"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 5. Chords

A chord is made up of three or more notes. All chords are created by stacking intervals. Depending on the intervals the chord can be major or minor, or augmented or diminished.

A "C" major triad is a chord which contains the notes C, E, and G. The C to E interval is a major third which determines that the chord will be a major chord. If the E were an E flat, then the chord would be a C minor triad.

The G is the fifth of the chord and completes it. The interval between the E and the G is a minor third. If The E were an E flat then the interval between the Eb and the G would be a major third since the C to G interval must be a "perfect" fifth in order have the stability of a triad.

If we were to raise the G to a G sharp, the chord would then be a C augmented chord and would have a very different and unstable sound and a different effect in the song.

The augmented chord is made up of two major thirds; if we stack two minor thirds we get a diminished chord.

Diminished chords are most often seen as a stack of three minor thirds and are named for any of the four notes in the chord. For instance if we start with C and add the note which is a minor third above C that would be E flat. Then a minor third above E flat would be G flat.

These three notes would give us a C diminished chord but in most cases we would also find the A added since it is a minor third above G flat and a minor third below C.

These four notes make up a chord which could just as easily be called a C dim, an E flat dim, a G flat dim, or an A diminished chord, and could be played in several positions on the guitar.

The Seventh Chords The major seventh chord, the minor seventh chord and the dominant seventh chord are all chords which use the seventh note above the letter note of the chord, but each has a different sound.

A major seventh chord is a major triad with a fourth note added which is a major seventh above the chord letter note. A "C-major seventh" chord would therefor have a C, an E, a G, and a B-natural.

Another way to think about this is that the fourth note is just a half step below the octave of the chord letter note. The minor seventh chord is a minor chord with a fourth note added and this note is again the seventh note up from the chord letter note, but in this case it is a minor seventh.

In a "C-minor seventh" chord the notes would be C, E-flat, G, and B-flat.

The dominant seventh chord is the chord built on the fifth scale degree of the key and contains a fourth note, which is always a minor seventh. This is what distinguishes it in sound from the major seventh chord.

In the key of C, the Dominant chord is G and the G dominant seventh chord would consist of G, B, D, and F-natural.

Another way to remember this is that the F is the same as it is in the normal C scale. The dominant seventh is still just one of the chords made up of elements of the scale of the key the song is written in.

An Augmentation of Voicings.

Chords and melodies may be enhanced by the choice of how the notes are placed in relation to each other.

The guitar is somewhat limited as to where the notes of a G chord can be played, and yet, playing the chord in a closed, barred position as if it were an E chord with the bar of the first finger across the third fret will give a different sound from the normal G chord played on three fretted and three open strings.

The difference is a matter of voicing the chord. The same chord can be played as a D chord played above a bar at the fifth fret, or as an A chord with a bar at the tenth fret, and so on.

Each gives a choice of which notes are present and in what positions or voicings. examples of barred voicings of guitar chords.


The keyboard is much more versatile since the fingers can play any of the notes in just about any combination. Given the possibilities, the writer can make a choice of which order of intervals sounds best for the song.

When a chord is "voiced" so that the tonic note is the lowest note this is the normal way to hear the chord. If we are playing a C chord, then the C would normally be the lowest note and the E, the G, and if the chord is a seventh chord, the B-flat will all be stacked above the bass C.

But if we put the third of the chord, the E on the bottom, the chord has a different sound. This is known as the first "inversion" of the chord and the chord doesn't sound quite as solid, or resolved.

It may be that this is the appropriate voicing for the chord when it is heard in a less stressed position in the song, but usually not on the final resolution at the end of the song.

If we place the G on the bottom of the chord, this is called the second inversion and again has a less substantial but an interesting sound.

The F chord with a C in the bass is quite common on the popular music charts.

By experimenting with these inversions we can achieve many subtle effects and still be using relatively simple chords.

If we place the seventh, the B-flat at the bottom of the chord, we have a very dark, brooding chord which has been used to great effect in popular music. The Righteous Brothers song, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" is a good example.

There is no formula for the placement of the rest of the notes in the chord. Sometimes the fifth will be doubled in the left and the right hand and the third will only be present in one note of the chord.

This is especially true of choral singing where the major or minor tonality of a chord can be established by only one voice and may not need to be doubled.

You really have to rely on your ear in this question of voicing as in other considerations of songwriting. There are many possibilities.

Try some of these and experiment with others: examples of chord voicings and progressions using inversions.

(instead of c,e,g,b-flat for the C7 chord, try c,f,g,b-flat, which replaces the third of the chord with a fourth for a "suspended" effect, or c,f,b-flat,e, or c,g,e,f,b-flat, and for a minor example, Cmin7, try c,g,b-flat,e-flat,g,b-flat, others including suspensions and ninths, thirteenths, etc.)

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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