Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 10: Describing Chords
A chord is a group of notes which sound at the same time.
Chords are usually made up of three basic notes, (but any of the notes can be doubled up without changing the nature of the chord).
To make chords, we first need to decide which key we are in. Let’s take the key of C major as an example:
Here's the C major scale.
To make a chord, we choose one of the notes of the scale and add another two notes above it. The note we start on is called the root. The notes we add are the third and the fifth. (See “Lesson 7: Intervals” for more about intervals). This gives us seven different chords:
Here are those chords in C major.
These chords are also known as triads. A triad is always made up of a root, a third above the root, and a fifth above the root.
Notice that the notes of these triads are either all on lines, or all in spaces.
Types of Triad
Triads/Chords can be major, minor, diminished or augmented.
Here are the chords in C major with their names:
In a minor key, the chords are built from the notes of the harmonic minor scale. This means you always have to raise the 7th degree of the scale by a semitone (half step).
Here are the chords in A minor with their names:
Major chords are made with a major third and a perfect fifth above the root.
Minor chords are made with a minor third and a perfect fifth above the root.
Diminished chords contain a minor third and a diminished fifth above the root.
Augmented chords contain a major third and an augmented fifth. You don't need to use any augmented chords in the Grade 5 Theory exam though!
We also use Roman numerals to name chords. The Roman numerals 1-7 are
I, II, III, IV, V VI and VII.
(Major chords are sometimes written with capital Roman numerals, whereas minor chords are written with small letters. You can write them all with capitals in your grade 5 theory exam.)
Here are the C major chords with their Roman numeral names:
No! In Grade 5 Theory, you only have to recognise chords I, II, IV and V.
In a major key, I, IV and V are major chords but ii is a minor chord.
In a minor key, i and iv are minor, ii is diminished, and V is major and includes an accidental (because of the raised 7th of the scale).
In all the chords we've looked at so far, the lowest note in the chord was the root.
When the root is the lowest note, the chord is in root position.
Chords can also be inverted (turned upside down).
When a chord is “inverted” the position of the notes is changed around so that the lowest note of the chord is the third or the fifth, rather than the root.
Here are some inversions of the first (I) chord in C major (which you will remember contains the notes C, E and G):
Lowest note is E (the third)
Lowest note is G (the fifth)
It doesn't matter what order the higher notes are in: inversions are defined by the lowest note of the chord. This note is also known as the bass note.
We use the letters a, b and c (written in lower case letters) to describe the lowest note of a chord.
When the chord is in root position (hasn’t been inverted), we use the letter a.
When the lowest note is the third, (e.g. E in C major), we use the letter b. This is also called first inversion.
When the lowest note is the fifth, (e.g. G in C major), we use the letter c. This is also called second inversion.
Here is chord I in C major, in its three possible positions:
Each figure has two numbers in it. The numbers refer to the intervals above the bass note (lowest note) of the chord.
The figures below are described relating to a C major chord.
is used for root position (a) chords. Above the bass note (C), there is a note a 3rd higher (E), and another which is a 5th higher (G).
is used for first inversion (b) chords. Above the bass note (E), there is a note a 3rd higher (G), and another which is a 6th higher (C).
is used for second inversion (c) chords. Above the bass note (G), there is a note a 4th higher (C) and another which is a 6th higher (E).
In the Grade 5 Theory exam, you might be asked to identify some chords within a piece of music. The question will tell you what key the music is in.
You need to
- Pick out which notes make up the chord
- Work out what the name of the chord is
- Work out what inversion the chord is in
That's a lot to do all in one go, so we'll break it down into steps!
Chords are often not as easy to spot as in our examples above. They can include a mix of notes of different lengths, a mix of instruments, different staves and even a combination of clefs.
Look at all the notes in the chord which are enclosed in the bracket.
There might be several notes, but there will only be 3 different note names. If you have an extract for more than one instrument, don’t forget to look in all the parts. You might also get a tied note from a previous bar with an accidental that is still relevant - look very carefully.
The following bar, (for cello and piano), is in F major: the chords you need to describe are in brackets, marked A and B:
Notice that chord A is split over two quaver (eighth note) beats, and both chords are split across all three staves.
Chord A has the notes A, C, and F
Chord B has the notes B flat, D and F.
Now you have picked out the notes of the chords, you are ready to name them.
We work out the chord name by finding the root position (a) chord.
The root position of the chord is where the three notes are as close together as possible. The three notes will be an interval of a third from each other.
In chord A (above), we have the notes A, C and F. The closest way of putting these together is F-A-C. (There is a third between F and A, and another third between A and C).
The first note from F-A-C is F, so this is a chord of F. The interval F-A is a major third, so it's an F major chord.
Remember that the extract is in F (major), so this is chord I.
In chord B (above), we have the notes Bb-D-F. This is the closest they can be: Bb to D is a third, and D to F is a third.
The first note from Bb-D-F is Bb, so this is a chord of Bb. Bb-D is a major third, so it's a Bb major chord.
Bb is the 4th note in the key of F major, so this is chord IV.
Finally we need to work out the inversion. You need to look at the lowest note of the chord.
If the lowest note is the same as the chord name itself, it will be "a", (root position)
if the lowest note is the third it will be "b", (first inversion)
and if it’s the fifth it will be "c", (second inversion).
Let’s look at our above examples.
Chord A’s lowest note is A. The chord is F major, so the lowest note is the third. So this chord is b. Its full name is Ib. It's a first inversion chord.
Chord B’s lowest note is B flat and it is a chord of B flat, so it’s in root position. This chord is a. Its full name is IVa.
- Don’t forget to check what key the extract is in - the instructions will tell you this information.
- Check back to see if the key signature or any accidentals affect the notes you are looking at.
- Make sure you include all the notes which are sounding on the beat which is marked. Sometimes the chord will include a note that started earlier in a bar but is still sounding. Here are two examples:
This chord (marked in brackets) is the third beat of the bar.
However, the lowest note is the left-hand B flat, which is played on the first beat but is still sounding.
This chord is the second beat of the bar.
Apart from the right-hand G and left-hand B flat, the chord also includes the right-hand E flat crotchet (quarter note), which is still sounding from the first beat of the bar.