When building melodic and harmonic content in your song, it can be easier for some people to start with the melody – and then build the chords later. If you can do this, kudos to you. Others may find it easier to build the chords first, and then the melody later.
One thing I always found was that my chord progressions were boring, uninspiring, and simple. Sometimes this can work, and there’s nothing wrong with just making an extremely simple chord progression. BUT sometimes we want a little more than that. We want to know how to make our music interesting, give it a mood.
And by giving it a mood, we don’t want to spend hours on end looking for that perfect chord, right? Surely I’m not the only one who gets sick of plotting random notes in the piano roll waiting for one to stick out?
What is Chord Quality?
See, in my opinion – if you want to be good at building chord progressions and the likes, you’ve got to be familiar with chordal qualities in each key.
What do I mean by this?
In order to be good at building chord progressions and the likes, you’ve got to be familiar with chordal qualities in each key, What do I mean by this?
In every key there are specific chords that contain a certain feel, or character. You could also call this mood or quality. Chord qualities are like colors, in the simplest sense.
How important is knowing this?
Although I think almost all music theory is important, there are arguably some things that are rendered unimportant due to advancement in DAW technology and other things including music genres that contain a lack of harmonic content. But in saying this, I think knowing the different chord qualities is important because it eliminates the need to spend hours on end looking for that special chord that comes next in the progression. You won’t need to jump around the piano roll plugging in random notes.
Most of all though, it’s about creating mood. Want a more saddening chord? Pick a minor. Want something a little more energetic? Choose a ninth.
Different Chord Qualities
There are 9 relatively common chord qualities that you should be aware of. Some of these aren’t used often, others are used extensively:
- Major and minor
- Major and minor seventh
- Dominant seventh
- Major and minor sixth
- Suspended fourth
You may have heard of a few of these, others may be foreign. It’s alright though, we’ll be having a
look at them all in this post.
One by One…
Now we’ll have a look at each chord quality individually.
Each section will contain an explanation of the mood, instruction on how to build them, an audio clip of how they sound, and an image of the chord in the piano roll.
We’ll start with major as it’s the most simple of them all.
Major chords sound happy and simple, and the fact is – they are simple. To build a major chord you simply use the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes in whichever scale you’re using. Let’s use the scale of C Major as an example:
This will give us a simple Major triad chord.
Seeing as we work with DAWs which contain piano rolls, you may want to work it out via half steps (notes on a piano roll) which in the case of a Major chord would be the root (C) + 4 half steps (C# – D – D# – E), + 3 half steps (F – F# – G).
As you can see, we start counting the half steps from the note above the last one.
Minor chords are considered to be sad, or ‘serious.’
To build a minor chord, you follow the same pattern as a major chord except drop the third degree of the scale down a half step.
- A C Major chord consists of a C, E, and G
- A C minor chord consists of a C, Eb, and G
Although they seem almost identical, the difference is significant. Listen to the audio clip for the Major chord above, and then the one for the minor below:
Unlike the major, we start at the root (C) and then go up 3 half steps (Eb/D#), and then 4 half steps to the 5th degree (G) which is the same.
Once you understand that it’s simply the 3rd degree that needs to be moved – minor chords are also just as simple as major.
Major Seventh (7)
Major seventh chords are considered to be thoughtful, soft. You’ll hear many seventh chords in Jazz music.
Major seventh chords are built from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th tones of the Major scale.
In the scale of C Major, this would be C, E, G, B.
Another way to think about it is a Major chord plus an extra note which is a tone down from the root on the scale.
In terms of half steps, a Major seventh would be exactly the same as a standard Major triad, except for the fourth note being added 4 half steps above the 5th degree (G in this case):
To sum it up again: Root, then 4/3/4.
Minor Seventh (m7
Minor seventh chords a different to Major seventh chords in the fact that they’re a lot more moody, or contemplative.
You can follow the same concept we showed above, but starting with a minor chord instead. The minor seventh uses the 1st degree, a flat 3rd degree, 5th degree, and flat 7th degree of the major scale.
Instead of C, E, G, B. We’d have C, Eb, G, Bb.
Instead of going 4/3/4, we go 3/4/3 from the root note.
Dominant Seventh (7)
Dominant seventh chords are strong, powerful, and adventurous.
These are very similar to minor sevenths except for the second note not being flat.
Instead of C, Eb, G, Bb. It would be C, E, G, Bb.
Dominant seventh chords are made from the 1, 3, 5, and flat 7 tones of the major scale.
In terms of half steps? Starting at the root note, then 4/3/3.
Major Sixth (6)
Major sixth chords are fun and playful.
A major sixth chord uses the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degree of the major scale:
To build a major sixth chord, simply follow the build for a major triad, and then add the sixth degree or two more half steps.
Starting at the root note, then 4/3/2.
Minor Sixth (m6)
Minor sixth chords are almost identical to major sixth chords apart from their lowered 3rd degree. They sound a lot darker and mysterious.
A minor sixth chord is built from the 1st, flat 3rd, 5th, and 6th degrees of the major scale.
Starting at the root note, then 3/4/2.
Suspended Fourth (sus4)
Suspended fourth chords are majestic in nature, and sound ‘proud’ almost.
They’re a little different to the rest, as they don’t follow a major or minor pattern.
To build a Suspended fourth, you use the 1st, 4th, and 5th notes of the major scale:
To describe in half steps, it would be root + 5 half steps + 2 half steps.
Ninth chords are very energetic and full of life.
To build a ninth chord, we’d use the 1, 3, 5, and 9 tones of the major scale. This particular chord passes over two octaves, as you can see below.
In terms of half steps, it’d be the root, plus 4 half steps up to E, then 3 half steps up to G, and finally 6 half steps up to D.
Note: a minor ninth is built in a similar way except the E is lowered by a semitone to an Eb.
Diminished chords are dark and edgy.
To build a diminished chord you’d use the root, flat 3, and flat 5 tones of the major scale.
In terms of half steps, this one’s pretty simple. Go up 3, and then 3 again.
Augmented chords contain quite a lot of movement and sound suspenseful.
To build an augmented chord we use the root, 3, and sharp 5 tones of the major scale.
This is basically the same as a major chord, but with the 5th degree raised a half step.
There are far more chords than just these. I’d say if you’re getting started with chords then these are ideal ones to learn about.
Also, as with anything in music – the mood and feel of chords is a subjective thing. You have to discover what chords you like yourself. If something doesn’t sound suspenseful or dark to you, then it doesn’t sound suspenseful or dark to you.
Another thing to note is that these chords can sound completely different when following another chord. Certain chords may sound dissonant when on their own, but when used in a progression they might sound far more natural.
Try some of these out, experiment with them in progressions, and most of all – have fun producing!