When the gods' chariot comes, chords come
Whether campfire handles, power chords or complex jazz chords. The chords are the backbone of the music. In our guide you can find out which types of chords there are, how they are distinguished by their sound and how you can most easily determine them.
How you can determine chords, even if you only hear them, you can find out here in the guide. You will also learn a lot of interesting facts about chords and how they are put together.
By William Wienke
Content: Determining chords made easy
Determine chords based on interval structures
It is highly recommended to study the interval structures of chords. With a little practice you can not only determine chords, but can also be derived in completely new forms. Goodbye chord tables.
The basic requirement for this is a rough knowledge of the intervals, i.e. the musical "building blocks". Each chord type has its own interval DNA. This is followed by an overview for the 12 intervals as well as an overview of the formulas for the individual chords.
Knowledge of the intervals is a basic requirement for determining chords
An interval always describes the distance between two tones that sound simultaneously or one after the other. The first tone is always the prime, i.e. the fundamental tone. For example, if I play 5 semitones higher at the same time as Prime, a fourth will sound. Each interval has a completely independent and distinctive sound that should be memorized well. Because chords are nothing more than a certain combination of intervals.
In the following two sub-chapters, we will introduce you to the combinations or formulas that exist for three and four notes.
More on intervals: Tutorial to learn chords »
The basic structure of triads consists of a prime, a third and a fifth. While the root note is constant, there are differences in the thirds and fifths for the different types of triads.
In the case of a minor chord, the third is small (3 semitone steps to the root) while in the corresponding major chord it is large (4 semitone steps)
This difference of a semitone step is of fundamental importance in music.
This difference of a semitone step is of fundamental importance in music. For example, if we take an A as the root note in the bass and alternately play a C and a C #, this makes us aware of the minor / major difference.
The fifth, on the other hand, has a supporting function in the minor and major triads and is constantly pure.
Prime, minor third, fifth
Prime, major third, fifth
However, this looks different again with diminished or excessive triads.
The diminished triad is similar to the minor triad, but has a diminished (diminished) fifth (b5)
Prime, minor third, minor fifth
In contrast, the excessive triad has the major third, which is typical of major, and a raised fifth (# 5)
Prime, major third, excessive fifth
Sus2 and Sus4 chords also belong to the triad family. In addition to the prime and the perfect fifth, these chords have either a major second (Sus2) or a fourth (Sus4) instead of the third.
The thirds that determine the gender of the tone are "suspended" in these independent chords.
Prime, big second, fifth
Prime, fourth, fifth
In the case of four chords, the seventh is added to the classic triad structure. This makes the sound of the chords more complex. These seventh chords are important components in jazz. , however, the dominant 7 chord can be found in almost every genre of music. It has the crucial function of building up tension and dissolving into the basic chord (tonic).
You will come across these five constellations most often.
Major triad (prime, major third, fifth) + major seventh
Minor triad (prime, minor third, fifth) + minor seventh
Major triad (prime, major third, fifth) + minor seventh
Danger! Dominant7 chords in jazz are also often enriched with altered intervals, e.g. C7b5, C7 # 5, C7b9, C7 # 9 (the 9, also ninth, corresponds to an octave second. With root C, Db [b9] or D  )
Diminished triad (prime, minor third, minor fifth) + minor seventh
Minor triad (prime, minor third, fifth) + major seventh
Determining chords based on the interval structure is always possible if the chord is visually given to you and you want to discuss its name. We will deal with listening to chords in the following chapters, whereby knowledge of intervals is also very helpful here.
Furthermore, with this approach you are able to form your own chords. This can often result in much more interesting voicings than with the common standard chords (In the following audio example I have formed a C # min7 chord and the intervals are as far apart as possible - Instant Holdsworth sound)
To analyze a chord based on the interval structure, we first assume that the lowest note in your played chord is the root note (the prime). Now gradually put each further note occurring in the chord in relation to this root note until you have determined all the intervals. We can ignore intervals that occur multiple times as octaves in order to enrich the chord.
Try to “octave back” tones that are very far away from the fundamental in order to bring them closer to the fundamental and so be able to better relate them.
The interval composition should now correspond to one of the formulas discussed and you know which chord it is. Since it is not possible to cover all chords due to lack of space, completely different constellations can of course also arise, which are more at home in progressive, jazzy genres.
If the lowest note is not the root note, it is most likely a chord inversion. The procedure is a little more laborious but also effective. Look at each tone that occurs one after the other as the basic tone and analyze the interval relationship until you come across a meaningful formula.
Determine chords by diatonic limitation
Knowing which key the piece is in is worth its weight in gold, because each key, also called "key", consists of 7 chords that form a harmonic community (diatonic). The chord constellation remains the same from key to key. Only the basic tones vary. The easiest way to get an overview is by using the circle of fifths.
The key of G major with its 7 step chords is circled here
For example, if you are now in the key of G major, your step chords are in order G, am, bm, C, D, em, f # °.
In A major, however, it would be A, bm, c # m, D, E, f # m, g # °
The key of A major with its 7 step chords is circled here
If you know the key of the piece that you want to hear out or that you are writing yourself, you can set a frame, because theoretically only these seven chords can occur. By trying it out, you can now determine the chords relatively quickly.
If you do not know the key, there are several options:
Ideally, it is documented by the sign at the beginning of the piece.
Furthermore, the first chord in the piece is very often (but not always) the tonic and thus an indicator for the key. So if the piece starts with G, the probability is very high that G major is also the key.
If you can localize a tension-laden dominant chord (e.g. D7) in the piece, this will also help with determining the key. The dominant chord almost always dissolves one step counter-clockwise in the circle of fifths to the tonic. D7 would therefore suggest the key of G major.
However, knowing the diatonic framework does not always help us identify chords as efficiently. If the piece is more complex, in which there are many key changes (modulations) or chords are borrowed from other keys (“modal interchange”) it becomes more difficult. Popular genres such as rock and pop, however, are mostly composed in a very diatonic manner and only occasionally pepped up harmoniously.
Determine chords based on sound associations
In the beginning it can be very helpful to remember the different chord sounds by means of tonal associations
In the beginning it can be very helpful to remember the different chord sounds by means of tonal associations. Either a general feeling that the chord arouses in you or a prominent example from a familiar song. With a little practice you will quickly be able to determine the type of chord and then only have to transpose it to the correct root note!
The following is a list of associations with the common chords.
Sound association: happy, bright
Jimi Hendrix - Hey Joe (main progression consists entirely of major chords)
Guns n ‘Roses - Paradise City (intro consists exclusively of major chords)
Sound association: sad, dramatic, darker than major chord
No Doubt - Don't Speak (first chord)
The Animals - House of the Rising Sun (first chord)
Sound association: spooky, dissonant, classic, charged with tension (requires dissolution)
Maroon 5 - This Love (fourth chord in intro and verse)
Michael Jackson - Thriller (last synth chord in the intro before the rest begins)
Sound association: spacey, unstable, need for resolution
Beatles - Oh Darling (first chord)
Oasis - Let there be Love (second chord in intro and verse)
Sound association: open, dreamy
Tom Petty - Free Fallin ‘(the second chord in each part)
The Police - Every Breathe you Take (third and fourth chord in intro and verse)
Sound association: interesting, unresolved
Queen - Who wants to live Forever (verses in "Away" then resolution to D major)
Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun (verses on "Sun")
Major7 chord (Major7)
Sound association: floating, airy, "jazzy"
Antônio Carlos Jobim - Girl from Ipanema (first chord)
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Under the Bridge (Verse End)
Minor7 chord (Minor7)
Sound association: Like a minor chord, only softer and more "jazzy"
Roberta Flack - Killing me Softly (Instrumental Break at approx. 00:32)
Paul Gilbert - Six Billion People (the first three chords are all Minor7)
Sound association: charged with tension, need for resolution, blues
Louis Armstrong - What a wonderful World (via "Wonderful")
Chuck Berry - Rock and Roll Music (blues progression, all chords are dominant7)
Sound association: Similar to the diminished triad, but a little more defused
Luiz Bonfa - Black Orpheus (second chord, typical in every minor II-V-I progression on the II. Degree)
Joseph Kosma- Autumn Leaves (fifth chord)
Sound association: mysterious, charged with tension
Beatles - Something (Don’t wanna leave her NOW)
John Barry - James Bond Theme (last chord of the piece)
An important tip in advance:
If you have the opportunity, then create a loop of the chord you can hear and slow down the tempo a bit. This makes it much easier for you to determine the chords.
When listening to chords, it makes sense to proceed systematically.
The most significant interval is always the keynote. With chords that are not reversed, this is always in the bass and is therefore the easiest to locate. Once you have determined the root note, it is actually only easier, provided you are familiar with the interval structure of chords.
Next you can alternately play the minor or major third to the root note and hear which of them “clicks into place” or which sounds rather dissonant. If you have the feeling that neither the minor nor the major third fits, it could be a Sus chord in which the third is replaced by a major second (Sus2) or by the fourth (Sus4). In this case, try these two intervals alternately.
Next we find the fifth by also going through the options (b5, 5 or # 5)
Since diminished or excessive chords are used rather sparsely in popular music, this will mostly be a perfect fifth. Otherwise you may also recognize the exotic species by the fact that the hair on the back of your neck stands up. (see sound associations)
If, on the other hand, we are only dealing with a combination of prime and fifth, it is of course a power chord.
In the universe of triads, your odyssey should now be over. However, if there are still further intervals in the chord, we are dealing with a four-note or five-note note. Here we also have to try out the possible sevenths and alterations (see interval structure four-tone)
The numerous chord types and variations can be very confusing. But with our guide you can crack every "DNA code" chord! Familiarize yourself with their tonal characteristics as well as their structure and train your ear to be able to analyze interval relationships quickly. Ear training takes time, but it's worth starting early. A good ear opens up completely new musical horizons for you!
With a little training, you will be able to determine the intervals faster over time. On the one hand, through conscious hearing, your hearing will improve (over time) and you can already tell from the sound which interval it is. Ear training apps are also recommended here, in which you have to recognize specific intervals. On the other hand, you will also visually memorize the intervals over time and then no longer have to think about it or listen!
By the way, good knowledge of intervals is also very useful when composing melodies or improvising!
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