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How to build chords – Beginner to pro

Understanding how to build chords is one of the most important things you can learn as a songwriter or beat maker. Chords are when multiple notes are played at the same time. The emotional foundation chords provide is what gives a song its vibe. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with music theory — These are the tricks to make chord building easy as 1-2-3!

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Intervals

An interval is the distance between two notes and chords are usually built by stacking notes at different intervals. You can count the intervals up and down the keyboard in steps known as semitones.

The confusing part is that the name of an interval can be a different number from the number of semitones, this is because it’s based on the scale position. For instance, a major third is on the third position on a major scale. In this guide, intervals will be broken up into smaller intervals, so all you need to remember are these intervals:

  • Major second = 2 semitones
  • Minor third = 3 semitones
  • Major third = 4 semitones
  • Perfect fourth = 5 semitones

By stacking these intervals, you can create almost any chord. The starting note is typically called the root, this note will also give the chord its name. For instance, a chord starting on note C will be a C-chord. The following notes will determine if it’s a C major, C minor, C diminished, etc.

Any other intervals mentioned in this guide, such as perfect fifth, minor seventh, major seventh, and major ninth, will be in referring to the different notes of the chords in relation to the root, but you don’t have to remember the total number of semitones.

Basic chords

The most common chord types are major and minor chords. These are both triads, which means they have three notes each and are built with intervals of thirds (3 or 4 semitones). The lowest and highest notes stay the same for both major and minor chords but the middle note is different by 1 semitone.

Two other triads, that are less common because of their dissonance, are diminished and augmented chords. You can ignore these two chord types as a beginner unless you’re feeling adventurous.

Major chords [Beginner]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Major third: count up 4 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 3 semitones

Major chords sound happy.

c-major-chord.png
  • C major

Minor chords [Beginner]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Minor third: count up 3 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 4 semitones

Minor chords sound sad.

c-minor-chord.png
  • C minor

Diminished chords [Intermediate]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Minor third: count up 3 semitones
  3. 3
    Diminished fifth: count up 3 semitones

Diminished chords sound scary. A diminished fifth means the fifth is lowered by 1 semitone.

c-diminished-chord.png
  • C diminished

Augmented chords [Pro]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Major third: count up 4 semitones
  3. 3
    Augmented fifth: count up 4 semitones

Augmented chords sound mysterious. An augmented fifth means the fifth is raised by 1 semitone.

c-augmented-chord.png
  • C augmented

Chord sets

There is a simple trick to get seven triad chords that work great together. First, you need to select a major or minor key. Major and minor keys have seven-note scales, and all notes form the foundation of a chord each. For example, in the key of C major, we have the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (all the white notes.)

  1. 1
    Root: start on any scale note
  2. 2
    Second: skip
  3. 3
    Third: add to the chord
  4. 4
    Fourth: skip
  5. 5
    Fifth: add to the chord

If you do this with every scale note, you automatically get all the chords of the key. In C major, the chords would be C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim for short.)

Cmajorchords.gif
  • Triad chords

Chord chart

Chord chart.png

Use this chord chart to see all chords in every major and minor key. To the left, you can see the major keys. To the right, you can see the relative minor keys. The relative minor key shares all notes and chords with the major key but the note and chord that feels like “home” is different. For instance, A minor is the relative minor key of C major. So they both have the exact same notes and chords.

Up top, you can see the roman numerals of each chord in each key. Major chords are written in uppercase numerals, minor chords are written in lowercase numerals, and diminished chords are written in lowercase numerals with a circle at the end. These roman numerals are for understanding the function of the chords within the key. For example, the I-chord (1) is the chord that feels like “home”. Chord function becomes more important when analyzing chord progressions.

Colorful chords

Normal major and minor triad chords are all you need for most endeavors, but sometimes you might want more color and complexity. For these times, chords like suspended, seventh, and ninth chords could be the way to go.

Suspended chords

Suspended chords are when you take regular major or minor chords and “suspend” the third. This means switching out the third for a fourth or a second. Instead of using major and minor third intervals, you’d be using major second (2 semitones) and perfect fourth (5 semitones) intervals. Suspended chords add tension with an open quality.

Suspended fourth [Intermediate]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Perfect fourth: count up 5 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 2 semitones
c-suspended-fourth-chord.png
  • Csus4

Suspended second [Intermediate]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Major second: count up 2 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 5 semitones
c-suspended-second-chord.png
  • Csus2

Seventh chords

A seventh chord is when you take a regular triad and add another note on top — Specifically a major or minor seventh. All you have to do is count up 3 or 4 more semitones. You could also think about it as going down 1 or 2 semitones from the octave of the root. Seventh chords sound more complex, dreamy, and sophisticated.

Major seventh [Intermediate]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Major third: count up 4 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 3 semitones
  4. 4
    Major seventh: count up 4 semitones
c-major-seventh-chord.png
  • Cmaj7

Minor seventh [Intermediate]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Minor third: count up 3 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 4 semitones
  4. 4
    Minor seventh: count up 3 semitones
c-minor-seventh-chord.png
  • Cm7

Dominant seventh [Intermediate]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Major third: count up 4 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 3 semitones
  4. 4
    Minor seventh: count up 3 semitones
c-dominant-seventh-chord.png
  • C7

Minor seventh flat fifth [Pro]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Minor third: count up 3 semitones
  3. 3
    Diminished fifth: count up 3 semitones
  4. 4
    Minor seventh: count up 4 semitones
c-minor-seventh-flat-fifth-chord.png
  • Cm7b5

Seventh chord sets

Similar to the trick to get all triad chords of a key, you can get all seventh chords of a key by just adding one more note in the same fashion.

  1. 1
    Root: start on any scale note
  2. 2
    Second: skip
  3. 3
    Third: add to the chord
  4. 4
    Fourth: skip
  5. 5
    Fifth: add to the chord
  6. 6
    Sixth: skip
  7. 7
    Seventh: add to the chord

In C major, all the chords become C major seventh (Cmaj7), D minor seventh (Dm7), E minor seventh (Em7), F major seventh (Fmaj7), G dominant seventh (G7), A minor seventh (Am7), and B minor seventh flat fifth (Bm7b5).

Cmajor7chords.gif
  • Seventh chords

Ninth chords

By taking a seventh chord and adding another note, the major ninth, you get a ninth chord. This new note will be 1 octave and 2 semitones away from the root. The sound is similar to the seventh chords, just more complex and thicker.

Major ninth [Pro]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Major third: count up 4 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 3 semitones
  4. 4
    Major seventh: count up 4 semitones
  5. 5
    Major ninth: count up 3 semitones
c-major-ninth-chord.png
  • Cmaj9

Minor ninth [Pro]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Minor third: count up 3 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 4 semitones
  4. 4
    Minor seventh: count up 3 semitones
  5. 5
    Major ninth: count up 4 semitones
c-minor-ninth-chord.png
  • Cm9

Dominant ninth [Pro]

  1. 1
    Root: start on any note
  2. 2
    Major third: count up 4 semitones
  3. 3
    Perfect fifth: count up 3 semitones
  4. 4
    Minor seventh: count up 3 semitones
  5. 5
    Major ninth: count up 4 semitones
c-dominant-ninth-chord.png
  • C9

Experiment

You may have noticed how most chords are named after their interval structure, and the more complex the chords get, the more complex the names get. This trend continues with countless more chords. Any interval can theoretically be added to any chord. But instead of learning all the chords in the universe, you can simply go by ear and combine notes in various ways that sound good to you. Experiment and have fun because that’s what music is all about!

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