What Are Chords? How Do You Use Them?

by Adam Sweet

What are chords?  How do you “make” chords from scales?  What are chords used for?  Who first used chords and how are they used today?

Chords are groups of three or more musical notes played together. They can be played on a piano, guitar, or any other musical instrument.

To make chords from scales, you can start by playing the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale consecutively. These three notes form a basic chord, called a triad. For example, if you are working with the C major scale (C D E F G A B), the C major chord is made up of the notes C, E, and G.

Chords are used to provide harmony in music. They are typically played alongside a melody, and the combination of the two creates a richer and more complex musical experience. Chords can be used to add depth and interest to a musical piece, and they can also be used to create tension or dissonance, depending on how they are used.

Chord forms usually consist of the tonic, subdominant and  dominant chords for a given key (aka the 1, 4, 5 chord “Progression”)

Tonic, subdominant, and dominant are the first, fourth, and fifth degrees in any scale.  They are the key elements to building a song.  The tonic is often referred to as “home”, while subdominant moves you to the next note, and dominant makes you want to return back home to resolve the sound.  Why do we care?  Because the majority of music that you will ever listen to or play, bases the entire song off of these chords.  You can create, or recreate most songs when you understand tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords.  

The Tonic Chord

The Tonic:  The tonic degree, or the tonic chord, is always the easiest to find.  The tonic is found by the first degree in a scale.  If you are looking at the C major scale, the tonic is C.  If you are working with the G major scale, the tonic is G.  A song will probably begin and end with the tonic.  The tonic is called home, because it is where we are at rest.  It is where a song is resolved, and where we want to start and melody and always where we want to return to.  We want to come back home with the tonic.  Thus, the tonic draws back to itself.  The tonic is symbolized with Roman numeral I if it is MAJOR.  It is a Roman numeral i for a MINOR tonic chord.  

The Subdominant Chord

The Subdominant: The subdominant is the fourth degree of a scale, or can be found 4 tones, or notes above the tonic.    The subdominant causes us to “leave home”.  It has an almost mysterious, or unresolved feeling that causes us to draw back to the dominant.  Which is why it is called sub-dominant.  As such, you will often find a dominant following a subdominant chord.  The subdominant is symbolized with a Roman numeral IV for a MAJOR chord.  It is a Roman numeral i for a MINOR subdominant chord.

The Dominant Chord

The Dominant: The dominant is the fifth degree of a scale, or can be found 5 tones, or notes above the tonic.  You will often see the dominant chord as an inversion of its root chord. Just like the subdominant, you will often find the dominant chord as an inversion of its root chord.  Simply stated, that just means that instead of it being in this order of G-B-D, you will find it as B-D-G.  Same chord, just inverted.  The dominant chord causes tension or stress with a desire to resolve.  It almost begs us to return back home.  Therefore, the dominant chord leads us back to the tonic, or to home.  The dominant is symbolized with a Roman numeral V for a MAJOR chord.  It is a Roman numeral v for a MINOR subdominant chord.

Other Chord Progression Examples:

It is difficult to say who first used chords, as the concept of chords has likely existed for as long as people have been making music. However, the use of chords in Western music can be traced back to at least the Baroque period (17th and 18th centuries).  The use of chords can also be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who used them in their music. Today, chords are an integral part of Western music and are used in a wide variety of musical styles, including classical, jazz, bluegrass, rock, and pop.  

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