In this article, we are going to answer one of the most common questions for a musician that doesn’t know music theory yet: how to find chords that sound great with a specific scale (and sound great together). When I learned how it works, I realized that it was way simpler than I was expecting.
First, what is a chord?
A chord is a minimum of 2 notes played simultaneously, it can also be 3 notes, 4 notes, etc… The definition is as basic as that; a chord can be 10 random notes sounding awful. However, we are now going to talk about the most fundamental type of chord used in modern music, the triad. A triad is a chord made of 3 notes separated by an interval of a third (I talked about intervals the article: the building blocks of music).
How do we build chords from a scale?
We can actually build one chord per note of the scale. Major and minor scales are made of 7 notes, so we have 7 chords. The first note of the chord is the root note and the chord takes its name, if the first note of the chord is an A, the chord is an A. As I just said, the distance between the notes of triad is a third, it means that we take every 2 notes of a scale to build a chord.
Let’s see an example with the C major scale: C D E F G A B C.
We have 7 chords: C D E F G A B
C D E F G A B -> C E G
C D E F G A B -> D F A
C D E F G A B -> E G B
C D E F G A B C -> F A C
C D E F G A B C D -> G B D
C D E F G A B C D E -> A C E
C D E F G A B C D E F -> B D F
You dispose now of 7 chords that will work with your scale and with each other, let’s listen to them:
The different types of chords
By listening to those 7 chords, you have probably realized that they don’t sound all the same, they have different colors.
Actually, the color of a chord is defined by the “distance” or “interval” between notes note. We can define this distance in half-steps. There are 4 main types of chords:
Sound stable, consonant, straightforward
Sound more unstable, a little more dissonant than a major chord, subtle,
It has this name because it is a major chord, that had this fifth note augmented by a half-step.
It has this name because it is a mine chord, that had this fifth note diminished by a half-step.
Augmented and Diminished chords are often avoided in modern music, especially pop that aims to be simple and comfortable to the ear. I think that is it a shame, using them is a good way to make more sophisticated music.
Those 4 chords have different intervals between notes:
Let’s analyze the C chord: C E G, how many half-steps do we have between each note?
C E G -> C C# D D# E F F# G
There is one half step between each note listed, so we have 4 half steps (or 2 whole septs) between C and E and 3 half steps between E and G. Those intervals correspond to a major chord. This chord is a C Major.
With the same logic, we have for the D chord:
D F A -> D D# E F F# G G# A
We have 3 half steps between D and F and 3 half steps between F and A. This chord is a D Minor.
If we look at the 7 chords of the scale, we have:
Let’s now do the same with the twin of the C major scale, the A minor scale. Since both scales are made from the same notes, we will have the same chords, only the order will be different. Each chord will play a different role depending on the key.
In conclusion, those chords are not the only ones that you can use to create chord progressions, but this is where it all begins. There are many of little rules and tricks to add other chords to your list and make your songs more original. You have a good starting point and you now realize that most of the songs follow this chord building logic. Good luck!