How To Build Major and Minor Chords
Today we are looking at major and minor chords and learning two approaches that will allow you to build both major and minor chords at any pitch on the piano.
The basic chords we will be using are called triads which are chords formed of three notes. We will be focusing on two types of triads: the major triad (e.g., C major: C – E – G) and the minor triad (e.g., C minor: C – Eb – G) and how to construct these triads anywhere on the piano.
The first thing you need to know is your major scales. If you do not know your major scales, I suggest you check out our other content covering major scales and their fingering. I cannot stress how important it is to know your major scales inside and out as everything in music is derived from these scales, and knowing this foundation of music will help you exceptionally in understanding advanced chord theory and other topics much quicker.
Method 1: Building Triads from Notes of the Scale
The rule to building major chords from notes of the scale is to take the 1st, the 3rd, and the 5th degree of any major scale. First, let’s play in the key of C major (scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B). The first note of the scale, C, is called the 1st degree. The third note, E, is called the 3rd degree. The fifth note, G, is called the 5th degree. These three notes (1, 3, and 5) form the major triad chord; in this first example, the C major triad of C – E – G. These chords or triads get their name from the first note (the root note) of that chord. In this example, the 1st degree is C; therefore, the triad chord of C – E – G is C major.
Let’s try this out in some other keys. In the key of F major (scale: F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E), if we take the 1st degree, F, the 3rd degree, A, and the 5th degree, C, we get the F major chord. The same applies to G major (scale: G – A – B – C – D – E – F#) where again, by taking the 1st degree, G, the 3rd degree, B, and the 5th degree, D, we get the G major chord. Now let’s try this pattern on a black key, for example, Bb major (scale: Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G – A). Taking the 1st degree, Bb, the 3rd degree, D, and the 5th degree, F, we can also form the Bb major chord.
You should, by this point, notice the pattern being created: major triads are made by skipping every other note in the scale. This can be performed using any starting note on the piano once you know the scale for the key of that note.
Method 2: Building Triads Using Intervals
The other method of building major chords is through using intervals. I suggest, like the major scales, that you reference our other content covering this topic as it is essential to your understanding of music theory. Returning to the first example in C major, let’s look at how we can use intervals to form triad chords.
Major triads can be broken down into two 3rd intervals: a major 3rd and a minor 3rd. In the C major chord (C – E – G) the major 3rd is the distance between C to E. This can also be interpreted as four half-step movements, as the distance between C to E is made up of the notes (C) – Db – D – Eb – E. The minor 3rd, the distance from E to G, is the distance of three half-steps: (E) – F – Gb – G. Therefore, we can make the formula: major 3rd + minor 3rd = major triad.
It is essential to note that when you are counting intervals, you cannot count the first note as the interval — the interval is the progression from one note to the next, counted specifically as you land upon the second note. In the C major example, you cannot count C as 1, D as 2, E as 3 etc. This is not counting intervals; this is counting notes. When counting intervals, you must first move before counting. So with C being the initial note of the scale, to play the note, C itself is not an interval. Playing the note D after the C, however, is. Because we’re counting the distance between the notes, think about it in the context of counting footsteps, where the first step you count is the first foot you put down, not the foot you push off from.
Trying the formula major third + minor third = major triad in other keys, you will find that this pattern can be consistently repeated elsewhere on the piano. For example, in the key of F, the major 3rd (the distance between F to A) is four half-steps: (F) – Gb – G – Ab – A. The minor 3rd (from A to C) is three half steps: (A) – Bb – B – C. Therefore, major 3rd (F to A) + minor 3rd (A to C) = F major triad chord. Trying this again on Bb, you will find the same thing.
A clue to knowing if you are playing the right notes is the ability to see a symmetric stack of thirds. As you can see in the image, both major and minor triads will appear in a specific and consistent pattern when played correctly on the piano.
Building Minor Chords
It is very easy to form a minor triad once you know how to form a major triad. By lowering the 3rd degree of a major triad chord a half-step, we get a minor triad chord. Using the C major triad (C – E – G), if we lower the 3rd note E one half-step, it becomes Eb, and this gives us the C minor triad (C – Eb – G). When playing major/minor triads in this way, it is always the position of the middle note, the 3rd, that gives us the distinct sound of whether it is a major or minor chord. Major chords have a much brighter and livelier sound than minor chords, which relate more to a sadder atmosphere.
Let’s try this trick to find the minor triad in the key of F. The F major triad is formed of the notes F – A – C; therefore, by lowering the 3rd degree, A, we get the F minor triad: F – Ab – C. Going back again to the Bb major triad (Bb – D – F), if we lower the middle note D to a Db, we get the Bb minor triad. This formula works in both directions: lowering the 3rd one half-step to the left creates a minor triad from a major triad, or raising the 3rd one half-step to the right creates a major triad from a minor triad.
Earlier, we learned about triads being broken down into two-thirds using the formula major third + a minor third = major triad. For a minor triad, the formula is simply reversed: minor third + major third = minor triad. In a C minor triad (C-Eb-G), the distance from C to E is a minor third or three half-steps: (C) – Db – E – Eb. The distance between Eb to G is a major third, or four half-steps: (Eb) – E – F – Gb – G. Combining these intervals will give you a minor triad chord, and again, this formula can be performed anywhere on the keyboard.
As important as it is to learn major and minor chords theoretically and in terms of their structure, it is equally as important to practice these triads in comparison to each other so that you can identify them aurally. Practice shifting between two triads, such as C major and C minor, to really get a feel for their sound and what makes them unique to each other. Through learning these triads across the pitches of the keyboard, you will eventually be able to pick out a major or minor chord at random without the need to think deeply about which scale it is associated with.
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