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How to Play Chords

Chords are like words in music. Just as you learned to read a language by first learning letters and then stringing them together to make up words, if you learn how to play chords and recognize them, you will soon be learning musical “words.”

This is useful for all kinds of music, because you are soon able to recognize larger “words” instead of just reading one note at a time.

Chords are three or more notes that you play together, sometimes all at once, or sometimes one after the other. Some chords feel happy, others sad, and there are yet others that sound “in between.”

You can use chords to:

• Accompany people when they sing.
• Improve your music reading skills.
• Help learn about improvisation.
• Write out harmony parts for singers and instruments.

For example, if you use a chord to write out harmony parts for instruments, you could give a trumpet one of the chord notes, a sax another of the chord notes, and a trombone a third chord note.

In this lesson we’re going to look at 3-note chords…

There are 4-note chords and 5-note chords too, but they are just fancier 3-note chords, so it’s important to learn 3-note chords first.

You can paint with at basic blue color (like using a 3-note chord), or a different shade – sky blue (maybe a 4-note chord), or another shade - robin’s egg blue (maybe a 5-note chord). But the basic color is still blue.

A 3-note chord on a guitar is the same as a 3-note chord on a piano, but on a guitar you play some of the same notes twice, because a guitar distributes the 3 notes across six strings.

You can also use chords when you play an instrument that produces only one sound at a time, by playing the chord notes one after another.

Types of Chords

There are four main types of chords:

- Major
- Minor
- Diminished
- Augmented

To make up a chord, you will have to know how far apart the chord notes are from each other. In western music, we measure the distance between notes by using half-steps (also called half-tones or semi-tones). Using half-steps in music is like using inches or centimeters on a ruler to measure things.

A half-step on a piano is the distance between one note and the very next note beside it. It doesn’t matter what color the note is; a half-step can be from a black note to a white note, or a white note to a black note, or a white note to another white note, as long as it’s the very next note beside it. (It can’t be from a black note to another black note, because they are not next to each other; a half-step is the distance to the very next note).

On a guitar, a half-step is the distance between one fret and the very next fret.

If you can count to four, you can find the notes of ANY 3-note chord!

Major chords: to find the notes of a major chord, start on a note that names the chord you want. Then count up four half-steps to find the second note of the chord, and three more half-steps to find the third note of the chord.

Major chord example: If you want to make up a C chord, you start on the note C, then count up four half-steps: one half-step to C#, another to D, another to D#, and another to E (C-C#-D-D#-E). Now you have C and E as your first two chord notes.

Then count up another three half-steps to find the third note of your chord. From E, count up to F, then F#, then G.

A C major chord would be C-E-G.

Minor chords: To find the 2nd and 3rd notes of a minor chord, count up three half-steps, and then four half-steps. C minor would be C-Eb-G.

A diminished chord has three half-steps, then three more.
An augmented chord has four half-steps, then four more.

So just by counting with 3’s and 4’s, you can now find ANY major, minor, diminished or augmented chord. Each chord will feel different, and you can use them to paint your feelings, like using different colors to paint different shades or hues.

Counting half-steps to find chord notes

Major: 4 + 3
Minor: 3 + 4
Diminished: 3 + 3
Augmented: 4 +4

Here’s a quick memory aid: You can easily remember this because all the half-steps are 3’s and 4’s. Major is bigger, so the bigger number (4) comes first. Minor is smaller, so the smaller number (3) is first. To diminish means to make smaller, so both numbers are small (3 + 3). To augment means to make larger, so both numbers are larger (4 + 4).

One hint: when you’re counting half-steps, don’t count the note you start from. You have to move away from that starting note to measure distance to the next half-step.

Now that you know how to find the notes of any 3-note chord, play some of them and notice their different flavors - like different kinds of ice cream!

Happy chord-finding!

Allan Harris
BellaOnline’s Musician Editor

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Content copyright © 2013 by Allan Harris. All rights reserved.
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