Teach Yourself Music Theory – 29.) Identifying Triads

You probably have heard this term before, but maybe haven’t been able to completely define it. Especially as an aspiring musician, composer, producer, etc., you have heard this word before:


A chord.
Which is a group of pitches played at the same time (or played in succession of one another in overlap) to create harmony.


Harmony, which we have talked about before in terms of harmonic intervals, are sounds (two or more) sounding at the same time.


Chords are defined by their collection of pitches, order, arrangement, etc. Today, we are going to talk about the basic kinds of chords in modern music. Those are triads, which are chords comprised of three different pitches, with the notes (from lowest to highest) are a third apart from each other.


That might be a confusing definition, so let’s take it a deferent approach…


Let’s list off the different kinds of musical intervals of thirds. There is the m3 (minor third) and the M3 (Major third). Now, let’s come up with the different interval combinations between the three possible notes:

  • m3 – m3
  • m3 – M3
  • M3 – m3
  • M3 – M3

Great, now let’s actually right them out. Start on middle C, and then write the pitches above with the possible interval combinations above:


These are triads. Three note chords built on thirds. Play them and listen how different they are. They go by these names:

  • m3 – m3, Diminished Triad
  • m3 – M3, Minor Triad
  • M3 – m3, Major Triad
  • M3 – M3, Augmented Triad

When talking about the quality of a triad, we look at the root, which is the lowest note the chord is built upon, and call it by its letter name. Then, we look at the third and fifth (respective pitches above that are a third and fifth apart from the root) to see the intervals to define the quality.


So, if we write D-F-A, we get a D minor triad. That is because the root is D and the interval combination of the thirds are m3 – M3. Try writing triads and seeing what you get!


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Tip #184 – Unique Use of Dominant 13 (b9 #11) Chord

Some jazz performers, arrangers, and composers have the inclination to add tension tones and various extensions on top of simple triad chord harmonies. Not that it is a bad thing, but it can become mundane if used too often or too frivolously.

With that out of the way, one chord that I have noticed some people using is the dominant 13 chord with alterations of a b9 and #11. Usually, this is recognized as a V 13(b9 #11) in the jazz tune – but here is another use of it:

Let’s first start by separating the dominant 7 from the upper extensions. That gives us the V7 chord and the (b9 #11 13) above.

If we reharmonize the (b9 #11 13) be their enharmonic, we get a minor triad a tritone above the root of the chord.

Typically, there is no major or natural minor key that has both a V7 and bii. However, who said that the dominant chord has to function as a V7 chord? Instead, we can think of it as a tritone substation making it a bII7 in a minor key with the minor triad acting as a v. In which case, both the bII7 and v chords resolve to the minor tonic triad of i.

Try it out for yourself!

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Tip #183 – Why the iv o7 Chord Works

A diminished seventh chord built on the fourth scale degree of the key. Think about it for a second.

Now, do you think this chord can resolve to the tonic in a iv o7 – I progression?

Let’s see in comparison to a regular ii 7 – V 7 – I progression:

If you play these chords, you will hear that both of them sound like complete resolutions to the I chord. But why?

Well, first start off by looking at the enharmonics of the iv o7 chord. Notice how there are 3 shared common tones. What’s more, the one note that is different is the b9 of the V chord. So basically, the iv o7 acts as a V 7(b9) chord with the seventh in the bass.

Try it out and see what else you can use it with.

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Tip #181 – Reducing to Power Chords

We have talked about how power chords can create ambiguity in the harmony because you cannot exactly tell if the chord is major or minor. In addition, transforming a diminished triad into a power chord creates a chromatic in the key pitch collection as well as ambiguity in the leading tone.

Besides blurring the lines of major and minor, reducing to power chords can help enforce root movements. Now that the listener cannot rely on whether a major chord moved to a minor chord, vice-verse, or whatever – they have to pay attention to the root movement.

Chords that are a P5 or P4 apart will now have more power in transition. The listener will notice the sol – do pitch movement, even if the chords are not V – I, because the key is not exactly distinguishable due to the power chord harmonization.

This can work to your advantage, or work against it. So, pay attention to where and how you use power chords – especially when you are bouncing between triadic harmony and power chords.

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Tip #180 – Using the Principle of the I 6/4 Chord

This post is NOT a debate on if the I 6/4 chord acts more of a tonic or dominant chord. Instead, we will be talking about the principle behind the chord and how to apply it to other practices.

While the analysis of the I 6/4 chord is up to debate, the function is not – the chord comes before the V chord, and then it usually resolves to the I chord from there. Why so? Well, looking at the shape as well as the voice movement of the I 6/4 chord to the V chord, it is a suspension of higher tones over the shared root resolving to the dominant chord.

Basically, we can learn from this is that by suspending voices over the dominant root, we create a delayed resolution to the V chord and then to I.

Not only can this be done with a I 6/4 chord, but it can also be done with a V sus4 chord, a V chord with upper tension tones, and variations:

Try them out – that by keeping the root the same, but changing the upper structure or voicing, you create a delay in the harmonic movement resolving back to I.

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Tip #174 – Reimagining Purpose of a Circle-Of-Fifths Progression

To some people, a circle-of-fifths progression (a sequential chord progression with root movement all done by perfect fifths) is a very artistic way of composing music. Others may find it predictable because you know well in advance where the next chord is going to.

Take a look at this one for example:

You can view this as a simple circle-of-fifths progression, but how about another way:

You can also reimagine this as an overlay of IV – I – V movements. And now when you are in this mindset, you can control how to get out of the predictable pattern into a set key with the understanding that you have the momentum of a IV – I – V progression.

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Tip #171 – Incorporating a Diminished Passing Chord

Say that you have a progression that utilizes two chords (one after the other) a M2 distance apart in the root:

As you can see by the example above, the Eb major triad and the F major triad fit that definition.

What you can do for some added harmonic progression color is insert a diminished passing chord in-between.

Simply, you build a diminished triad on the root of the pitch that falls chromatically in between the two chords:

From there, you would then orchestrate the chords for better voice leading, but the added diminished passing chord gives a little more emphasis to the arrival of the F major triad in the progression.

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Tip #170 – Incorporating a Chromatic Approach/Passing Chord

We are going to be talking about different kinds of passing chords.

Today is about the chromatic passing chord (although I prefer to call it a chromatic approach chord – and you will see why shortly).

Take a simple pop chord progression like the example below:

To create this passing chord, you approach to destination chord with a chord the same shape/structure/voicing a m2 higher or lower. While you are using to pass in-between two chord, the structure of this passing chord is based on the chord you want to approach onto.

It would look like this, going from above and from below, respectively:

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Tip #169 – Finding Place for the #iv Chord

The #iv chord…

A minor triad (or minor seventh chord if you choose to expand the harmony) built on the #4 scale degree… which is a tritone away from the tonic.

One use for it is as a loose chromatic approach from the IV to the V. For example, take the following harmonic progression:

Now, let’s insert the #iv chord in between the IV and V of the progression. Notice the chromatic lines and how it makes this interesting chord less “out-of-place” with the key:

It does soften the blow of the cadence because the ear is trying to figure out what key we are in, but it can be used for coloristic effect.

On the same idea of chromatics, we can substitute the IV with a #iv chord in a vi-IV-V-I progression with the use of chromatic voice-leading:

Play around with it and see how it sounds!

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Tip #168 – Having Harmony Never Return Home

One thing I have noticed to be pretty common in early and classic 80’s heavy metal is a chord progression between the V and the VI.

This use of the progression to alter between tension (the V or V7 harmony) and uncomplete resolution (the VI). The listener wants to hear the tonic, but instead gets the minor triad that governs over the natural minor scale.

It creates a somber and unresolved sound without falling away from the key center. You can still hear this progression in the major key area without over using the I chord:

You can also change the order and have the V chord on the first measures of the phrases, but it might create a poor distribution of tension and resolution according to the hierarchy of the song form:

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