*1: There’s no correct way to do anything in composition. End of lesson, you can go home now.
But really, what is a chord, and how can we use them?
Firstly, a chord is nothing more than two or more notes played together in literal harmony.
Chords have the useful ability to sound extremely consonant, or extremely dissonant. These are extremely important in creating the mood you want for a piece of music. This, however, brings up the question: what are consonance and dissonance? Consonance and dissonance are really the same but opposites, and to put the idea into simplest terms, a consonant chord sounds “happy” or “relieving” while a dissonant chord is “sad,” “stressful,” or even “dark” in some cases. Every time I explain this, people immediately ask:
“Wait, so minor chords are dissonant and major is consonant?”
Well… yes, and no. The most consonant chords include (in order of least to most consonant) the major third, the perfect fourth, the perfect fifth, and the octave/unison. The most dissonant chords (also least to most, but dissonant) major seventh, minor second, tritone/diminished fifth. In fact, tritones are by far the most dissonant things on the planet, so much as to be anciently called the “chord of the devil.” Since minor keys contain more dissonant intervals, they sound sadder, and vice versa.
Build a Chord
Chords can include a minimum of one note up to the maximum of every note in the known universe. Obviously, labeling every possible chord is rather frustrating, so the system was created to be as simple as possible, but also tries to be completely inclusive at the same time. In general, chords are most basically labeled in threes, or what is called a “triad.”
Triads are the first, third, and fifth of any given note, and are the most common sounding chord we can hear. These are notated as “Root/Tonic_Maj/min” (Cmaj, Dmin, etc.). From here, we build upon the chord, usually with a little leniency in naming (since most composers don’t just lay out chords in their songs). Here are a few ideas for new chords to try out that are a bit juicier than triads alone:
Added Notes (Cadd#): Add notes to add tension/dissonance. resolve by playing more consonant chords.
Suspended Chords (Csus4/Csus2): Take a triad, take out the third and replace it with fourth or a second. This creates just a little bit of tension that one can resolve really nicely by going to the third.
Seventh (CM7/Cmin7): Add the seventh of the chord. This can make the chord sound more full, or can also be used to build a lot of tension in order to release into a beautiful resolution. In order to do this, simply take the fifth of your scale (G for us), and build a minor seventh from it (G_B_D_F); then, resolve to your tonic (C for us). Minor sevenths are more common (thus the already included flat symbol there).
Tritone/Augmented 4th/Diminished 5th (TT): This is my least favorite chord of all, but it definitely has its purpose. Tritones are by far the most dissonant chord, even more so with some minor seconds along with its tritone, etc. It’s so dissonant, that resolving to almost any other chord sounds like a release of tension. In any Major scale, there is one naturally tritone chord: the seventh (B_[D]_F). In most popular music, Major songs avoid the seventh at all costs, unless resolving to the tonic.
Now that we know what a chord is, and a few cool versions, let’s discuss some ways to use chords in composition.
The most common usage of chords is to create a progression that makes the music feel a certain way. In any given key, there are 7 main chords you can move to, one for each note (We’ll stick to the key of C Major or A minor to stay simple). Each of these seven chords has a name and a number. The name tries to explain what it is, and the number is an indicator of where the starting note is on the scale, along with whether the chord sounds major (capital) or minor (lowercase). They are as follows (in Cmaj):
Tonic (I): C-E-G; The tonic is meant to sound like a safe zone, the base where one starts and ends their journey. A resolution.
Supertonic (ii): D-F-A; This is like the room before the dungeon boss, and generally leads to the Dominant, but also can allow for a less tense chord, leaving the person with a choice to proceed, or prepare.
Mediant (iii): E-G-B; As the name suggests, this chord isn’t particularly anything one way or another. It’s not tense enough to require a release, but also not strong enough to be the release. Really good for ambient music that doesn’t require momentum, like a house room or whatever.
Subdominant (IV): F-A-C; Similar to the Supertonic in that it can lead to the dominant. This chord, however, can also lead to the tonic and feel a good amount of release. Its sorta like another dominant, with the added bonus of leading to a stronger dominant. Rather than just a resting room, this would be like standing in front of the castle after what you thought was the final boss and deciding, “is this the end?”
Dominant (V): G-B-D; The climax chord. This really wants to release to the tonic super badly, and when it does it feels amazing, maybe even heroic sometimes. When it doesn’t, it can feel despairing, or maybe even hopeless sometimes. Combine this with its minor seventh (the tritone of its third 😉 ) to bring the tension to the maximum! Be careful, however, this is the most common progression, so don’t waste it sounding cliche.
Submediant (vi): A-C-E; Like the mediant, this isn’t particularly strong on its own, but it does happen to have something that the regular mediant wishes for daily. This is the relative minor of C, and the fifth of C (G) just happens to also be the seventh/subtonic of A. Build up some tension, hit your dominant, then rather than resolve to C, hit up A as if our hero’s hopes suddenly got wiped out.
Subtonic (VII); B flat-D-F; Technically, this isn’t in the normal keyMajor, but it’s important enough to mention. This is the relative minor 7th chord, but since it’s major alone, it doesn’t sound that sad. This chord naturally leads back into the tonic. It’s used a ton in popular music, so I felt it was necessary to mention it.
Leading (vii°): B-D-F; That degree symbol tells you this chord is diminished. That’s right: it contains a tritone. It’s called leading because it leads to the tonic, obviously. When not stating an important conclusion, it’s often best to go from this back to the tonic. It will sound just as relieving while also avoiding the cliche of V-I.
Finally, I’ll leave you with some progressions you can try out on your own!
The progression (a/the cadence): I-IV-V-I
The last one, but extended one (also works in minor): I-vi-VI-V (i-VI-vi-v/V)
A popular progression today: I-V-vi-IV
What I’ve heard dubbed the “Anime Opening Progression”: IV-V-iii/(III)-vi
Another popular progression (in minor): i-III-VI-vii
My favorite progression (in minor): VI-VII-i-VII
And so many, many more. Take this guide to remember what goes to what real quick (but please don’t only follow this!)
Really, just follow your gut, and try to listen to a bunch of music, and your own progressions will come to you. Sorta follow the guidelines-ish, and you’ll do well.
If you like these, don’t forget to check out last week’s lesson and contact me if you have any questions or suggestions.
Until next week,