A Musical Chord Simply Defined

Anyone can play a chord on a piano

Major and minor piano chords.
Major and minor chords are similar except for their thirds. Image © Brandy Kraemer

For those who are not musicians or who are not familiar with music theory, a chord is simply two or more notes that are played together at the same time. For example, if someone was to place one hand on a piano and hit two keys at the same time, that would be a chord.

A Chord Defined

A chord or grouping of notes played simultaneously can create harmony, which is when two or more notes complement one another.

Chords add texture to a melody, and can even provide rhythm to a song.

The most frequently played chords are triads, a grouping of three, so called because they consist of three distinct notes: the root note, and intervals of a third and a fifth above the root note.

Different Kinds of Chords

There are many kinds of chords. Some sound dissonant, meaning not harmonious. Some are two-note chords, others are more than three notes and some chords can be "broken." Let's look at a variety of the different musical chords.

Chords with Two Notes

Two-note “chords” are referred to as intervals. In music theory, an interval is the difference between two pitches. An interval is named according to its number and quality. For instance, a "major third " is an interval name, in which the term "major " describes the quality of the interval, and "third " indicates its number.

The number of an interval is the number of notes it encompasses.

Both lines and spaces of a musical staff are counted, including the positions of both notes forming the interval. For instance, the interval from the note C to G is a fifth because the number of notes from C to the G is five (C, D, E, F, G), which occupy five consecutive staff positions, including the positions of C and G.

The name of any interval is further qualified using the terms perfect, major, minor, augmented and diminished. 

Dissonant Chords

Some chords, have different qualities to their sound, which may not sound in perfect harmony, these qualities are known as diminished and augmented chords. They may sound bizarre or unbalanced. These are "dissonant" and although these chords are not usually pleasing to the ear in the traditional sense, they are quite captivating when placed strategically in music.

Chords with More Than Three Notes

Chords can have more than three notes, these chords are known as tetrads or tertian chords. These can include seventh chords, added tone chords, extended chords, altered tone chords and tone clusters.

Broken Chords

The notes in a broken chord are not played simultaneously, just as it sounds, it is broken up into a sequence of notes. A broken chord may repeat some of the notes from the chord, too.

The musical term arpeggio means to play a broken chord in rising or ascending order. Every arpeggio is a broken chord, but not every broken chord is an arpeggio. 

Chord Progressions

An ordered series of chords is called a chord progression or a harmonic progression. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in American music and classical tradition.

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