Music Theory: Stack 'em and Smack 'em

by Guitarslinger124 (Aug 30, 2010)

Music Theory: Part III - Chords, Chord Progressions and Harmony

An Overview

Hey there folks, this is the third installment of the Music Theory lessons. In this lesson I will go over harmony, chords and chord progressions, as the title suggests. Like the previous lesson, I will use references marked with a "VL". Click on the link and a new tab will open in your browser.

This lesson should give you a good understanding of how chords are made. Chords are built off harmonies and chord progressions are just groups of chords.



Harmony is when two or more tones are played simultaneously or occur over the same time frame. Harmony is also determined by an interval. In this case, an interval refers to the distance between the two or more tones play together.

Harmony is closely related to chords, because chords are, essentially, harmonies; multiple tones played simultaneously. That's all about harmony, I'll cover more of it in the next section.



Chords are built from scale intervals and generally are defined by the first/root, third and fifth degrees in a scale. Major chords are defined by a root, major third and fifth, while minor chords are defined by a root, minor third and fifth.

There are several other chord types (but not limited to):

Chord Basics

The most basic form of a chord is called a triad. Triads are so called because they consist of three distinct notes; Root, fifth and third. A major triad will have a major third and a minor triad will have a minor third.

Chords are usually distinguished by their root note. For example, the chord C Major may be described as a three-note chord of major quality built upon the note C. Chords can also be classified as inversions. There are these cool things called "power chords", which are also referred to as fifth chords. Fifth chords are not really chords at all, rather just meager intervals noted as a dyad. A dyad is a set of two notes or intervals.

Identifying Chords

In the key of C major the first degree of the scale, called the tonic, is the note C itself, so a C major chord, a triad built on the note C, may be called the one chord of that key and notated in Roman numerals as I. The same C major chord can be found in other scales: it forms chord III in the key of A minor (A-B-C) and chord IV in the key of G major (G-A-B-C).

Just as modes in a key are given names (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian...), chords are also given names:

This is for your average major key:
Capital letters signify major triads, while lower case letters will signify minor triads. However, the seventh will usually be a diminished triad.

Roman NumeralIiiiiiIVVvivii
Chord NameTonicSuper TonicMediantSub-dominantDominantSub-MediantSub-Tonic


Inversions are fairly simple. To create an inversion, all you do is drop the tonic to the bottom of the chord. Let's take a C major triad to use as an example:

C Major Triad: C E G

1st Inversion: E G C

2nd Inversion: G C E

Seventh, Diminished and Augmented Chords


I've broken down seventh chords to make them easier to understand. Seven Chords are four note chords made from wierd scale degrees all in one octave. Seventh chords are very useful in creating awesome sounding arpeggios.

Nut 1st 3rd 5th 7th 9th 12th
Major Seven ||:(1)| | | |(3)| | |(5)| | | |(7)|
Dominant Seven (b7th) ||:(1)| | | |(3)| | |(5)| | |(7)| |
Minor Seven (b3rd and b7th) ||:(1)| | |(3)| | | |(5)| | |(7)| |
Minor Seven Flat Five (b3rd, b5th, b7th) ||:(1)| | |(3)| | |(5)| | | |(7)| |
Diminished Seven (b3rd, b5th, bb7th) ||:(1)| | |(3)| | |(5)| | |(7)| | |

Diminished and Augmented Triads

Diminished - Flat 3rd and Flat 5th

Augmented - Sharp 5th/Flat 6th

Ok, now that you know a few basics lets practice some arpeggios using what I've just shown you. For this exercise we are going to play in the key of C major.

Lets first take a look at the notes in C major: C D E F G A B

Now lets make our arpeggios:

Major Triad: C E G

Diminished Triad: C Eb Gb (Flat 3rd and Flat 5th)

Augmented Triad: C E G#/Ab (Sharp 5th/Flat 6th)

Minor 7th: C Eb G Bb (Flat 3rd and Flat 7th)

Minor 7th Flat 5: C Eb Gb Bb (Flat 3rd,Flat 5th and Flat 7th)

Diminished 7th: C Eb Gb A (Flat 3rd, Flat 5th and double Flat 7th)

Here they are:

Maj. Dim. Aug. Min. 7th Min.7 b5 Dim.7th

Suspended Chords

A suspended chord, or sus chord, is the when a note adjacent to the third is played in order to "suspend" the tonality of the third. These notes will either be the major second or perfect fourth. Therefore we have, sus2 or sus4. Let's see an example:

C Major Triad: C E G
C Sus2 : C D G
C Sus4 : C F G

As you can see in the above picture, you either count one degree backwards or one degree forwards to create sus2 and sus4 chords respectively.

Chord Progressions

A CHORD PROGRESSION is a series of chords used to define the outcome of the tonality which the composer is aiming for.

In order to build a chord progression, one must understand the concepts I outlined above in the chords section regarding the chord degrees. In any major key, there are three major triads --(The first, fourth and fifth degrees in a scale)-- These triads can be used to harmonize any note in that particular key. Just as there are three major triads, there are also three minor triads --(The second, third and sixth degrees)--. The seventh degree will be a DIMINISHED chord.

Easy Progressions

As referenced above, a I-IV-V progression will produce and major tonality. However, a ii-iii-vi progression will induce a minor tonality. A lot of rock music will use a vi-I-ii progression.

Well, that is all for this lesson. I realize it might be a little boring, so I wouldn't recommend to study the whole thing at once. Anyway, hope y'all enjoyed this latest installment.

Rock on!