Practical Music Theory Tips #1 – Basic Triads

Ryan Egan —  December 17, 2007 — 9 Comments

As music directors who have been trained in music theory, we sometimes assume that people know the basics.  This post doesn’t assume anything.

Perhaps you are a musician who is used to playing by written notes and don’t know how to build a chord.  Or perhaps you know how to play chords by ear, but don’t really understand how they’re built.  I want to quickly teach you how to play the three basic triads (three-note chords) found in any key.

Every Key Has Three Primary Chords

We’ll start in the key of C (so it’s easy for all of us!).  The main chords in the key of C are C, F, and G.  These three chords correspond with a certain note of the key’s scale.  Since there are seven notes in the scale (the C is repeated, remember!), the way to find these basic chords is to count.  C is the first note of the scale, F is the fourth, and G is the fifth.  So C can also be called the I (one) chord; F can be called the IV (four) chord, and G the V (five) chord.  So the most basic chords of any key are found on the first, fourth and fifth note of the key’s scale.

Building the Chords

So how do we build the triads?  The easiest way to explain without going into more detail (more on that in an extended music theory series) is this:  Keep in mind the key signature (no sharps or flats in C) and use C as the bottom note for the I (one) or C chord. Now, skip a note and add the E to the chord.  Now you’re playing C and E together.  Now, skip a note and add the G.  Now you’re playing C, E, and G together.  You now have the most basic three-note chord in the key of C!  Congratulations!  Move your bottom note to F and do the same thing.  Now move your bottom note to the G and repeat the process.  You’ve now learned the three basic three-note chords in the key of C.

Using the Chords in Any Key

This principal applies to any key.  Find the first note of the scale and build the three-note chord, then find the fourth note and do the same, then find the fifth note and do the same.  It is key that you follow the key signature. Make sure, in the key of D, for instance, that on your first chord, the D chord, after playing the D, that you skip to the F# instead of the F, following the key signature.

Hopefully you now have a basic grasp of the basic chords in any given key.  Leave any questions in the comments if this is confusing!  Tomorrow we’ll look at inversions (ways to rearrange these chords so that they give you a slightly different sound.)

Read Practical Theory Tips # 2 – Inversions

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Ryan Egan

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Ryan is a follower of Christ, husband, father, worship leader, & creative. He is heavily involved in the Association of Free Lutheran Churches and desires to teach others to live a life of worship in everything they do.