Chords are combinations of three or more notes played together in harmony and they underpin nearly all Western music. Triads – three note chords – form the basis upon which all more elaborate chords are formed, although a lot of the time (jazz being the major exception) they’re used as they are.
There are six main types of triad and, if you have a keyboard handy, you can try these out by moving just one finger at a time. And that’s why this is the lazy person’s guide to triads!
Major triads are ubiquitous. They are formed by combining the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the major scale. So, the C major triad is formed of C, E and G which, on a keyboard, looks like this:
Minor chords have a more melancholic feel. If that’s what you want, you can form the minor triad quite simply by moving the second note down by one semitone. The chord of C minor contains the notes C, Eb and G and this is how that looks on the keyboard:
Diminished triads are similar to the minor but with the fifth note of the scale flattened. You don’t hear diminished chords a lot in modern music but, where you do, they do add a lot of atmosphere.
To move from minor to diminished, just move the third note in the triad down one semitone. The chord of C diminished contains the notes C, Eb and Gb, which looks like this:
In the audio clip, I’ve shown the diminished chord resolving back to the major because that’s really common.
To form an augmented chord, start with a major and then move the third note in the triad up one semitone. The chord of C augmented contains the notes C, E and G#, which looks like this:
Augmented chords are rather unsettling and are begging to be resolved. You probably noticed that, in the clip, I’ve resolved back to the C major, but a move to F major (F+A+C) works as well.
Suspended 2nd triad
Suspended chords are named as such because they typically include a note which hangs over from the previous chord. In the case of Csus2, the note is a D, which temporarily replaces the C until it resolves back to the major.
Chords with a suspended second note are not hugely common but they do sound good. The clip sounds a bit like the start of Close to You by The Carpenters.
Suspended 4th triad
A suspended 4th note of the scale (in C major that’s an F) is much more common. Again, it’s usually only temporary until a resolution to the major. Think of the rhythm guitar at the start of Pinball Wizard by The Who.
You can find chord progressions through deliberate analysis or by trial and error. On a keyboard, the latter is a real option because, as we’ve seen, the six types of triad are only a finger away. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you know what a diminished chord is, only that you’ve found one and used it to give your composition a lift.
Before you go …
I couldn’t help challenging myself to see if I could include all the six triad types in one short piece. Well, I managed it, with the help of some other chords to add some coherence to the composition as a whole.
There’s just one verse and chorus here, with the vocal parts taken by samples for now.
The verse goes: G Gdim C6 G / G Em A7 D7 / G Gdim C6 G / G Em C6 G
And the chorus goes: G Csus2 C / G Csus4 C / G Cm7 Cm6 / G Daug
I think you’ll agree that the more unusual triads (diminished, augmented, suspended) have a big influence on the feel of the track.