Musical Chords – The Combination of Tones

Musical chords consist of two or more tones (or pitches) that sound simultaneously. In our Music Fundamentals series, we have been laying building blocks one brick at a time.

From explaining the Western music notations to exploring piano scales and musical intervals, let’s devote some attention to musical chords and harmonization. In this post, we are exploring some basics of musical chords.

Having knowledge of musical chords is important as the musical chords are the backbone of music constructions and harmonizing melodies. Every melody has a specific set of chords. People listen to music because the music expression brings forth people’s emotions. The chords help composers to use the music to express feelings.


As the name indicates, a triad is a three-tone chord. There are four types of triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished.

Major Triads

A major triad consists of a Root, a Major Third, and a Perfect Fifth. Below are two examples of major triads:

major triads

Let’s write out triads for every degree of the C major scale.

triads in c major

We number the Triads according to the Degree of the Scale upon which each is found. There are three major chords on every degree of a major scale. The three major chords happen on the 1st, fourth, and fifth degrees (major triads are highlighted in red in the above chart) of the major scale.

Let us examine each Triad closely.

Degree and NameIntervalsType
1st Degree – TonicRoot, Major 3rd, Perfect 5thMajor Triad
2nd Degree – SupertonicRoot, Minor 3rd, Perfect 5thMinor Triad
3rd Degree – MediantRoot, Minor 3rd, Perfect 5thMinor Triad
4th Degree – SubdominantRoot, Major 3rd, Perfect 5thMajor Triad
5th Degree – DominantRoot, Major 3rd, Perfect 5thMajor Triad
6th Degree – SubmediantRoot, Minor 3rd, Perfect 5thMinor Triad
7th Degree – Leading toneRoot, Minor 3rd, Diminished 5thDiminished Triad
8th Degree – OctaveRoot, Major 3rd, Perfect 5th(repeating 1st)

As you can see in the above table, the three minor triads occur in the second, third, and sixth degrees.

When you play these seven triads on the piano, you’ll recognize the difference due to the interval distances. The repeating practice of these triads is a good exercise for ear training.

Inversions of Triads

Chords may be written in different positions and split into multiple staves. For piano, it is usually two staves.

Having the root at the bottom is the original position (also known as the Fifth-at-Top), then we have the Root-at-top position and the Third-at-Top position. Below are two examples.

triad inversions

Even though the chord is written in different positions, it is the same chord, no matter how its component tones may be moved about. It is important to recognize these three positions.

In general, the Major Triads give bright and happy feelings. The Root (fifth-at-top) position seems to convey more to come, while the Root-at-Top position provides solid and substantial sound. In addition, the Third-at-Top position seems to express the effect of lightness and grace.

Minor Triads

We know there are three minor triads on a major scale. They are the second, third, and sixth degrees. A minor triad is comprised of a root, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. We also can write minor chords in different positions.

The following are inversion examples of minor triads in the C Major.

minor triad inversions

Minor triads are sometimes perceived to express sad feelings.

Augmented Triads

An augmented triad is comprised of a major third and an augmented fifth. Here are a couple of examples.

augmented triads

Diminished Triads

A diminished triad is having a root, a minor third, and a diminished fifth, and remember that the 7th-degree triad in any major scale is a diminished triad. Below are a few examples.

diminished triads

Triads in A Major

These seven triads are found in the same form and order on every Major Scale. Let’s use A Major for the exercise.

musical chords: a-major-triads

Common Chords

As we know, a triad has three different sounds. Simple choral harmony usually consists of four voices. In this case, one member of the triad must be doubled or used twice. The best member to double is the Root. This four-part chord is the Common Chord.

We usually write the Common Chords in two staves, treble clef, and bass clef. The following are examples of Common Chords.

common chords

More Complex Chords

In this post, we have a brief introduction to more complex chords. The musical chords can get really complicated. Therefore, we will not drill too deep into the complex chords that belong to more advanced music studies.

In this quick review of some more complicated chords, we are using the chords in the key of C Major in most examples. The same chord composition can be applied to all major scales. Remember, the chords can be written in two staves, usually the treble clef and bass clef for piano.

Dominant Seventh Chords

We build a Dominant Seventh Chord by adding a minor seventh to the 5th-degree Dominant chord.

Examples of Dominant Seventh Chords: 5th-degree (Dominant) chords + a minor seventh.

dominant seventh chords

Minor Seventh Chords

A Minor Seventh Chord is formed by adding the minor seventh interval to a minor triad. Let’s use the 6th-degree triad on C Major as an example to explain the Minor Seventh chords.

Minor Seventh Chords:

6-degree (Submediant) chords + a minor seventh.

minor seventh chord

Minor Seventh Chords:

6-degree (Submediant) chords + a minor seventh, and inversions.

musical chords: minor seventh inversion

Dominant Ninth Chords

We form the Dominant Ninth chord by adding the major ninth interval to the Dominant Seventh chord. It has the same inversions as the dominant seventh.

By adding additional pitch, the chords have five voices. Conventionally, in four-part harmony, we omit the rood, the third, or the fifth pitch in the Dominant Seventh chord. The ninth interval is usually added to the top voice, rarely the root.

Diminished Seventh Chords

A diminished Seventh chord has a root, a minor third, a diminished fifth, and a diminished seventh.

To make it easy to read, we usually use the enharmonic equivalent notation.

diminished seventh chord

Augmented Fifth Chords

An Augmented Fifth chord is composed of a root, a major third, and an augmented fifth.

In four-part harmony, we usually double the root, sometimes the third, but rarely the fifth.

musical chords: augmented fifth

To Wrap Up…

Musical chords are crucial to any piece of music. They are also fascinating to explore. Chords make the music rich, colorful, and expressive, drawing attention and evoking emotional responses from players or listeners.

There are many different variations. Be bold and play with them!

Listening to the music chords is very helpful in training your ears and ability to appreciate music even more.

This post concludes our Music Fundamentals series. It is a beginner’s series that aims to present in a plain and practical manner. I hope this series thoroughly prepares you for more advanced musical or piano learning.

I sincerely hope your musical learning journey is enchanting and fun. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to let me know!

Related: Music Fundamentals Series

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