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Intro To Chords: Triads, Inversions & Fingering Best Practices

Written by Nathan Gifford on Thursday, 25 April 2019. Posted in Music Theory In Worship, Blogs

Music Theory In Worship - Part 3

Intro To Chords: Triads, Inversions & Fingering Best Practices

There are, of course, a near countless number of chord structures and variations, but we know in the realm of praise & worship music, there is a fairly small number of those chords that are regularly used. In this next installment of our Music Theory In Worship series, we will look at the basic structure of common chords and triads as well as inversions and best practices when choosing from different chord variations. This is an introduction to chords as we will go deeper in further installments of this series.

NOTE: This article is a part of our "Music Theory In Worship" series, and if you haven't read the intro article to the series, we highly recommend that you do! READ IT HERE!

In part 2 of this series, we looked at the Major Scale. If you haven't read that yet, it is very important that you do so because ALL chords are built from the major scale! A chord is not a fingering pattern on your instrument (as many will incorrectly teach... and we'll address in a moment), but is a specific combination of musical intervals from the scale. Just like you can learn the pattern and structure of what a major scale is, allowing you to build that scale from any note, you can do the same with chords. Knowing the scales AND the structures that make the different chord variations, you can easily figure out ANY chord! This is a huge jump for those that have learned only 3 or 4 chords and determined that they are not capable of going further. Guess what? You CAN go further... MUCH further!

As we continue, you will not be learning a G chord, or Cm chord, etc. You will learn what chords are. If you learn a major triad, for example, then you can quickly know that chord on any note and in any key.

MAJOR & MINOR TRIADS

The most basic of chords is the triad, which is simply a three-note chord. When we break it down, it is a root note with a 3rd and a 5th above it. You can also view it as a stack of third intervals. A major triad is a stack of a major third, then a minor third. A minor triad is the reverse... a minor third interval with a major third interval on top. Let's visualize this:

Major & Minor Triads

Here you see a G Major and G Minor triad. We build these off of the G Major scale. So, in this case, G is considered the "root" of the chord. Then we take the 3rd and 5th notes of the G major scale, which are B and D. This gives you the major triad! Then you simply flat the 3rd (lower one half-step) to make it a minor triad.

Now, let's look at building it by intervals. Again, take the G root. Then stack a major 3rd interval and minor third interval. G to B is a major 3rd and then B to D is a minor third. Think of a scale from each note. From the G, we've already established that the 3rd note in the major scale is B, so G to B is a 3rd, in line with the major scale. Now take a major scale starting on B as the root. The 3rd note is a D#. So B to D# would be a major 3rd interval. We need a minor 3rd though, so we flat the 3rd and that is what makes B to D a minor 3rd interval. You can also think of a major 3rd interval as being two whole steps, and a minor 3rd interval as one whole step and one half step.

Now, you can take any note, use either of the two methods above, and build both a major and minor chord. No more saying, sorry but I don't know a Bb chord, or a F# chord, etc. Now you do!

Okay, so I know what a G chord IS, but I still don't know how to play it on my instrument!

I understand your concern, so let me help you further. Some will teach you how to play a G chord (or any chord) on piano or guitar by modeling a fingering pattern for you. Giving you a picture of what it looks like. That is BAD teaching! The correct mindset here is to first learn what the chord IS, as we did above. If you know that a G major chord is built with G B and D, then you simply need to play those three notes on your instrument! You will generally play the root note on the bottom. So on a piano, you would play a G in your left hand (or use thumb and pinky to play two octaves of G) and then play the G B D in your right hand. It doesn't matter which G B D you use on the piano or your guitar. Of course, there are many options! Any of them will result in you playing a G chord. What you have to determine is the SOUND that you want. Playing those 3 notes in different octaves and different ordering variations does not change the actual chord, but gives you variations in the sound.

CHORD INVERSIONS

Now we are getting into inversions! This simply is the label given to a chord that is voiced (played) in an order that is different than the basic 1-3-5 triad. You can take those three notes and order then as 3-5-1 or 5-3-1. It's still the same chord! It's just a different inversion, giving a variation in how the chord sounds and fits in with the song.

Example: C Major triad in inversions

Major Triad Inversions

You can see here the C major chord, first in root position, 1-3-5. Then the 1st inversion, built from teh 3rd,  and the 2nd inversion, built from the 5th. Each of these are still a C major chord, just voiced differently!

HOW DO I KNOW WHICH INVERSION TO USE?

Well, there is no right or wrong inversion to use. However, there are three things to consider:

  1. The sound. You may use a particular inversion because it gives the sound that is most fitting to what you want, or blends the best with other instrumentation that is in the mix.
  2. The melody line. It can be very helpful to vocalists singing along with you, or the congregation for that matter, to have the melody as clear as possible. You do NOT need to play the melody note-for-note on ANY instrument in the worship band, as it's simply not necessary, but you can hint at it from the piano in particular. Putting the melody note at the top of the chord voicing makes that note more prominent and can help vocalists to hear it better.
  3. The fingering. Obviously, the chord you are playing is surrounded by other chords. You are coming from a different chord and will be moving on to yet another chord in the song. So use the inversion that has a fingering that is easiest for your transitions. You always should strive for the least amount of movement as possible. In my opinion, this is the most important of these three reasons.

When people are taught incorrectly, they tend to learn a chord in one variation, usually the root position. Then they play all of their chords in that same position, which has them bouncing all over their instrument with no fluidity whatsoever. Please... do not do this. Think minimal movement. Here's an example using the 1 - 6m - 4 - 5 progression that is so overly used in music (pretty much every song from the 50s), as seen in the popular worship song "How Great Is Our God". In the key of C, the chords for this song are C - Am - F - G. Now, considering reasons 2 and 3 above, this would be a good voicing selection:

How Great Is Our God chord progression

As you can see above, I voiced the chords with a C on the top, which is the melody note right on the downbeat of "great". This applies for each chord in the progression except for the G. Putting the G in root position would maintain the melody line so that's an option too. Also, see how minimal the movements are. From a C chord with C E G, you're moving to Am with A C E. There are two notes that are the same, C and E, so there is no need to move those fingers. Keep them and just move the G to an A. Same when going from Am to F, keep the two notes that are shared. There are no shared notes from F to G, so just make the shortest moves as possible. Then G to C has one shared note that you can keep in place.

Now back to why I didn't put the G in root position. While the melody note of D would have been on top, the fingering and movement would not have been as smooth when moving back to the C. Even though there is a shared note of G, you'd have to change what finger was on that note, removing the fluidity of the shared note... on the piano at least. Fingering generally wins out when it comes to ideal inversion selections.

DIMINISHED AND AUGMENTED TRIADS

While seen much less often in worship music, I do want to expand just a little further on the triad topic and look at diminished and augmented triads. You may have avoided them in the past, but you'll see that they are much simpler than you might have guessed.

Above, we looked at major and minor triads being a stack of a major 3rd and a minor 3rd interval (reverse for minor). From that perspective, an augmented triad is simply stacking two MAJOR 3rd intervals... and a diminished triad is stacking two MINOR 3rd intervals. You can also look at it as a half-step variation of the 5th note in the chord. From a major triad, raise the 5th a half-step and you have augmented. From a minor triad, lower the 5th half-step and you have diminished. Let's look at an example built from a F major triad:

Major, Minor, Augmented and Diminished Triads

You can see above that there is only one note that is different from major to augmented, or from minor to diminished. An augmented chord is most often used as a 5th and resolves back to a root... like a Gaug resolving to a C. A diminished chord also often resolves to a root, but from the 7th... like a Bdim to a C. There are, as always, many variations and options, but I'm just putting these potentially new flavors on the table for you!

Now, one last piece to the puzzle... let's see what chords are naturally major, minor or diminished based on the key you are in:

Major & Minor Triads with Scale

First, you see the C Major scale with a triad built up from each note of the scale. You see the 1, 4 and 5 are major. Then 2, 3 and 6 are minor. The 7th is naturally a diminished triad. Next, you see the A minor scale, the relative minor of C major. In a natural minor key, you see that now the 1, 4 and 5 triads are minor... while the 3, 6 and 7 are major. Then the 2 is diminished. Again, there are always variations and exceptions, but this is the natural occurence of the triads with the scales.

So, in the key of C major, outside of some exceptions in a particular song, the C, F and G would always be major chords. Then you would have Dm, Em and Am. Your 7th would be a B diminished. This is extremely helpful to know, especially when you are in a position of having to play something by ear, but knowing this will help you with every song you learn. You'll recognize chord structures and put the pieces together with much less time and effort when you know how everything works together!

Next time, we will expand further on chords and get into extended chords (adding a 7th, 9th, etc) and some other common variations. For now, do NOT just read this article and move on! Take this material and study it. Really get it solidified in your head, with a goal of it feeling like common knowledge.

Be sure to comment below and feel free to ask any questions! Stay tuned for Part 4 of this exciting music theory article series! And if you missed Part 1 or 2, or the Intro "Music Theory In Worship", click the links below to catch up!

About the Author

Nathan Gifford

Nathan Gifford

Nathan has been a worship leader for 20 years, serving in multiple churches from a new church plant to a large urban congregation... serving mostly in the state of Indiana. He grew up as a PK in Indiana and was actively involved in worship music from the age of 12. Over the years Nathan was involved as a saxophonist in his church band and also played in many other groups and events. While in college at the Indiana University School of Music, Nathan began moving into worship leading. Then after graduating, he went right into full-time ministry as a music pastor. He began writing new worship songs that have continued to be a part of his ministry as well as many churches across the country. Nathan has recorded 9 projects, which are mostly live worship projects. He is currently one of the worship leaders at Foothills Assembly of God in Fort Collins, CO.

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