Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 10: Describing Chords
A chord is any group of notes which sound at the same time.
For Grade 5 Music Theory you only need to know about the simplest kinds of chords, which are known as major and minor triads.
These are the most common kinds of chords. (In this unit, “chords” refers to major and minor triads.)
Chords are usually made up of three basic notes, (but some of the notes can be repeated 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 this). 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:
Major chords are made with amajor 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.
Augmented chords contain a major third and an augmented fifth; but you don't need to know about augmented chords for Grade 5 Theory!
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 and diminished 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 (usually) major and contains an accidental.
Here are chords i, ii, iv and V in A minor.
In all the chords we've looked at so far, the lowest note in the chord was the root.
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)
How are inversions named?
We use the letters a, b and c to describe the lowest note of a chord (written in small letters).
If the chord hasn’t been inverted, we use the letter a.
If the lowest note is the third, (e.g. E in C major), we use the letter b.
If it is the fifth, (e.g. G in C major), we use the letter c.
Here are some examples in C major:
Notice that it doesn’t matter what order the notes are in - inversions are all about the lowest note of the chord. The lowest note of the chord is sometimes called the "bass note". The bass note of a chord can be the root, third, or fifth of the chord.
Other Ways to Describe Chords
Just to make life confusing, there are two other methods in use for describing chords:
"a" chords are sometimes referred to as root position, "b" chords as first inversion and "c" chords as second inversion.
Figured bass numbers show you how the intervals are piled up on each other.
tells you that above the lowest note you have a 4th, and above that you have a 6th, like this:
In Grade 5 Theory, you might be asked to identify some chords within a piece of music. The question will tell you what key the music is in.
First you need to pick out which notes make up the chord, then you need to work out what the name of the chord is, and finally you need to 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 so 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 2 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. Remember that root position chords have a third and a fifth in them, measured from the lowest note. We have three letter names, so we have three possible answers to check out.
So, we'll test each of these 3 possible chords and see if they contain a third or a fifth. If they turn out to contain sixths or fourths, then we need to keep looking. (Don't forget you can check Lesson 7: Intervals if you're not sure how to calculate intervals!)
Let’s take chord A as an example.
Remember we have the notes A, C and F, so it must be a chord of A, C or F.
Let’s see if it’s a chord of A:
A-C= a third
A-F= a sixth
so it’s not a chord of A.
Let’s see if it’s a chord of C:
C-A= a sixth
C-F= a fourth
so it’s definitely not a chord of C.
Let’s hope it’s a chord of F then!
F-A= a third
F-C= a fifth
Yes - it’s a chord of F.
Remember that the extract is in F (major), so this chord is a I chord.
Let’s do the same exercise with chord B:
Notes: B flat, D, F.
D-F= a third
D-B flat= a sixth
F-B flat= a fourth
F-D= a sixth
B flat-D= a third
B flat-F= a fifth
So, it’s a chord of B flat.
In the scale of F major, B flat is the fourth note, so this chord is a IV.
Finally we need to work out the inversion. You will 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";
if the lowest note is the third it will be "b";
and if it’s the fifth it will be "c".
Let’s look at our above examples.
Chord A’s lowest note is A. The chord is of F, so the lowest note is the third (F-G-A). 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.