MUSIC THEORY—Intervals and Chords


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      The last articles on music theory dealt with scales and how scales are used to create melodies. Melodies are fine for humming or singing by yourself but when you are producing music, you have to fill in the rest of the sonic spectrum with harmony which is what chords are. This articles will involve intervals (distances between notes) and how to use those intervals to build chords that harmonize with the melody.

      As noted in our last article, a major scale (from tonic to octave) consists of 8 notes following the pattern of TWWHWWWH, with the W denoting a whole step or two semi tones and the H denoting a half step or semitone. You can also name the notes in a scale by the interval they are away from the root or tonic note of the scale. So starting with the root note (again we’ll use C since it’s easier to visualize), the scale is built of the root, the second, third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, the sixth and the seventh. The second has an interval of two semitones higher than the root and two semitones lower than the third. The fourth is one semitone higher than the third and a two semitones lower than the fifth and so on. In the case of a natural minor scale, the tones are the same other than the third and sixth are only one semitone higher that the 2nd and 5th, respectively.


      Here are the intervals and what they sound like in the C scale

          Tonic and minor 2nd (C and C#)

          Tonic and 2nd (C and D)

          Tonic and minor 3rd (C and Eb)

          Tonic and 3rd ( C and E)

          Tonic and perfect 4th (C and F)

          Tonic and augmented 4th, also known as a diminished 5th (C and F#)

          Tonic and perfect 5th (C and G)

          Tonic and augmented 5th or minor 6th (C and Ab)

          Tonic and sixth (C and A)

          Tonic and minor 7th (C and Bb)

          Tonic and 7th (C and B)

          Tonic and Octave or 8th (C and C)


      Harmony consists of the melody note and one or more other notes of varying intervals that outline the harmonic structure of the song. Chords consist of three or more notes  of varying intervals that complete the harmonic structure. So now that we’ve laid the ground work, lets build some chords and harmonies.

      I’m going to limit this discussion mainly to defining major and minor chords. Again, in the key of C, the C major chord consists of the tonic—C, the third—E and the fifth– G. Click here to hear it.  Every other major chord in every other key has the same formula—tonic, third and fifth. Minor chords consist of the tonic, the minor or flatted third and the fifth. Click here to hear a D minor chord (D-F-A).A major chord has a distinctly happy feel to it while minor chords have a sad quality to them. If you happen to have a piano or keyboard handy, play the C major (C—E– G) and C minor (C-Eb-G) chords one after another and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Other than major and minor chords, there are only two other types that consist of three notes, the augmented (Tonic, third and sharp or augumented fifth) and the diminished (Tonic, minor third and diminished fifth) chords. We’ll be getting into these and other types of chords that have four or more notes and how to use them to compose in next months article.

      Harmony, in the simplest sense is just two people singing together. One person sings the melody of the song while another person sings pitches above or below the melody note. Relative to the melody note, the second and seventh above the it are almost never used in two part harmony because they would sound dissonant. The reason is the that they are two close to the melody note. The third and the fifth are used most often while the fourth and sixth are somewhat more sparingly utilized. There are exceptions, however, when composing where you can use the second or seventh an octave above or below the tonic and it will sound fine.       When you start singing three or more part harmonies in popular music, you’re getting into the realm of chords and care has to be taken to make sure that the harmony tones don’t clash with the chords already present in the in the song. For instance, if the melody note is a D and your in the key of C, the F# harmony note won’t work with all the chords of the song. It will sound ok with a C Major, G major, or B diminished chord but not a Am, Dm, Em or F major chord.


Next month—Chord inversions and progessions