Where Do Chords Come From?
There is an interesting old legend that has come to us by way of European folklore in which it is said that newborn babies are delivered by way of stork. Perhaps you have heard of the legend. Perhaps you once believed the legend (or perhaps you still do)…
It is a ridiculous notion, of course. Newborn babies are definitely NOT carried by stork and gracefully dropped into the laps of hopeful, expecting mothers. I never believed that story. However, had you told me that music chords were carried by stork and gracefully dropped into the laps of hopeful, expectant musicians and songwriters… I probably would have believed you!
What is the deal with chords, anyway? Where do they come from?
When I was much younger, I used to place my fingers randomly on the fretboard of a guitar, or haphazardly on the family piano, and just hope against hope that my fingers had magically discovered a chord.
Nope. Whatever terrible sound I had concocted, it was definitely NOT a chord (or at least not a chord that anyone musical would ever consider using in a song). I was dumbfounded. Where exactly did chords come from?
Don’t worry, I later found out exactly where chords come from, and I want to share that knowledge with you! First, though, I should warn you: this is a very simple explanation of chordal theory, and much more could be said on the subject. Because the vast majority of contemporary western music uses only the notes within the key of the song, I will stick to explaining typical major and minor chords within a given key. Let’s recap what we already know:
There are twelve possible notes for any given key:
A, A# (or Bb), B, C, C# (or Db), D, D# (or Eb), E, F, F# (or Gb), G, G# (or Ab)
But there are actually only seven notes in a given key (with the eight note being a repeat of the first). You can figure out what seven notes are in a key by using the following formula:
Root, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half
That formula also tells you which number each chord will represent:
R (1), w (2), w (3), h (4), w (5), w (6), w (7), h (8)
We also know that the 1, 4, and 5 are major chords and the 2, 3, and 6 are minor chords. (The seven is diminished and we will not worry about it for now, as it is typically only used as a note that is added as a bass note to the five chord.
With all of that information in mind, we are ready to understand where chords come from. It’s simple, really. Using the major scale formula (R, w, w, h, w, w, w, h), we find major chords by using the 1, 3, and 5 of the chord’s major scale. An E chord, for instance, uses the 1, 3, and 5 of the E major scale. The notes in the E major scale are:
E (1), F# (2), G# (3), A (4), B (5), C# (6), D# (7), E (8)
Therefore, the notes in the E chord are:
E (1), G# (3), and B (5)
This formula works for any major chord in any key. However, it is important to point out that to find the notes in a chord, you have to use the major scale of the chord you are trying to find, and not the major scale of the key of the song. For instance, the four chord in the key of E is the A chord. To find the notes in the A chord, you have to use the 1, 3, and 5 of the A major scale, which is:
A (1), B (2), C# (3), D (4), E (5), F# (6), G# (7), A (8)
Therefore, the notes in the A chord are:
A (1), C# (3), and E (5)
To discover the notes within a minor chord, you use a similar formula, but you go one half step down from the third note of the chord’s major scale. In the key of E, the six chord would be minor. Let’s find the notes within the C#m chord by locating the 1, 3b, and 5 of the C# major scale, which is:
C# (1), D# (2), E# (3), F# (4), G# (5), A# (6), B# (7), C# (8)
Note: to be written correctly, the major scale needs to include ALL seven letters; therefore, when writing out the C# major scale you would use the note E# instead of F and B# instead of C.
Don’t forget that the third note in the scale has to be flattened, or dropped one half-step lower in order to create a minor chord. So the notes that make up the C#m chord are:
C# (1), E (3b), and G# (5)
One final secret: every note within every chord of a given key should also be within the scale of the key of the song itself. Notice that the E major chord used the notes E, G#, and B. The A major chord used the notes A, C#, and E. The C# minor chord used the notes C#, E, and G#. All of those notes are within the E major scale! In fact, a simpler way to find the notes within a chord (within a major scale) would be to start with the number of the the chord itself, skip a number and use the next chord. Skip a number and use the next chord.
The 1 chord of a major scale would use that scale’s 1, 3, and 5 notes to create a chord.
The 2 chord of a major scale would use that scale’s 2, 4, and 6 notes to create a chord.
The 3 chord of a major scale would use that scale’s 3, 5, and 7 notes to create a chord.
The 4 chord of a major scale would use that scale’s 4, 6, and 1 notes to create a chord.
The 5 chord of a major scale would use that scale’s 5, 7, and 2 notes to create a chord.
The 6 chord of a major scale would use that scale’s 6, 1, and 3 notes to create a chord.
The 7 chord of a major scale would use that scale’s 7, 2, and 4 notes to create a chord.
Sorry, no storks. But hopefully this information is helpful in explaining just exactly where those pesky chords come from, and how to create them on any instrument.
* This #ThursdayWorshipThoughts article is part 5 (of 5) of a larger series, “Music Theory March”. Be sure to check out the other articles in the series, as well! For a printable version of this article, click here.
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).