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Harmony for Dummies : encryption of chords

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Now that we have acquired the necessary vocabulary for the notes and intervals, we can now address the building of chords. Encrypting chords consists in finding what notes make up a chord, and it is essential to know how to do it right if you want, later, to work on harmony, improvisation and much more.

Basics required for this lesson : Harmony for Dummies : Intervals,
Practice this lesson : None

So now we will start with the first really important course, which will probably be divided into different parts because there is much to say. Everything before this course was there to lay the basics of vocabulary, so now I use real words when talking about the notes and intervals, without taking the time to re-explain all this. So if you have any doubts, go back to previous guitar lessons before asking a question.

Encryption of chords, what is it?

Well it's pretty simple: we will give a name to each chord. Each chord can have a name (even many names), and this name gives us the notes that make it up. It will allow us then to analyze chord grids, to understand what notes are in these chords. It will also allow us to harmonize the major scale in the next course.

First, some background

  • There is not a finite list of existing chords. We can create an infinite list, any combination of notes is a chord, even if it's horribly wrong. Put your fist on a piano, you get a chord. Scrape all your strings, you get another chord.
  • Theoretically speaking, a chord is made up of at least three notes. If there are only two notes, it is an interval. But by misuse of language it is sometimes called chord (as in the case of power chords you will see below)
  • Encryption of chords is not a clearly defined science. The same chord may have many names (sometimes depending on context), some attributes of the chords can be written in different ways etc ... On top of that there are different traditions (the differences between classical and jazz, for example, I will not explain it now), and some written symbols that are not used anymore because they are difficult to use on a PC. In short there is always a part of interpretation, it's impossible to create an algorithm that will work 100%, it's up to you to make your own notation patterns, the main thing being to be understood and understand others.
  • We are speaking only of the notes that make up the chords, nothing to do with the positions of the chords. A C chord is a C chord, regardless of the position in which it is played.
  • we will start by seeing the principles of encryption in a purely theoretical side, we'll see how to apply it on our guitar later on - when speaking about the notes that make up a chord, we speak about different notes. So if you play 3 times C, one E and one G in a chord, we will only consider the three notes C, E and G. We don't care about the order of the notes neither, whether we have E, G, C or C, E, G, or G, E, C or whatever, we will always take them in the same order : C, E,G (we learn how below).
  • The name of a chord can be represented by a symbol (Cm7) and by its name (C minor seven).
  • When I name intervals later in the course, it is always relative to the root note of the chord.

The root note

The root note of a chord is the most important note. It is the one which gives its name to the chord and serves as bass in most cases. It is not always easy to define the root note in a chord, it may depend on the context and style, but we'll see 2-3 small tips to do this a little later below. The thing to remember for the moment is that in a C major chord, the root note is a C. If the root note of the chord is an E, it will be a chord of E "something".

The type of the chord

It's what will define which notes will accompany the root note. The possible combinations are too numerous to enable an exhaustive list, therefore, to form a complete chord, we often make a blend of several types. Nevertheless, we'll see in this course a short and non exhaustive list to give you a good working basis and we'll see the most important chords for the moment.

Main chords

The 3 sounds chords A three sounds chord is simply a chord composed of three notes. The most common 3 sounds chords are composed of a root note, a third and a fifth. We will see the others later.

It's quite simple to encrypt this:

  • If the fifth is perfect, we don't add any precision. In case of a diminished or an augmented fifth, we will precise it (b5 or 5b for the diminished fifth, and + for the augmented fifth).
  • If the third is major, we are dealing with a major chord and we don't need to add anything, if it is minor, we are dealing with a minor chord (m). Later, we will base on these chords and we will consider other "types" as "enrichment" of "extensions". So here we go for examples.

Major chord

Let's take the C as the root note. Major chord: C-E-G. E is the major third of C, G the perfect fifth. To build the symbol, we take the root note ("C") and add the symbols (in this case nothing, since the fifth is perfect, and the third is major, so nothing else is needed). Hence, C-E-G, is a C chord, which is called C major.

Minor chord

We need the minor third and the perfect fifth of C to get it. If you understood the previous lesson, you will easily find the notes C-Eb-G. The symbol will thus be Cm (C for the root note m for the minor third, and nothing for the perfect fifth), we will call this C minor. Note that we're talking about Eb and not D#, D# being the second augmented of C (remember enharmonic intervals).

Diminished chord

It is composed of the minor third and diminished fifth. So it's C-Eb-Gb. Theoretically it is written Cmb5 (C + m + b5), but we also often see this in the form C ° or Cdim (but we can get confused because the diminished seventh chords are also written in the form C°, so it's a good example of the mess caused by unclear definitions on the subject). We can pronounce C minor diminished fifth (or even fifth flat, coming from the difference between classic and jazz), but more often we will call this Diminished C.

Augmented chord

Rather rare, it is composed of the major third and augmented fifth. It is composed of C-E-G #, and is written C+. Once again, we can say C major augmented fifth, but usually we call this simply augmented C.

It is theoretically possible to create augmented C minor chord (Cm = C- Eb-G #) and C major diminished fifth (C-E-Gb, I detail the symbol just below), but they are both encrypted in another more logical way (we'll see this later).

For the C major diminished fifth, there is a problem for the symbol. You're gonna tell me "who cares, we can encrypt it some other way" except that we will encounter the same problem with other chords. Theoretically, without thinking too deeply, we put a C for the root note, nothing for the major third, and b5 for the diminished fifth. So that makes Cb5. Except that this time, we don't know if we are dealing with a C + b5 (C major + diminished fifth) or a Cb + 5 (C flat + perfect fifth, we have not seen this case yet). So the solution may be to write C5b. But that may not work in some cases (if you have other stuff to write after 5b).

So the best way to be sure is to put brackets: C (b5). There is no doubt possible. It's a bit heavier, but at least it avoids any ambiguity. So for basic chords, we must remember C, Cm, C ° (or Cmb5), C +. The first two are obviously the most current chords, the third we will see it soon, the latter is very rare (unless you play a lot of free jazz).
Before discussing the rest of the course, you need to get used to find the notes of these chords in any key. What makes up a D? an F # m? a B +? a B °? Abm a +? Train yourself, because then 90% of other chords will be based on these four notes plus some additional notes.. But it's not just over yet! In fact, I said that 90% of other chords will be based on major and minor chords, diminished and augmented, it means that we are missing 10% (thank you not quote me on these statistics, I said this almost at random :p).

These are the suspended chords, which are special enough to be detailed in a specific paragraph. A suspended chord is just a major chord (or minor), in which the third was replaced. So beware of the language misuse, a suspended chord may NOT be major or minor, since there is no third.

Supended chord

There are two types of suspended chords: sus2 and sus4 (pronounced sus2 and sus4, or if you feel like bothering, you can say suspended and suspended 2 4). In the first case, the third will be replaced by a major second in the second case by a perfect fourth.

So the examples, still with the C:
Csus2 = C - D - G. D is the second major, there is no third
Csus4 = C - F - G.

And here we can observe an interesting phenomenon: take a Csus4 composed of notes C-F-G. Mix a few notes, and consider that the F is our root note, putting notes in the correct order we get: F-G-C. If we analyze that, we realize that G is the second major of F, and C is the perfect fifth of F. That makes a Fsus2.

So it becomes obvious that the Csus4 is composed of the same notes than the Fsus2. Depending on cases, the chord may therefore have a different name. I will not detail it here because it's not very important, but we must remember that a chord may have many names according to which note is chosen as the root note, which brings us to the next paragraph.

And to finish this first part of the course on the encryption of chords, we will talk about the specific case of power-chord.

Je suppose que, comme beaucoup, vous savez déjà jouer des power-chord.

Si on regarde les notes d'un power-chord en do, on aura un do, un sol, puis un autre do (et encore, pas toujours pour le deuxième do). Concrètement, cela se résume à deux notes : do-sol.

Théoriquement, ce n'est donc pas un accord, mais un intervalle de quinte juste. Toutefois, c'est une exception à la règle.
L'accord se chiffrera simplement "5", c'est à dire C5. Implicitement ca signifie qu'il n'y a pas de tierce, juste la fondamentale et la quinte juste.


I guess, like many, you already know to play power-chord, so I will not explain the position. If you look at the notes of a power-chord (in C for example), you get a C, a G and another C (and sometimes you don't bget any second C at all).

So basically, it boils down to two notes: C and G. Theoretically, it is not a chord, but an interval of perfect fifth.

However as I already stated, it is an exception to the rule. The chord will just encrypted "5", i.e. C5. Implicitly it means that there is no third, just the root note and the perfect fifth.
En savoir plus : sur tabs4acoustic.com

How to easily find the root note?

So far, we picked our root note, and we had to create chords based on this root note. But when you have three notes, like F sharp, D and A, how do you know which one is the root note?

Well there is a fairly simple method that will work in most cases (simple cases).

  1. First we will list the notes from the lowest to the highest, so we get: F #, A and D.
  2. We will then consider each note as a potential root note, which gives us three possible chords: F #-A-D, A-D-F #, D-F#-A.
  3. Then the only thing to look at is : in which case do we get a third and a fifth (no need to look at the intervals terms yet).

In our example, it will be in the case of the D-F #-A. F #--A-D would have given root note- third-sixth, and A-D-F# would have given root note-fourth-sixth. Beware also to enharmonic notes, if you see D-Gb-A somewhere, chances are that it is a mistake and should be considered as D-F #-A.

And finally, to define the encryption, we calculate if the third is major / minor and if the fifth is perfect / diminished / augmented, which gives us a D major == D.

I should point out that there are other methods, more complete, to encrypt more complex chords, but I will talk about this later, for now it should be enough for you. And now, I want to bounce off what I said earlier about the minor chords + augmented fifth and major + diminished fifth (particularly the first, the second uses some knowledge we have not seen here so far).

Let's try to find a chord Cm +.

You get :

  • C (root note),
  • Eb (minor third)
  • G # (augmented fifth).

As I already know where to go I help you a little, we will consider the G # as a Ab.

It gives us C - Eb-Ab. What if we tried to find another root note than the C? I will let you find out by yourself, you should soon fall on another chord a loooooot easier to encrypt than Cm +. If you have concerns, please ask for a hand on the discussion board!

So that's another good example of how to handle chords encryption. We take a strange chord, which we don't see often, and we realize that in fact it is another much simpler chord. The lesson from my demonstration is that if you encrypt a chord one day and you find it strange or far-fetched, there may be another way to encrypt it.

To summarize

  • The chords we have seen so far consist of a root note, a third and a fifth, plus the particular cases of suspended chords and power chords
  • we take the root note as basis symbol, we add an "m" if the third is a minor, a "+" if the fifth is augmented, a "b5" if the fifth is diminished, nothing in other cases
  • we always need to consider if there is no other way to encrypt, taking another note as the root note(we will learn how to use the context later on) - encrypting a chord is a real mess
  • Chords to remember: C, Cm, C °, C +, Csus2, Csus4, C5 (not only in C of course)

Train yourself to encrypt chords (in all directions, take notes and encrypt them, take a chord and deduct the notes). You can also have fun watching what notes make up the chords you play on your guitar. Like, if you play a G, first calculate what notes you're supposed to find and see if it's the ones you play on your neck.

As usual, if you have any questions, feel free to ask on the discussion board!


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