What are music chords? Definition, meaning & examples

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Let’s start by explaining the meaning of “musical chords”. In order to fully understand the concept, we need to distinguish melody from harmony.

On a philosophical level, it is curious to note that the Greek word harmonia does not designate a purely musical term: it means, in fact, “going well together”, highlighting the existence of a universal order of some sort.

On the musical level, sounds can be produced in sequence or simultaneously. Melody pertains to the first instance while harmony is related to the second. The melody is the horizontal dimension of the music, the harmony the vertical one.

By harmony, in fact, we mean the art and the result of the simultaneous combination of different sounds. Every chord, like every note and like words, makes sense in relation to what comes before and after. If I suddenly exclaim “sweet!” I could mean a lot of things. But if I put this term in the context of a sentence, it will take on a whole different meaning. I could say, for example: “I would like to enjoy a sweet chocolate cake!” The same thing happens in music. Three or more sounds produced simultaneously create the chord. Several chords that follow one another create harmony, or more precisely a harmonic concatenation.

The basic chord is composed of three sounds linked by precise interval relationships: we will thus have a triad chord.

There are actually chords with only two sounds. I’m talking about power chords (also fifth chords). They are the chords formed only by the tonic and the dominant, that is, without the third. For example, the C power chord is the chord composed of C and G. These chords, by themselves, are neither major nor minor: they were widely used in Renaissance and Baroque classical music to finish pieces, and they have had new life in rock. In sheet music, the C power chord is referred to as “C5 chord”. Jimmy Page’s powerful guitar riff on Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love is based on this kind of chord.

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What are the most interesting chords?

The most interesting chord is definitely the maj7. An example to grasp its dreamy sound and hear the difference compared to its “neighbor” (the C7 chord) in the space of three bars, is the track Something by George Harrison. The initial succession of chords follows, in fact, a sequence that starts from the basic triad, encompassing both sounds that can develop on the VII degree: C, Cmaj7 and C7.

A song where the single sound of the maj7 stands out vividly is by Neil Young, My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue). The Fmaj7 can’t be missed when he sings “into the black.” This song is one of the most famous in the history of rock and hides a curiosity that is worth recalling.

Kurt Cobain, the leader of Nirvana, was twenty-seven when he wrote his last letter. Twenty-seven years old, a beloved wife and daughter, yet he addressed the letter to Boddah, the imaginary friend who had filled his lonely childhood as the son of divorcees. In the farewell message, he revealed that he could no longer feel any emotion. And to love mankind too much, to the point of feeling “fucking sad”.

It happens to overly sensitive spirits who reach vibrations of love so high that they are unbearable. Kurt tried to free himself from all suffering, from all fears, from all paranoia, immersing himself completely in the music he saw as his personal Nirvana (literally the term derives from Sanskrit and means “cessation of breath or freedom from desire”).

From his farewell letter, they often quote the second last sentence, where Cobain picks up on the verse of Neil Young’s song. “I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music…” writes the leader of Nirvana. “Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage… so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

Neil Young’s song is one of the most celebrated ever, practically known by heart by every self-respecting rocker. The credit is certainly due to the enigmatic, poetic, incredibly philosophical and incisive lyrics. Already the title of the album that includes this particular tune, Rust Never Sleeps, cannot leave you indifferent. A sentence stolen from an antirust product advertisement, by which Young was literally thunderstruck, so much to make it the cornerstone of his reasoning: time passes inexorably, the risk is not only that of physical decay but above all that of artistic corrosion; the underlying rock and intellectual honesty are the only ways of salvation.

The sonority of this type of chord is ethereal, it conveys serenity. To obtain its maximum expressive potential, it should be used sparingly, keeping the melody in mind. In the case of the Cmaj7 chord, for example, if the melody expressly touches the note B (major VII of the chord in question), then the whole harmony will be enhanced by this choice, as in the case of the track Il cielo in una stanza by Gino Paoli, where the words “Quando sei” fall right on a B.

Then there is the chord named sus, which stands for suspended. Indeed, by playing a chord of this type we will have the impression of a sound “suspension”. This acoustic effect is caused by the lack of the “modal” note, the third, which determines whether a chord is major or minor. Technically we must replace the third of the chord (whether it be major or minor) with the note represented by the number following the abbreviation sus. For example, a Csus2 is composed of: C, D, G; Csus4 will therefore be composed of: C, F, G. Unfortunately, the degree substituting the third is not always specified (e.g., Csus) and in these cases we generally mean sus4. Herbie Hancock’s song Maiden Voyage was groundbreaking because it was written using entirely sus chords. Nick Drake used both sus4 and sus2 chords very often. Just listen to Pink Moon, one of his greatest hits, to get lost in the rarefied atmospheres of his refined harmonies, also obtained thanks to the odd tunings used on his guitar.

You can buy the book
Let Me Tell You About Music
History, genres, characters, curiosities, legends and secrets of musical theory and harmony

on Amazon

Then there are the chords outside the octave.

To understand which notes they use, there is a little trick: just do a simple subtraction between the highest note and the number 7. This procedure will bring the chord back into the octave.

For example, for C9 the ninth will simply be a second, i.e., D (in fact, 9-7=2). Instead for C13 the thirteenth will be 13-7=6, therefore A.

You may be wondering, at this point, why is there a C13 and there is no C15?

The thirteenth chord exhausts all the possibilities of chord formation within the diatonic system because it contains all the sounds of the scale: thus, it reaches the maximum of entropy and is therefore static, hence the absence of C15. As if in some way harmonically all tensions cancel each other out, or perhaps it is us listeners who are no longer able to grasp them because they are so numerous. Composers therefore prefer to play the thirteenth chord incompletely by extrapolating only a few sounds.

The diminished chords are also very interesting. They are dissonant chords that combine a root note (the tonic) with the third and fifth that are lowered (decreased) by a semitone compared to the major chord. The semi-diminished chord, in fact, on a structural level, is nothing more than a diminished chord with the addition of the minor seventh. On an emotional level, however, the sound changes dramatically, in fact the emotion is “enhanced” and the sound feels more “tense” than ever.

One example of passages with a semi-diminished as the second chord is Just the Way You Are by Billy Joel. In the jazz repertoire this chord is widely used, and it is very easy to spot, especially after an initial chord. I could mention numerous examples in this sense, but the song I would suggest you listen to is Take the A Train, jazz standard composed by Billy Strayhorn and brought to success by Duke Ellington.

There is, however, a track that, despite the general rule, starts from a semi-diminished chord. It’s the jazz standard Stella by Starlight.

A piece where both semi-diminished and diminished are present is Because by The Beatles.

Ok, but you’ll ask: how and when can I use it?

The diminished chord can be used in many ways, but one of its best functions is to replace the chord built on the Grade V of the scale. So, for example, if you set the chord progression as I – V – VI – IV, your diminished chord would be the second chord replacing the V.

If, on the other hand, you start panicking when you see on a score, for example, semi-diminished C, here is a trick to immediately understand the notes that compose it and therefore which notes you will have to consider. The semi-diminished chord can be seen harmonically as a minor triad built on the minor third above the root. To explain myself better, in this specific case, I can play on the piano with the left hand the minor triad of C and with the right, starting from the minor third of C, i.e., from the Eb, a new minor triad which in this case will be an Eb minor.

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