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Easy Chord Construction Formulas


        Helpful free tips on chord formulas, from Sound Feelings, allow you to play any chord instantly. Once you understand the four primary chords, major, minor, diminished and augmented, you can then easily build all other complex chords such as 7th chords, 9th chords, 11th chords and 13th chords. This free information provides self-study music theory lessons on chord formation which can be applied to any chord. With improved chordal knowledge you will be more prepared for the demands of composition, performance, and chord-reading and

        The following information explains how to build basic triads and 7th chords ONLY. This will provide an excellent foundation for more advanced chords.

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Memorize Formulas, Not Chords!

        It is not necessary to memorize hundreds of chords. All you need to do is to learn the formula for making each chord type, and create the chord needed using the appropriate formula. This saves brain power from being wasted on unnecessary effort. It also allows gives you the true understanding of chord-construction, so if you later want to modify the chord, (make inversions) you will know what you are doing.

You Don’t Need to Know All Your Scales!

        The way chords are usually taught are by first introducing scales. It is typically explained that a minor chord will use the 1, b3 (“flat 3rd”) and 5. (This terminology refers to the 1st, 3rd, and 5th “degree” of the scale.) A diminished chord will use the 1, b3 and b5. The reason this method is so slow to learn and to apply is that the person must first be fluent in all twelve major and minor scales! It’s not that this is bad, it’s just that it is NOT NECESSARY in order to play chords!

Steps Make Thirds.

        Steps make thirds and thirds make chords.

        Before you can understand chords, you should first understand thirds. The half step is the interval we will use to make thirds. Half steps are the smallest distance between any two notes. When you play all the half steps it is called the “chromatic scale.” It doesn’t matter if the notes are black or white. For example, the distance between C and C# is a half step. E to F is also a half step.

        The following formulas explain how to make thirds:

          3 half steps = minor third (m3)
          4 half steps = major third (M3)

Thirds Drill.

        Practice making minor and major thirds on the keyboard. Select any note at random and then count three half steps higher to make a minor third and four half steps higher to make a major third. Practice making 12 minor thirds and 12 major thirds, starting on each note of the chromatic scale. This drill may take between one day and several weeks to master before you feel comfortable. Do not go on until you feel comfortable at making major and minor thirds. In fact, each of the following steps is built on the previous. Try to master each step before going on.

Thirds Make Chords.

        Now you are ready to learn about how chords are made. When you stack thirds together, a chord is created. The chords are always built from left to right on the keyboard. The name of the chord is based on the first note of the chord which is called the “root.” A chord is technically defined as 3 or more notes arranged by thirds. A triad is a chord with only three notes.

Chord Formulas.

        There are four basic triad chords. All more advanced chords are built on these. So, it is crucial that you understand the following formulas before you try to make more complex chords:

          M3 + m3 = Major Triad
          m3 + M3 = Minor Triad
          m3 + m3 = Diminished Triad
          M3 + M3 = Augmented Triad

Chord Drill.

        On every note of the chromatic scale, ascending and descending, build the following chords: Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented, Major — in root position in with any fingers, one hand at a time. Apply the above formulas, stacking thirds on top of one another to create each chord. Say the name of each chord before you play it. For example:

          Say “C Major” then play it
          Say “C Minor” then play it
          Say “C Diminished” then play it
          Say “C Augmented” then play it
          Say “C Major” then play it

        Then do the same on C#, and continue to C, one octave higher. Then descend. Identify the chords which start on the black notes by their sharp names going up and by their flat names going down. This will help you recognize them either way and become familiar with them. Soon, you may notice a pattern of changes as you go from one chord to the next. For example, from major to minor, the middle note of the chord moves down by half step. The reason we return to the Major chord at the end of each cycle is so that it is easier to go to the next key.

Learn the Chord Symbols.

        If “Eb” is our generic chord, the symbols for each triad would look like this:

          Eb Major = Eb
          Eb Minor = Ebmin or Ebm or Eb-
          Eb Diminished = Ebdim or Eb°
          Eb Augmented = Ebaug or Eb+

Play Songs Using Chords.

        After you have become familiar with basic triads, you are ready to actually play the chords as they occur in songs. Get a songbook or a “fake book” and notice above the musical notation are chord symbols. Start playing these chords by their symbols as they occur in the music. If some of the chords in the music have more advanced symbols like “7” or “9,” for now, just delete this part of the symbol and play the elements that you currently know how to build. For example, if the chord symbol says Cm9, just play C minor.

Inversion Drill.

        Sometimes, chords sound better when you play the notes of the chord in a different order than the order in which they were created. The original order is called “root position” (For example: a C chord contains the individual notes, C-E-G.) If you take the lowest note (C) and place it one octave higher, you end up with “first inversion” (E-G-C.) If you take the new lowest note (E) and place it one octave higher, you end up with “second inversion” (G-C-E).

        Play the following sequence on all major and minor triads, for two octaves ascending and descending:

          Root-1st-2nd-Root-1st-2nd-Root. (Then reverse)

Seventh Chord Formulas

        Most common 7th chords:

    M3 + m3 (Major Triad) + M3 = Major Seven “Ebmaj7”
    M3 + m3 (Major Triad) + m3 = Seven “Eb7”
    m3 + M3 (Minor Triad) + m3 = Minor Seven “Ebmin7, Ebm7, Eb-7”
    m3 + m3 (Diminished Triad) + m3 = Diminished Seven “Ebdim7, Eb°7”

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        If you have found any of our free information to be helpful, please let us know! We also grateful for your donation!


        Sound Feelings Publishing
        18375 Ventura Blvd. #8000
        Tarzana, CA 91356
        Tel: 818-757-0600


“This is just great. As a pro musician, I personally don't need further help, but for all beginners, this is so helpful.”

Eike Drück,
Cologne, Germany

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Last updated Friday, January 12, 2018