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Learning Chords: 4 Basic Types of Chords and How to Play Them

Fundamental aspects of music theory are important for all musicians!

But the truth is that many miss out on investing the right amount of time and effort into the basics.

Your songwriting will benefit hugely if you put some of your energy into learning some basic music theory concepts.

But which concepts in music theory are so important that every musician should know about them?

An absolutely essential skill is being able to form chords ... Chord formation is a foundation of music theory that allows you to completely change the way you listen to, understand and write music.

Even if you already know how to make chords, a quick refresher never hurts, it will help you keep practicing.

In this article, I'll tell you how to make 4 common types of chords for each root note by memorizing simple note patterns. It's best to have your instrument ready and play the chords when I explain them.

If you don't have an instrument to hand at the moment, you can easily orientate yourself on this practical piano keyboard for printing:

Then let's get started.

What are chords?

Chords consist of at least two harmonic tones that are played at the same time. Most basic chords are made up of three tones. Chords are formed from their root note. The remaining notes of a chord are determined by the quality of the chord.

Chords can be made up of dozens of notes, but that would likely end up in a huge dissonant mess that is only suitable for experimental music.

Think of your music as a building - your chords are the foundation.

To better understand how chords work in your music, think of your song as a building - your chords are the foundation.

You don't always notice chords in a song, but they provide the form and space that support the melody. Everyone can play chords, whether it's a guitar or a brass quintet.

Building chords and progressions is easy once you understand the basics. But in order to be able to form chords, you first have to know what intervals are ...

What are intervals?

Intervals are the distances between tones. Chords are simply different combinations of intervals.

As you will see in a moment, the slightest change in the intervals of a chord can cause massive changes in the chord.

To understand intervals, you have to think in semitone steps. A semitone is the distance between a tone and the tone directly above it.

Chords provide the form and space that support a melody.

On the guitar, a fret is a semitone. On a piano, whole and semitones look like this:

Now that you know the difference between whole and semitones, it's time to create some chords.

Types of Chords: How to Make 4 Basic Chords

These 4 basic types of chords are made up of three tones.

First, to keep things simple, I'll show you how to make these chords starting from the key of C. However, once you understand chords in the key of C, you need to form a few chords in other keys to fully understand the concept ...

Remember: It's important to always master the basics before starting on more complex material,such as adding extra intervals to convert basic chords into extended chords. But back to the actual topic!

The 4 types of basic chords are:

Major chords

Major chords sound full, resolved and complete. An extremely large number of songs, from Tom Petty's “Free Fallin” to the “Happy Birthday” song, consist of simple sequences of major chords.

Major chords are formed by adding a major third and a fifth to the root note. By the way, the root note is the note with which the chord begins (in this example the root note is C).

The major third is the distance between the root and the next four semitones above it. Since C is our root note, E is the note that is a major third above.

The third tone is a fifth, i.e. seven semitones, above the root. In our example, that would be the distance between C and G. If you combine these three tones, you get a C major chord.

Major third = four semitones (C to E)

Pure fifth = seven semitones (C to G)

Minor chords

Good news. If you have understood everything so far, you will not have any problems with the remaining basic chords.

Minor chords sound completely different from the happy, dissolved nature of major chords, with just one note that is different. Many think that these chords sound morose and thoughtful, but they are used to convey all kinds of emotions musically.

If you have understood everything so far, you will not have any problems with the remaining basic chords.

Minor chords are formed by adding a minor third (three semitones) and a fifth to the root note.

Minor third = three semitones

Pure fifth = seven semitones

Diminished chords

Diminished chords create a tension-laden, dissonant sound.

Diminished chords are formed by adding a minor third and a tritone to the root. A tritone consists of six semitones.

Minor third = three semitones

Tritone = six semitones

Excessive chords

Excessive chords sound bizarre and unsettling, like a soundtrack from a science fiction movie.

Of all the root chords, the augmented chord is the one that is least common in music. Excessive chords are formed in the same way as simple major chords, but with an excessive fifth.

The C major chord includes the notes of C, E, and G, so the excessive C chord includes C, E, and G #.

Major third = four semitones

Excessive fifth (diminished sixth) = eight semitones

Once you know how to make basic chords in the key of C, you can also start making chords in other keys.

You should also - and this is super important - start by applying your knowledge of chord formation to your instrument. If your main instrument is one that can only produce one pitch at a time, you can arpeggiate the notes (play each note of the chord one at a time).

The beauty of simple music theory is that it can be applied to any instrument that creates pitch. However, it only works if you apply it to your tools and workflow.

Chord progressions

Now that you know what chords are, we can move on to how to use chords in your music. Chord progressions are series of at least two chords in a piece of music. Depending on the genre of music, chord progressions can be simple and repetitive or lengthy and complicated.

If this is your first time working with chords, the 12-bar blues is a good place to start.

If this is your first time working with chords, the 12-bar blues is a good place to start.

If we take C major again as an example, a simple 12-bar blues sequence with C, F and G major chords can be formed. Just add four beats to each chord symbol:

12-bar blues in C major:




Don't forget that chord progressions don't have to be long or complicated. In fact, it takes quite a lot of songwriting talent to make a two-chord song interesting. Experiment with a few simple chord progressions and see what works best for you!

Better songs thanks to chords

Chord formation may seem complicated at first, but it's like learning an instrument - it gets easier with time and practice.

Practice your chords and form them in different keys. And the next time you listen to music, it's worth actively listening to the chords and chord progressions and making a mental note of them.

With enough work, you'll soon know how to make and play basic chords on your own. So you can easily integrate them into your songwriting.

Annika loves strange stories and dazzling characters. She writes about music and everything else she can get her hands on.