In the examples discussed in the last podcast, we used a 1 chord, which, to put it simply, sounds happy. We call this ‘happy’ chord a Major chord. We also briefly mentioned a 6 chord, which sounds more sad or heavy. This kind of chord is called a Minor chord. When I speak of the quality of a chord, I’m referring to whether it is a minor chord or a major chord. There are other kinds of chords besides Major and Minor, but we can discuss that another time.
You might notice that most of the seven chords we can choose from are either a major chord or a minor chord. Specifically, the 1 chord is major, the 2 chord is minor, the 3 chord is minor, the 4 chord is major, the 5 chord is major, and the 6 chord is minor. The 7 chord is the only one that is not either major or minor.
Play around with these chords. Try playing them with a simple melody, such as Old McDonald or Jingle Bells. Try making them sound normal and typical, and then try making them sound strange and mysterious. Try to keep chords consistent with the notes in the tune. It may take some practice to figure out which notes are the prominent ones, and which are just passing through to keep the melody interesting. Usually the 1st and last note in a phrase are prominent. Most of the notes played in the rhythmic beats of the phrase are also prominent. If this is sounding too complicated, just try playing around with a few tunes for a while. When you think you understand the concepts pretty well, continue on to the next section.
Tampering with Chord Qualities
While the natural state of the 1 chord is major, you actually have the power to change it to minor. If you can hear the difference between the sound of a major chord and a minor chord, you will understand to some extent why changing the quality of a chord may be useful. Music is all about feeling, and changing a major chord to a minor chord changes the feeling the music portrays.
To change a 1 chord to a minor chord, you must change the middle note of the chord. In a 1 chord, the notes are 1, 3, and 5. You must change the note 3. You must lower it. Instead of playing the 3, play the black note that is to the left of the 3 note. When you play the black note to the left of a key, you have made it flat. In music terminology, you are moving down a half-step.
The term ‘Step’ is used to describe the distance from one note to another. From note 1 to note 2 is one step. Moving from note 1 to the black note at it’s right is one half-step. The note that is one half-step above the 1 note is a sharp 1 note, or a 1 sharp. The black note that is one half-step lower than a 2 note is a flat 2 note, or a 2 flat. You’ll notice that a flat 2 and a sharp 1 are the same note. From the 3 note to the 4 note is actually a half-step also, since there is no black note between them.
Ok, back to our minor 1 chord. If you take the major 1 chord (1, 3, and 5), and lower the middle note of the chord (1, flat 3, and 5), you have turned it into a minor chord.
The same principle works in reverse. You can turn a minor chord into a major chord. The 6 chord is normally a minor chord. But if you take the middle note of the chord, and move it up one half-step, it will become major. In other words, a 6 chord is normally structured 6, higher 1, and 3. But if you raise the middle note (1, higher sharp 1, 3), you have turned it major.
This principle works on all 7 of the chords. In fact, even the 7 chord can be turned into a minor chord by doing 7, higher 2, and sharp 4, or major if you do 7, higher sharp 2, and sharp 4. Also, the black keys can be played as triads just as well as the white keys can. This is important to know, since most piano pieces you try to learn by ear are not in the key that we have been using.
The principles are the same in every key, and if you watch for them as you learn to play different pieces of music, you’ll find that they can be very useful.