The Theory of Musicality: Chords 102
In my last post, we kicked off our journey into the land of chords and chord symbols. We talked about improvisation way back in the day (see also: Baroque Era), defined just what the heck a lead sheet was, and discussed why we even care about chord symbols in the first place. Finally, we got right down to the nitty-gritty and deciphered some chord symbols as we learned the five basic foundation chords, Major, Minor, Major 7, Minor 7, and Dominant 7. I hope you practiced at home between then and now, because today we're going to make things a little more spicy!
When you look inside a chord dictionary (in case you haven't already), you will find a staggeringly extensive list of chords and "voicings" (meaning what order the notes are played in, top to bottom). These massively dense reference books can be unwieldy and overwhelming. The reason I bring this up now is to note that we are focusing on some of the most common chords first, then expanding our focus to the more advanced chords later. Stick around long enough and you'll learn some truly fun chords, like half-diminshed 7, or flat 9/sharp 13!
Let's look at a simple major triad to start, shown above. For consistency, we'll stay in the reference key of C Major just like we did in the previous entry. In switching between major and minor, we changed the third of the chord to either a major third or a minor third. But what happens if we move that note around a bit more? Let's shift that middle note down a bit.
One halfstep and we have C Minor...
...but what happens if we go down one more halfstep?
This chord is called a Csus2, or sometimes simply C2 for short. The "sus" is short for "suspension", and it refers to how a note likes to resolve. In earlier music, these notes (in this case, the second scale degree) created tension, and were usually resolved by moving them up or down to the closest chord tone. In this case, that would most likely be the third of the chord, or E. In classical music, this sort of relationship would be called a "2 3 suspension". (For more info on nonharmonic tones, check out this handy study guide from the nice people over at Georgetown University)
However, in modern music a composers often prefer the slightly unresolved sound of a sus chord and might not necessarily need it to resolve. By not including a third of any kind (neither major nor minor), the chord takes on an ambiguous, transient quality. Stable because of the root and perfect fifth, but somewhat undefined. Personally, I love sus2 chords.
If you keep moving the middle note down another halfstep, you get a SUPER crunchy chord that, to my knowledge, does not have a name. We're gonna just call it some kind of "cluster chord", turn around and head back.
If you shift the middle note of a major chord up by a halfstep, we come to our next new chord, the sus4 (often just called a "sus" because of its commonality).
The sus4 chord is super common, and the middle note loves to resolve down from the fourth scale degree to the third. Sometimes it even pops over to the second scale degree before coming back up to the third to stay (we hope). Since the "4 3 suspension" sound is so incredibly common, you will likely see this chord written both as Csus4 as well as simply Csus. The sus4 has a similarly transient sound as the sus2, but because the middle note is only a halfstep away from resolving down to a major chord, our ear tends to give this chord a bit more sense tension. Even so, it certainly isn't uncommon for composers to use this suspended sound as homebase, especially in jazz.
If you keep moving the middle note up, the chord also gets SUPER CRUNCHY just like before because of the halfstep between the middle and (this time) the top notes. You can name this chord if you like! Send me $50 and the "Jeff Chord" could be a reality.
Just by moving the middle note around in a basic triad, we can have a Sus2 chord, a Minor chord, a Major chord, or a Sus4. Neat! Now let's see what happens if we start adding notes to our major triad.
In the previous lesson, when we added notes to a triad we added the seventh. Let's look at some common additions that aren't seventh chords:
If you add the 2nd scale degree to a C Major Triad, you get a Cadd2 chord. You can do the same to a minor chord, although I can't say that I've often seen a C Minor Add2 chord in the wild.
If you add the 4th scale degree to a C Major Triad, you get another crunchy chord (due to the halfstep between the E and the F). In recent years, I have really grown to appreciate the tension that is produced by this kind of sound, but for our purposes this is another cluster chord.
The other major Add-type chord we're going to look at today is the C6. This chord is nice and stable, but has a little bit more pizzazz than a regular major triad... sort of like a major triad with sequins. Note: It's called a C6, not a Cadd6. It's just a regular old C major chord with the 6th added. It can also be minor, called (you guessed it) a Cm6.
Since we're only really dealing with "diatonic" notes, or notes that are within the key, the only possible notes we can add to a C Major chord are D, F, A, and B. If we add the B on the top of this major triad, we come across something we've already seen before...
...a CM7. But of course, you already knew that from the last lesson!
We've thrown in an extra note and moved things all around, but what happens if we go the other way? To quote Val in The Birdcage, "Don't add! Just subtract!" This one is super easy, but warrants a bit of explanation anyhow. If you start with a C Major chord and get rid of the third altogether, you're left with a very plain, open sounding pair of notes called a C5.
In the most traditional sense, this chord hardly even qualifies as a chord. We don't know if it's major or minor because there's no third! What is left is a sort of open shell, a perfect fifth interval (sometimes called an open fifth). There is a really neat explanation to why this, and other, intervals are described as being "perfect", but we'll get to that another day. Maybe.
Alright, let's wrap things up and recap! We bounced around quite a bit in this session. Let's start with what we covered last time:
Now let's add our new chords to this list! Take extra care not to get the C2, C5, and C6 mixed up! They look similar, but one has three notes, one has four notes, and one has only two notes!
Woah! That's a whole lot of chords! Just like last time, use this list as a decoder ring and figure out the chords in every key... or at least a few! Some of these chord names have nomenclature that is very intuitive, but some don't! I've pointed out some of the tricky ones along the way that confused me, so please let me know in the comments if you have any further questions!
Even if it makes sense to your eyes, FIND A PIANO and get your hands on these chords! I promise you, the tactile experience will help you retain this info so much easier. Start memorizing these now and you'll have no problem at all when we get to Chords:201! That's where we're going to get into some really funky chords, including slash chords! I can't wait!
Coty Cockrell is a freelance musician and artist living in Brooklyn, New York working as a jazz pianist/singer, professional ballet accompanist, theatrical music director, and vocal coach. When not teaching private lessons, he performs in the NYC area as well as internationally.
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