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Three-note chords (triads)

A chord is a set of at least 3 sounds played simultaneously.

Definition

A chord is a set of at least 3 sounds played simultaneously. A three-note chord is formed by 3 different notes.

In all the audio extracts of this course, the chords are first played arpeggiated (the notes are played one by one, from low to high, one after the other) then as written (the notes are played all in same time), so you can hear all the notes in the chord.

FIGURE 1 - 3-note chords examples

Piano

Audio of Figure 1

For simplicity, the term chord is used when 2 notes are played simultaneously, although it is not an actual chord but a harmonic interval.

The term triad is also used to designate a 3-note chord.

In the following paragraphs, we focus on the analysis of 3-note chords in classical harmony only.

Root position and inversions

The same chord can be written in many different ways. A 3-note chord has three states.

Root position

The root position is the basic layout of the chord. In the root position, a chord is always constituted by a stack of thirds.

A 3-note chord will therefore consist of two harmonic thirds superimposed.

FIGURE 2 - In the root position, a 3-note chord is constituted by a stack of thirds
Third Third

Piano

Audio of Figure 2

In the root position, the root note is at the bottom of the chord, which is the lowest note. The root note gives its name to the chord.

For example, in the root position, the C Major perfect chord has a C on the bass.

FIGURE 3 - C Major perfect chord and its root note
Root note

KEYBOARD 1  - C Major perfect chord and its root note
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

Beware, a common mistake is to confuse the root note with the bass of a chord. The bass, as its name indicates, is at the bass of the chord: it is therefore always the lower note. The root note corresponds to the note that gives its name to the chord. In the root position, it merges with the bass, but we will see in the following paragraphs that this is not always the case.

First inversion

As for intervals, chords can be reversed. For that, you just have to put the bass of the root position to the upper octave.

To get the first inversion of the C Major perfect chord, you have to put the C an octave above.

FIGURE 4 - How to get the first inversion of the C Major perfect chord from its root position
Bass = Root Root position First inversion Root Bass

Piano

Audio of Figure 4

The E becomes the bass of the first inversion, but the root note remains the C. Note also that between G and C, we get a fourth: the stack of thirds has disappeared.

KEYBOARD 2  - C Major perfect chord - First inversion
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

Second inversion

To get the second inversion, you have to put the bass of the first inversion one octave higher.

FIGURE 5 - How to get the second inversion of the C Major perfect chord from its first inversion
First inversion Second inversion

Piano

Audio of Figure 5

The bass (E in orange) of the first inversion becomes the highest note of the second inversion. The root note (C in turquoise) remains in place. The C Major perfect chord in its second inversion therefore has G for bass.

KEYBOARD 3  - C Major perfect chord - Second inversion
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

FIGURE 6 - C Major perfect chord in its three states
Root position First inversion Second inversion

Piano

Audio of figure 6

Nature of the 3-note chords

Since a chord, in its root position, is always a stack of thirds and a third can be either major or minor, there are a total of 4 three-note chord possibilities.

Perfect chords

Two thirds stacked form a fifth. A 3-note chord is perfect when its extreme notes form a perfect fifth.

Major perfect chord

A Major perfect chord is formed by a major third between the root note and the intermediate note and a perfect fifth between the root note and the upper note.

FIGURE 7 - C Major perfect chord - Highlight of the perfect fifth and the major third
Major third between the bassand the middle note Perfect fifth between the bass and the treble note

If we consider the two thirds, the first is major and the second is minor.

FIGURE 8 - C Major perfect chord — Highlight of the thirds
Major Third Mineur Third

Minor perfect chord

A minor perfect chord is formed by a minor third between the root note and the intermediate note and a perfect fifth between the root note and the upper note.

FIGURE 9 - C minor perfect chord - Highlight of the perfect fifth and the minor third
Minor third between the bassand the middle note Perfect fifth between the bass and the treble note

Piano

Audio of Figure 9

KEYBOARD 4  - C minor perfect chord
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

If we consider the two thirds, the first is minor and the second is major.

FIGURE 10 - C minor perfect chord — Highlight of the thirds
Mineur Third Major Third

Diminished chord

When the two stacked thirds are minor, the fifth obtained between the root note and the upper note is diminished. The chord will therefore be qualified as diminished

FIGURE 11 - C diminished chord — Highlight of the diminished fifth and the minor third
Minor third between the bassand the middle note Diminshed fifth between the bassand the treble note

Piano

Audio of Figure 11

KEYBOARD 5  - C diminished chord
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

FIGURE 12 - C diminished chord — Highlight of the two minor thirds
Mineur Third Mineur Third

Augmented chord

When the two stacked thirds are major, the fifth obtained between the root note and the upper note is augmented. The chord will therefore be qualified as augmented.

FIGURE 13 - C augmented chord — Highlight of the augmented fifth and the major third
Major third between the bassand the middle note Augmented fifth between the bassand the treble note

Piano

Audio of Figure 13

KEYBOARD 6  - C augmented chord
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

FIGURE 14 - C augmented chord — Highlight of the two major thirds
Major Third Major Third

FIGURE 15 - Summary: four types of three-note chord built on C
Perfect Major Perfect minor Diminished Augmented

Piano

Audio of Figure 15

Open and closed positions

So far, we have studied chords in closed position, that is, with a minimum distance between each note. However, it is possible to "burst" the layout of the notes. These positions are called open positions. There is an infinity of open positions.

Being in an open position does not alter the state or the nature of the chord. When a chord is in an open position, it is necessary to put it back in the closed position in order to analyze it more easily.

In the following figure, the E of the chord in the closed position is octaviated to obtain an open position. The bass (C in dark green) remains in place.

FIGURE 16 - C Major perfect chord in closed then open position
Closed position Open position

Piano

Audio of Figure 16

KEYBOARD 7  - C Major perfect chord in open position
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

Attention, to get an open position, the bass must remain in place, otherwise, the inversion of the chord is changed.

Doubling

Each note of a chord can be doubled, that is, added to a different octave. Like the type of position, the presence of one or more doublings does not alter the inversion or the nature of the chord. Although the chord has more than 3 notes, it is still considered a 3-note chord.

It is therefore necessary to eliminate the doublings before being able to analyze a chord.

Doublings

FIGURE 17 - C Major perfect chord with doublings

Piano

Audio of Figure 17 (without arpegios)

In the first example, there is a doubling of the C: the C is maintained on the bass and a doubling is added to the octave.

KEYBOARD 8  - C Major perfect chord with doubling (figure 17) - First example
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

Piano - Audio of figure 17

First example

In the second example, there are two doublings: C and G. The C is not maintained at the same height, but it remains at the bass of the chord: the state of the chord is thus not modified. A doubling of C is added at the top of the chord. The G is held in place and a doubling is added on the bass clef.

KEYBOARD 9  - C Major perfect chord with doublings (figure 17) - Second example
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

Piano - Audio of figure 17

Second example

In the last example, there are three doublings: two doublings of C and a doubling of G. There too, the bass, although in the lower octave, remains a C: the nature and the state of the chord are therefore not modified.

KEYBOARD 10  - C Major perfect chord with doublings (figure 17) - Third example
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

Piano - Audio of figure 17

Third example

Chord analysis

In the previous paragraphs, we have studied in detail all the characteristics of a three-note chord. For the sake of clarity, we have confined ourselves to the study of chords with C as a root note. We will now deepen the process of chord analysis, explain the different steps and illustrate it with many examples.

Analysis steps

Here are the steps for analyzing a chord:

  1. Eliminate doublings
  2. This step allows you to delete unnecessary notes and thus verify that this is a 3-note chord.

  3. Put in closed position
  4. This step reduces the extent of the chord so that all intervals are smaller than the octave.

  5. Put back in root position
  6. To return the chord in its root position, the note layout must be modified in order to result in a stack of thirds.

  7. Determine the nature and the inversion
  8. Once in root position, the chord can be analyzed.

Detailed examples

Here are several illustrations of chord analysis following the steps described in the previous paragraph.

Example 1

FIGURE 18 - A minor perfect chord, 2nd inversion
Chord to analyze Step Step Step Step

Piano

Audio of Figure 18

KEYBOARD 11  - A minor perfect chord, 2nd inversion
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

  1. Eliminate doublings
  2. The E (first note from the bottom) is doubled three times, once in bass clef and twice in treble clef. We remove these three doublings. The other two notes (A and C) are not doubled, so we keep them.

  3. Put in closed position
  4. To simplify the reading, we move the E being in bass clef on the treble clef staff. Note that it would have been quite possible to move the other two notes in bass clef, the essential thing is to obtain a closed position at the end of this step.

  5. Put back in root position
  6. To get the chord back to its root position, the note layout must be modified in order to result in a stack of thirds. We put the E an octave higher to get this stack of thirds. Again, it would have been quite right to move the other two notes to the lower octave.

  7. Determine the nature and the inversion
  8. The chord is now in its root position and can be analyzed. Between the extreme notes (A and E), there is a perfect fifth, so it's a perfect chord. Between A and C, there is a minor third. It's a minor perfect chord. As the root note is A, it is the A minor perfect chord. And since initially we had a E as bass, it's a A minor perfect chord in its second inversion.

Example 2

FIGURE 19 - B minor perfect chord, 1st inversion
Chord to analyze Step Step Step Step

Piano

Audio of Figure 19

KEYBOARD 12  - B minor perfect chord, 1st inversion
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

  1. Eliminate doublings
  2. The D (on bass) is not doubled, we keep it. On the other hand, F  and B are doubled once each, at the top of the chord. We therefore delete the two upper notes.

  3. Put in closed position
  4. We move the F  from treble to bass clef. (Here, we did the opposite of the previous example by writing the closed position on the bass clef.)

  5. Put back in root position
  6. There is a fourth between F  and B: the chord is not in root position. To put it back to its root position, we write the B an octave lower, to obtain a stack of thirds.

  7. Determine the nature and the inversion
  8. The chord is now in its root position and can be analyzed. Between the extreme notes (B and F ), there is a perfect fifth, so it's a perfect chord. Between B and D, there is a minor third. It's a minor perfect chord. Since the root note is B, it is the perfect chord of B minor. And since initially we had a D as bass, it's a B minor perfect chord in its first inversion.

Example 3

FIGURE 20 - E Major perfect chord, root position
Chord to analyze Step Step Step Step

Piano

Audio of Figure 20

KEYBOARD 13  - E Major perfect chord, root position
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

  1. Eliminate doublings
  2. The E (on the bass) is doubled twice, once in bass clef and once in treble clef: we remove these doublings. The B (bass clef) is also doubled in treble clef: we delete it. Finally, G  is present only once: we keep it.

  3. Put in closed position
  4. We move the two notes (E and B) from bass to treble clef. At this point, notice that we find a part of the original chord. The closed position was therefore included in the starting chord. So we could have gone directly from the starting chord to the closed position without going through the previous step. With training, you will learn to locate this kind of shortcut to speed up the reading of a chord.

  5. Put back in root position
  6. This is a stack of thirds. The chord is already in root position.

  7. Determine the nature and the inversion
  8. Between the extreme notes (E and B), there is a perfect fifth, so it's a perfect chord. Between E and G , there is a major third. It is a major perfect chord. Since the root note is the E, it is the E Major perfect chord in its root position.

Example 4

FIGURE 21 - D diminished chord, 1st inversion
Chord to analyze Step Step Step Step

Piano

Audio of Figure 21

KEYBOARD 14  - D diminished chord, 1st inversion
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C C D D E F G G A A B C B D

  1. Eliminate doublings
  2. All the notes present in treble clef are already present in bass clef. We thus remove the notes in treble clef.

  3. Put in closed position
  4. The chord obtained is already in closed position, so there is nothing to do.

  5. Put back in root position
  6. In order to obtain a stack of thirds, we move the D to the lower octave.

  7. Determine the nature and the inversion
  8. Between the extreme notes (D and A ), there is a diminished fifth. Between D and F, there is a minor third. It's therefore a diminished chord. Since the root note is D, it is a D diminished chord. In the original chord, the bass note is F, so this is the first inversion of D diminished.

Example 5

FIGURE 22 - 5-note chord
Chord to analyze Step

Piano

Audio of Figure 22

KEYBOARD 15  - 5-note chord
C B D D C E E D F F E G G F A A G B B A C