Category Archives: Not Rocket Science

All posts concerning music theory and related techniques will be found here.

What The Heck ARE Chords and Arpeggios?

Chords and Arpeggios?

Good question.

I hope you’re seated comfortably, because ramping up to the answer of this question takes a fair bit of preparation.

The word harmony, as used by normal people in everyday speech, usually suggests a good relationship between people, things, or whatever. For example, “the tribes are living in harmony”, or “a harmony of flavors.”For us (not-so-normal) musicians, the concept of harmony is a wee bit strange. To us, a harmony happens when we choose any two different musical notes and play them together (at the same time). The strange part is that the combination of notes you choose may sound beautiful, OR extremely unpleasant, and BOTH results are called harmonies. Nice sounding combinations are called consonant harmonies, or consonances (see Example A, below). Notes that don’t mix well together are called dissonant harmonies, or dissonances (Example B).All two-note combinations fall somewhere between these two poles, and what sounds good to our ears has a lot to do with the relationships of notes within a cool thing called the Harmonic Overtone Series. (I’ll save discussion of that for a later post.)

Consonance and dissonance play equally important roles in making the music we listen to interesting, through the different tensions and releases of tension by which they cause us to feel things, and to make notes seem to want to move, both in melodies and chord progressions. It’s a yin vs. yang kind of thing. (More on that as well another time.)


Notes behave a lot like people.

If you were able to put two people in a room and secretly observe them through a one-way mirror it likely wouldn’t be that hard for you to judge just how well they got along with each other. They will either want to kill each other, or fall deeply in love, or they’ll be somewhere between those two extremes. It’s usually going to be an easy judgement call for the observer, how well person A combines with person B.Harmony gets more complicated when THREE different people are combined. No longer is there just the simple relationship between two people. Now the sound we hear is the result of how persons A and B get along, how persons A and C interact, how B feels about C, and of how all three people act when they are together as (A+B+C).

Nancy and Joan are best buddies. Joan loves Fred. Problem is, Nancy loves Fred, too. Put them in a room together and there will be tension. Poor Fred.  😉Imagine the harmonic complications that result from combining four or more notes with each other – it then becomes a lot like trying to keep a rock band together!

When three or more notes are played together at the same time the resulting harmony is called a CHORD.

The simplest chords are combinations of three different notes, called Triads. Triads can sound extremely pleasant, or harsh and irritating. The most common triads are the Major Triad and the Minor Triad, both of which are named after the most important note within the grouping. When a chord is called E Major, its name tells us that E is the Root Note and most important note of that Major Triad. The root note is often the lowest-pitched note of the triad. Triads are assumed to be major unless we are told otherwise, so Major Chords are labelled simply with the letter name of the chord’s Root Note . We say, “I’m playing an E chord”.

The lowercase letter “m” is used by musicians to represent the word minor . The note A would be the root of an A Minor triad, and the chord name would be written as Am to tell us that this is not a major chord. See Examples C and D. (Note: Two other triads, named diminished and augmented are also used, but not nearly as often and I’ll discuss those another time. )

Chords are thought of as being built from musical scales, the most common of which is the Major Scale, with its melody of “do, ra, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do”. Most everyone has heard this played or sang at some point. Notice how “do” is found at both the beginning and end – this is because the note that ends the Major Scale has the same name as the one which begins it, and is called the octave of the root note. (Just trust me on that for now.)

Instead of using the nonsense syllables found in that little ditty (which are from an educational method called solfège), musicians give each of the notes of the Major Scale a number to describe their positions in the melody. “Do, ra, mi…” becomes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Due to the fact that all Major Scales are constructed in the same way, when discussing music theory the C Major Scale (see Example E) is most commonly used, because none of its notes are sharped or flatted. This scale contains only the natural notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Using numbers, C would be called 1, and B would be called the 7th, and so on.

Should we wish to indicate notes that are diatonic to (within) the scale, but are above the octave, the numbering system simply continues. The D above the octave C would be given the number 9, and the F above the octave would considered the 11th.

If we imagine a chord to be a cake, the Arpeggio of that chord would be the list of ingredients called for in the recipe of that cake.

There you have it, in a nutshell. A good cake recipes usually lists the ingredients in the order in which they will be used, and musicians do the same when describing or practicing Arpeggios. The Major Triad is formed by combining the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the Major Scale. It’s formula is described as (1 + 3 + 5). For a C Major chord that translates as a combination of C, E and G. If you play those three notes one at a time in that order you are playing the arpeggio of the C Major chord.


That’s how simple it is.

We usually conclude arpeggios with the 8th note, or octave of the scale, to indicate that between the Root and octave, the notes just played (in the arpeggio) are the only notes that are used in the chord. So to play a typical “complete” C Major arpeggio, one would play C, E, G and then the high, octave C to “cap it off”, so to speak. See Examples F and G.The Minor Triad formula is (1+ b3 + 5), telling us that the note used in the middle of the triad is now to be played a half-step below the 3rd note of the Major Scale. Lowering the 3rd by flatting it brings it closer to the root. The shorter distance now found between those two notes is what we are referring to when we say “minor”. Following the formula, a Cm chord is made up of C, Eb and G. To play the Cm arpeggio we would play C, Eb, G, and end with the high C. This is shown below in Examples H and I.There are MANY types of chords, each with a different formula describing which notes to put together, and hopefully you can see how learning the Major Scale is essentially to understanding what these formulas tell you. A Major 7th (abbreviated as Amaj7) is a four-note chord, and its formula is (1 + 3 + 5 + 7). C Major 9th has five notes, and a formula of (1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9). See Example J.

Why use arpeggios?

Since  arpeggios simply separate the ingredients of our chord cake, every note in an arpeggio for a particular chord will sound appropriate when played over that chord.  It only makes sense that if your friend is strumming an E chord while you play the E Major arpeggio you will be in perfect harmonic agreement with one another. The notes of your arpeggio are all the “safest” notes to play.

It’s important to note that arpeggios can be inverted in the same way that chords can. In a real playing situation you can play the notes of an arpeggio in whatever order you wish – you don’t always have to start on the root. (If you’re not sure what I mean, check out my post called Inversion Diversion.)

Some folks refer to arpeggios as “broken chords” and, rather than playing a chord, they will substitute the arpeggio in its place. A good example of this is heard in the main riff of Manic Depression by Jimi Hendrix, in which he plays A and G Major arpeggios along with single notes to outline and imply the chords of a progression instead of just strumming them outright. See Example K.Whether they know it or not, arpeggios are used all the time by musicians and can be used to craft the melody of a solo, such as the famous lead guitar part that ends The EaglesHotel California. In the solo of that song, not only is every chord in the progression implied by arpeggios, but those arpeggios are also played in harmony, with each player using different inversions. I’ve transcribed it for you, with the chords shown, below:Scales, harmony, chords and arpeggios, combined with rhythm are the essence of music. And MUSIC is ESSENTIAL.

Let that be a lesson to you. 😉

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others using the links below. I won’t mind one bit. Your comments, corrections or suggestions for future posts are also most welcome.

 © 2014 Matthew Woodward

Ontario Music Teachers Directory

“The Paul Halladay Turnaround”

Back in the Stone Age when I was first learning to play, Renaissance Music was located on Princess Street across from the church. That store was a hangout for a lot of cool local musicians who would come in just to visit, chat with others, strum a guitar. It was a real nice vibe, but I remember how nervous I’d get when some of the heavy hitters would wander in, guys like Tim Mavety, Rick Genge.

One day I was sitting on an amp strumming a guitar in the back section of the store alongside of my friend Paul Halladay, who also had a guitar in hand. We were just hangin’ out, no particular place to go. Paul played me a real basic (to him) blues turnaround that I certainly had heard before, but had never figured out. He was kind enough to teach it to me right then and there, and I gotta admit, it proved to be a very valuable lesson, one I’ve always been grateful for, and now I’m going to share it with YOU.

A turnaround is a musical passage that literally turns a song around, bringing it back to its beginning. They can take many forms, and are commonly found in the last couple of measures of a 12-bar blues progression, signalling that the progression has reached its end and is about to start over.

Example A shows a chord change from A7 to E7 (I – V), happening in bars 11 and 12 of a 12-bar blues, which leads back to bar 1, where the progression starts again on A7. Naming the two chords that happen between the A7 and E7 is a pain in the butt – it’s easiest to just think of them as magical passing chords. The Paul Halladay Turnaround is in the first bar, the rest is just some stuff I’ve come up with to go along with it. As indicated, play all of the examples with a Shuffle groove. You can enlarge the example just by clicking on it.As I learned more about applying theory to the guitar, I also got more into playing the blues. I began to see other ways and situations where I could use that thang that Paul shared, and I’ll share those with you, too.

Example B is the same musical idea, but transposed down a perfect 4th to the key of E, using the 1st and 2nd strings as drones in place of the high A of the first example.When playing these examples try tossing your pick and using just your right hand fingers to pluck the strings. Example C jumps the idea up a fourth, this time to the key of D.If we apply theory to analyze The Paul Halladay Turnaround we can see that it begins with an A7 cluster containing, from low to high, G, C# and E (the flatted 7th, 3rd and 5th of the A7 chord). These notes move downward to resolve on a simple A major triad in 2nd Inversion. By playing around with other inversions of Paul’s thang we can come up with some different sounds for the same turnaround.

For Example D we remove the high droning A from the original example, and replace it with the low open A on your 5th string. Then we raise the flatted 7th (G) of the A7 cluster up an octave so that it becomes the high note of the cluster, now on the 1st string. The notes, from low to high are now C#, E and G from low to high – we have inverted that little A7 chord. Now move the notes down just like before, ending this time with a Root Position A triad. Same results, but the new voicings give it a different sound.If we go the other way, and invert the A7 downward, the notes will be in the order of E, G and C#, and will move down to an A triad in 1st Inversion, as shown in Example E.With Example F we are inverting downward yet again, starting with C#, E and G and bringing those notes down to form an A chord in Root Position. This is a bit of a finger stretch, but do-able.Keep investigating. If you try applying the same inversion ideas to the E and D turnarounds of Examples B and C you should be busy for a few days!

My thanks go out to Mr. Paul Halladay for the initial inspiration behind this post.

If you enjoyed this little workout, please share it with others. I won’t mind that one bit.

Let that be a lesson to you.  😉

© 2014 Matthew Woodward

Inversion Diversion

Finding Your Voice

I had the good fortune of playing with a great Kingston alternative rock band called Gaudi Birds during 1995-6. One (okay, several) of our tunes would become long jams on a groove, as our lead singer, Justin Bird, would go into these really cool stream-of-consciousness lyrical improvisations.

I recall how one song often veered off into a simple E–D–A (I–flat 7–IV) mixolydian chord progression, reminiscent of “Gloria” by Van Morrison. For most of the jam, I would just comp on the cowboy chords in the first position. When I sensed that we were approaching the return to our own song I’d break into a descending figure using small 3-note voicings of the three chords, signalling my bandmates that the change was coming.

How I did that is what this post is about. You might, however, need a little  preamble to help you understand.choir

The way in which the notes of a chord are arranged is referred to as the voicing of that chord. Think of your six strings as a little family choir group – daddy sings bass on the big 6th string, little sister sings the high notes on the 1st string. Each of the other four family members fit their own voice ranges in between on the other strings. Some chords we play have all six voices of the choir “singing”. Others may use only three or four while the others remain silent. You are the conductor, deciding who sings what note and when.

When changing from one chord to another we try to do so in such a way that none of the voices within the current chord has to move in an awkward way to get to the note it has to sing in the next chord. Some voices may move up while others move down. We try to avoid large leaps between notes. This careful consideration of how the voices will move is referred to as good voice leading.

Triads, such as the Major Chord have only three different notes to deal with. The standard names employed for close voicings of triads (in which all of the notes of the chord are within the span of one octave) are fairly easy to understand, even if you can’t yet read music:voicings

Shown above are the C Major Scale and the close voicings that are possible for the C Major Triad, which combines the 1st (Root), 3rd, and 5th of the C Major Scale.

If the three notes of the triad are stacked as a chord with the Root as the lowest note, the 5th as the highest and the 3rd between those two, the triad is said to be in Root Position.

To invert something means to put it upside down or in the opposite position, order, or arrangement. If the lowest note of the Root Position triad is replaced with its octave so that the Root is now the highest note of the chord (while the 3rd and 5th remain the same), we have inverted its position relative to the rest of the chord. Hence, the triad that results is said to be in First Inversion.

Inverting the 3rd to its octave, so the triad is in the order of 5th, Root, 3rd, results in what is called the Second Inversion of the triad.

Finally, inverting the 5th to its octave results in an arrangement of Root, 3rd, 5th – a return to Root Position, but with all of the notes now an octave above where we started. From this point, the other inversions will similarly repeat themselves in the same order.

Remember that each of these three arrangements, Root Position, 1st Inversion and 2nd Inversion, are the same chord. Each can be called a C Major chord on its own. These terms are used simply to describe how the notes are stacked in a particular chord voicing.

Now you’ll better understand what I did. Mind you, this is all relatively basic stuff, using root position (1-3-5), 1st inversion (3-5-1) and 2nd inversion (5-1-3) close triad voicings of E, D and A, but it’s a good exercise and also fun to see the many ways one can play the same three chords. If you can’t read, just use the tab shown below each staff.

Since the E and D chords are only a tone away from each other, I played each of them using the same voicing for each measure. Notice how in the first bar both E and D are in root position voicings, while the A is in 1st inversion. Bar two has E and D in 2nd inversion, and the A in root position. Note that I’ve also written this out with each E chord being played twice so the progression will resemble “Gloria”.

voicings 1A

voicings 2avoicings 3a

Guitar players use a lot of big, 6-string chords when playing rhythm, but we really only need the three notes of the triad to form the chord. Voicing the chords in this fashion requires that you think more like a keyboard player. It keeps the chord progression moving and interesting. In my experience I have observed how the better players tend to use smaller chords to get their point across.

Play the exercise and see if you are able to understand the order in which the inversions switch up as the progression descends. Enjoy!

Let that be a lesson to you.  😉

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others. I won’t mind.


Playing Guitar Has Its Ups and Downs

In my experience as a guitar instructor I have met two different types of students – those who know which way is up, and those who…well…don’t.

I’m referring to how a guitarist “sees” his or her instrument when viewing it from the playing position. Some players describe locations on their instrument with reference to the room they are in. Others, like myself, take a more musical point of view on things. 

Grab your guitar. See that big 6th string that’s closest to you? It’s also the closest string to the sky, so some people refer to it as the “top string”, and the skinniest string, closest to the floor as their “bottom string”. This way of thinking always messes me up because, for me, the big string is THE BOTTOM STRING and the skinny one is THE TOP STRING. Why? My orientation is not based on the room I’m in, but rather the musical pitches that each of those strings are tuned to. I think in terms of high and low musically. Lie on your back while playing guitar and you’ll see how the first concept fails, while the melodic idea does not. The pitch of the 1st string remains high above that of the 6th.

Our sixth string, tuned to E, sounds the lowest note available to us in standard tuning. I think of that low E as being at the bottom of things, below every other note on the guitar. As we move from the 6th string to the 5th string I think of that as a jump upward, because the 5th string is tuned to a higher pitch than the 6th. The other strings sound consecutively higher pitches, so I consider moving from the 6th string towards the 1st string as going UP across the strings, ie. from the low side to the high side.

Directionally, I always think in terms of pitch. If I’m holding an open E major chord and hit just strings 6, 5 and 4, I have just played the bottom half of the chord. I might just chug away on that low end, occasionally spanking those higher strings on accents. Think of the riff to the T. Rex song “Bang A Gong (Get It On)”.

Now let us consider these concepts of up and down with respect to a single string. Play your open low E (Ha!). As stated, the full-length of the open string sounds the lowest pitch of that string. Now press the string down against the 1st fret and note how the pitch we hear is now higher. By fretting the string you have shortened its length, which causes it to sound out a higher pitch. The shorter the string becomes, the higher the pitch goes, so, if you continue moving to consecutively higher frets you will be heading in the direction that I refer to as “up the neck”. Moving from the area of your headstock towards the body of your guitar is moving upward, and this holds true for all of your strings.

To summarize and take it just a bit farther, we actually end up with TWO ways to go when we wish to change from low notes to high notes: First we had the idea of moving upwards across the fretboard from our 6th string to our 1st; secondly, by shortening any string by fretting notes we can move up the neck. As a result, in a general sense, movement from low to high on the guitar is in a diagonal path that runs from the low open 6th string to the note sounded by using the highest fret available on the 1st string (which varies between instruments).

If I haven’t yet convinced you to change your ways, then consider how musical notes are written on sheet music and tablature staves, where low notes are placed on the lower lines and higher ones on the lines above them. Even if you don’t read, you can see from the example below how the melody of the picking pattern, which moves from low notes to high notes and then back to low, takes the shape of a curve that also moves up and back down as though it climbs up a hill to the top and then comes back down on the other side. On both the music and tablature staves you can see the shape of the melody rising and falling. A single strum across the entire G chord ends the melody. Its notes are stacked, because they are all played at the same time. See where the notes of the chord are found on the staves, relate them to your guitar, and think about high and low.example for ups and downs post

It is very common for musicians to discuss the direction of melodies or chord progressions, or the relationship between particular notes by using descriptive terms such as low, high, up, down, top, bottom, between, leaping upward, over, below, rising, falling, droning beneath, soaring above, ascending, descending, etc.

It only makes sense that your understanding of the guitar should be in keeping with this pitch-oriented, musical approach.

Let that be a lesson to you.  ;)

© 2014 Matthew Woodward