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Music Theory 101: Major, Minor, Diminished, and Augmented Chords

Music Theory 101: Major, Minor, Diminished, and Augmented Chords

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As you probably know, a chord is a group of notes played simultaneously, rather than sequentially (like a melody). But there are several different types of chords, depending on the different intervals between the notes. It may sound confusing, but it’s pretty easy once you understand how these different chords are constructed. In this guide, we’ll look at major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords and show you how to construct each one of them, starting on any note.

Forming a Chord

A chord is a combination of three or more notes played together. If you put your right thumb on one of the white keys of a piano (it doesn’t matter which one), skip a key and put your middle finger on the third key, then skip another key and put your finger on the fifth key, you’re playing a chord!

A basic chord consists of just three notes, arranged in thirds, called a triad. The most common triads are constructed from notes plucked from the underlying scale, each note two steps above the previous note. So, for example, if you want to base a chord on the tonic of a scale, you’d use the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale. (Using the C Major scale, these notes would be C, E, and G.) If you want to base a chord on the second degree of a scale, use the second, fourth, and sixth notes of the scale. (Still using the C Major scale, these notes would be D, F, and A.)

Music Theory 101: Building a three-note triad.

Building a three-note triad.

Within a specific chord, the first note is called the root—even if the chord isn’t formed from the root of the scale. The other notes of the chord are named relative to the first note, typically being the third and the fifth above the chord’s root. (For example, if C is the chord’s root, E is called the third and G is called the fifth.) This is sometimes notated 1-3-5.

Different Types of Chords

Let’s go back to the piano. Putting your fingers on every other white note, form a chord starting on middle C. (Your fingers should be on the keys C, E, and G.) Now move your fingers one key to the right, so that you’re starting on D. (Your fingers should now be on the keys D, F, and A.) This chord sounds different—kind of sad, compared to the happier C chord.

You’ve just demonstrated the difference between major and minor chords. The first chord you played was a major chord: C Major. The second chord was a minor chord—D minor. As with major and minor scales, major and minor chords sound different to the listener, because the intervals in the chords are slightly different.

In most cases, the type of chord is determined by the middle note—the third. When the interval between the first note and the second note is a major third—two whole steps—you have a major chord. When the interval between the first note and the second note is a minor third—three half steps—you have a minor chord.

It’s no more complex than that. If you change the middle note, you change the chord from major to minor.

Read on to learn all about major and minor chords—as well as some other types of chords that aren’t quite major and aren’t quite minor.

Major Chords

A major chord consists of a root, a major third, and a perfect fifth. For example, the C Major chord includes the notes C, E, and G. The E is a major third above the C; the G is a perfect fifth above the C.

Here’s a quick look at how to build major chords on every note of the scale:

Music Theory 101: Major triads.

Major triads.

There are many different ways to indicate a major chord in your music, as shown in the following table:

Notation for Major Chords
Major Chord Notation Example
Major C Major
Maj C Maj
Ma C Ma
M CM
Δ

In addition, just printing the letter of the chord (using a capital letter) indicates that the chord is major. (So if you see C in a score, you know to play a C Major chord.)

Minor Chords

The main difference between a major chord and a minor chord is the third. Although a major chord utilizes a major third, a minor chord flattens that interval to create a minor third. The fifth is the same.

In other words, a minor chord consists of a root, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. This is sometimes notated 1-♭3-5. For example, the C minor chord includes the notes C, E♭, and G.

Here’s a quick look at how to build minor chords on every note of the scale:

Music Theory 101: Minor triads.

Minor triads.

There are many different ways to indicate a minor chord, as shown in the following table:

Notation for Minor Chords
Minor Chord Notation Example
minor C minor
min C min
mi C mi
m Cm

Diminished Chords

A diminished chord is like a minor chord with a lowered fifth. It has a kind of eerie and ominous sound. You build a diminished chord with a root note, a minor third, and a diminished (lowered) fifth. This is sometimes noted 1-♭3-♭5.

For example, the C diminished chord includes the notes C, E♭, and G♭.

Here’s a quick look at how to build diminished chords on every note of the scale:

Music Theory 101: Diminished triads.

Diminished triads.

There are many different ways to indicate a diminished chord, as shown in the following table:

Notation for Diminished Chords
Diminished Chord Notation Example
diminished C diminished
dimin C dimin
dim C dim
º

Augmented Chords

An augmented chord is like a major chord with a raised fifth; thus an augmented chord consists of a root, a major third, and an augmented (raised) fifth. This is sometimes notated 1-3-♯5.

For example, the C augmented chord includes the notes C, E, and G♯.

Here’s a quick look at how to build augmented chords on every note of the scale:

Music Theory 101: Augmented triads.

Augmented triads.

There are many different ways to indicate an augmented chord, as shown in the following table:

Notation for Augmented Chords
Augmented Chord Notation Example
augmented C augmented
aug C aug
+ C+

Once you practice a bit, these chords will become like second nature. For more music theory information, be sure to check out our Quick Guide, Music Theory 101: Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic Scales. Good luck, and happy scaling!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, Second Edition, by Michael Miller