

A chord is three notes played simultaneously.    Chords are named for their lowest note (called the “root”), and the scale from which the other notes come from.   A “C Major” chord starts on the note C and uses thirds from the major scale.  (A third is the interval that you get by skipping one note of the scale.)


Now comes the clever bit.

We can take the C Major scale and build a chord for each note, sticking with the same collection of notes (the C Major scale itself), for each root note.   This results in the following 7 chords:

Chords built off C Major Scale

By convention, we label these chords with Roman Numerals (numbers are used for so many things in music, this helps distinguish those that designate harmony). We also give them impressing sounding names so we can sound smart at dinner parties.  The I chord is called Tonic, the IV chord the Subdominant, and the V chord Dominant.

Harmony is a pattern of chords, a “chord progression”.  Usually, chord progressions are designed to create a feeling of departure and return.  Think of it like running the bases, we move away from home plate, touching on other chords, before returning home to the I chord, the Tonic.

Sample Chord Progressions:

Pop Music is full of the chord progression I, V, vi, IV.

Pachelbels “Canon in D” uses a longer chord progression:  I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, IV, V.

“Hang On Sloopy” and “Wild Thing” both follow I, IV, V, IV…. for the whole song.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode To Joy” melody alternates mostly between I and V (with a few harmonic flourishes here and there).  For the last twenty seconds of the piece, Beethoven repeats and repeats the I chord.  This gives the piece a strong sense of finality, of completeness.  It is how you can tell that the piece is over.

(Jump to 4:52 to see what I mean about the ending.)

And that’s most of it.  Bam!  You are now a functional harmony expert.  Well, not quite, there are many more exciting twists and turns, but this is a great start.  Harmony is the language of music, learning to recognize it is like learning to read.  An entire world of appreciation and discovery awaits.

Read Music like a Book

By: Aaron Zimmerman

What is Music Reading?Reading Music

As in any language, fluency requires not only the ability to speak, but the ability to read and write.  Music reading is very similar to reading any other written language.  It has small elements that are put together to create larger elements.  In spoken languages, we put together letters to form words, and words to form sentences, and sentences to form stories.  In music, we start with notes, put them together to form intervals, and then put intervals together to form phrases, etc.

When learning to read, we first learn to recognize letters, then we learn common groupings of those letters over years of practice.  Recognizing letters alone is not reading, one must recognize words, and understand how the words are put together to form coherent thoughts.  In music, we must learn to recognize notes, and then learn how those notes are put together to form intervals, and finally, how intervals are used to form coherent musical ideas.

Note By Agonizing Note

Most young students learn music from a combination of memory and note spelling.  The teacher plays the piece when it is introduced, and later, at home, he plunks it out until he can recreate approximately how it sounded.  At the next lesson, minor mistakes are corrected.  This technique is supplemented with various mnemonics for identifying notes on the staff, such as Every Good Boy Does Fine (where the first letters are the note names of the lines on the treble staff), or FACE, (the spaces of the treble staff), etc.

The problem with this strategy is that it does not scale to more advanced music.  When a student is learning beginner pieces, with one note sounding at a time, (mostly quarter notes and half notes), they can get away with playing by ear, because there isn’t much to remember.  But as the pieces get harder, it will be impossible to remember and they will have to fall back to the only other skill they know, note spelling.  This works, but it is agonizingly slow to go through a piece note by note, and this frustration is a big reason intermediate students end up quitting.  Imagine reading a book letter by letter, not only is it non-sensical (a letter doesn’t “mean” anything), it is impractical for a book of any significant length.


The human brain is incredibly good at finding patterns.  We cannot help but group things, seeing larger scale object rather than the aspects that create them. When reading a book, we perceive a word, not letters. Rather than windows, wheels, and a metal frame, we perceive a car.  Rather than seeing a football defense move as individuals, a quarterback perceives a zone blitz.  Operating on a higher level lets us process much more information than we could at a lower level.

How music is read

To read music, students have to learn to see the patterns that pitches create.

Level 1 Reading with Note Names

Level 1 – Note Names

Level 1 is identifying notes on the staff.  Initially this is done by learning specific landmarks.  The treble clef circles around “Treble G”.  The dots of the bass clef enclose “Bass F”, and the first ledger line above the bass staff, or below the Treble staff is “middle C”.  As the student progresses they will pick up the names of all of the notes.  If they have trouble with this, flashcards or mnemonics are very useful.


Leve 2 - Intervals

Level 2 – Intervals

Level 2 is quickly identifying the distance between two notes, the “interval”.  These intervals are given names, based on how many steps of the scale away the notes are.  I have my students write an arrow with a number next to it between every pair of notes in their music when they are starting out on the staff.  Sometimes I even introduce a piece of music by giving them a starting note and then verbally instructing them “Third up, step down, step down”, etc.

Level 3 - Patterns

Level 3 – Patterns

Level 3 is identifying larger scale patterns.  There are many types of such patterns (just as there are many sentence structures, many grammatical rules one has to learn when learning English or any other language).  The most useful to work on identifying are things like chord progressions, scales, accompaniment patterns.

Read music like a book

The world of music is so much richer, so much wider, and so much more satisfying with the ability to read music.  One adult student described it as follows:

Before I could read music, playing the piano was like snorkeling in lake Michigan.  Now, it is like scuba diving the great barrier reef!

photo credit: djwtwo via photopin cc