bandcoachHeader (9K)

Keys, Scales, Chords: A Key Independent Approach to Chord Building

Keys: Locking notes into place,

Scales: a collection of notes used to create melodies in the chosen tonality, and other horizontal lines

Chords: vertical alignment and tonality combined

A series of theory tutorials for the theory challenged or curious. This time:

A Key Independent Approach to Chord Building

Chords are the convergence horizontally (sequentially or melodically) or vertically (simultaneous or block chords) of three or more notes.

Most textbooks say that chords consist of two or more notes. However, at the best, these diads (two note chords or intervals) can only imply a chord; the notes can only spell out half of any one chord. They can sound harmonious (concordant) or not (discordant).

The chord implied by any diad is based on an interpretation of the notes in the diad in relation to the key-tone scale, whether this is major or minor.


Triads are three note chords (please donít confuse them with Chinese gangs, it will only complicate matters beyond your wildest fantasies).

These chords are based on the combination of thirds and fifths above a common root (or tonic) note. There are two types of thirds that we concern ourselves with, the major third and the minor third. We concern ourselves with three types of fifth, the perfect fifth, the augmented fifth and the diminished fifth.

We have already explored four of the six possible triads built by using the major and minor 3rds and diminished, perfect and augmented 5ths. These chords are the Major, minor, diminished and Augmented triads. The charts showing how these chords are constructed and played using a keyboard can be found below:

  • Chords built above the four main scale types
  • The four chord types built on every naming note, names only.
  • The keyboard maps for the four chord types.

The following table illustrates how the combination of the three types of 5ths and two types of 3rds lead to our four basic chords as well as two other chords.

  • Min 3rd, Maj 3rd, Diminished 5th, Perfect 5th, Augmented 5th
  • Diminished, Minor, Minor #5
  • Major b5, Major, Augmented

The two new chord types will be made available in a chart showing these chord types, and several others, available separate to this tutorial.


When we write chords out, we don't always write them with the root of the chord as the bottom tone. If we were to write a chord out with the third of the chord as the bottom tone, that is, if we were to take the root tone and place it on top (that is, invert the root) we are said to have placed that chord into first inversion. As an example, consider the chord of C Major ,

If we invert the root, C, the chord becomes :

Even though this chord has changed its written shape and the sound is slightly different, it is still the chord of C Major.

If we were to now write a chord out with the fifth as the bottom tone, that is if we were to not only take the root and place it on top, but also the third (that is, invert the third) we will have placed the chord into second inversion.

Consider our previous example of the chord of C Major: if we now invert the third, E, the chord becomes . Again, though the chord has changed its written shape and the sound is slightly different, it is still the chord of C Major. More importantly, we can invert any chord type.

The inversions of chords can be identified by analysing the size of the intervals above the bottom note. Chords in root position have the intervals of a third and a fifth above the bottom note, chords in first inversion have the intervals of a third and a sixth above the bottom note, and chords in second inversion have the intervals of a fourth and a sixth above the bottom note.

We sometimes use these intervals to identify the inversion of a chord or we might use two other conventions:

  1. using
    • a to mean root position
    • b to mean first inversion
    • c to mean second inversion
  2. using
    • 1st to mean first inversion
    • 2nd to mean second inversion

These three conventions are summarised in the table below, using the C major chord as a notation example:

Below is a table showing all six triads built on C in all three inversions:

  • Major b5: Root, 1st, 2nd
  • Major: Root, 1st, 2nd
  • Augmented: Root, 1st, 2nd
  • Diminished: Root, 1st, 2nd
  • Minor: Root, 1st, 2nd
  • Minor #5: Root, 1st, 2nd

The minor#5 chord is actually a major chord in 1st inversion, when heard, but is notated as it is to reflect the intervals used in making it. For the Cmin#5 chord, we could replace it with Ab Major in 1st inversion with no aural difference, but significant functional difference.

Suspensions of the Fourth, Sixth and Second

The other form of triad is known as the suspension. A suspension takes one of the notes from a triad and suspends it from sounding by replacing it with another note, usually the one immediately above it in pitch or in the scale. Normal use has these chords then resolve to the normal triad form. Pop music makes different uses of these chords, which we will explore later.

We usually see three types of suspended chords:

These are different from their close cousins:

which are four note chords and should not be confused with the triad based suspensions.

Based on C, these suspended chords are as follows:

A context for the use of each:

As with the other chord types, a chart showing these chord types on every naming note will be available separate to this tutorial.

In addition to the above three chords there are a group of double suspensions that we can use musically:

A context for the use of each:

The last is a triple suspension or the D minor chord over a C bass.


As with all chords we can invert these chords also.

Other Chord Forms

Chords with slash bass notes

A slash bass note chord is one of the form


Essentially this tells us to play a C major chord (C-E-G) but make sure that the bass note is a G, rather than a C.

Sometimes we might see a sequence of chords that start with a chord and then proceed by using slash bass notation. Two examples come to mind:

An example with some rhythmic and melodic movement

An example with some rhythmic and melodic movement

Stacked Chords

A stacked chord or polytonal chord is one where two simpler chords are explicitly named and stacked one on top of the other:

Essentially this tells us to play a E major chord (E-G#-B) above a G Major chord (G-B-D). This gives us a chord that is perhaps readily recognisable as either a G6b9 or as an E7/G. However, the form of

allows us to readily play this chord or arrange it over a section with a more consistent form of voice leading.

The over-riding consideration with these types of chords is that they are stated in the correct order:

The first version is the so-called "Hendrix" chord, an E7#9, although this chord was used quite widely by Beethoven, so it should, perhaps, be called the Beethoven chord (doesn't quite have the same ring to it though, does it?).

A final thought. You might notice that the bottom half of each of the above chords is spread widely through the bass clef, whilst the top half is very close together. This type of voicing (or arranging/spacing of the notes) is common to avoid muddiness in the bottom end.