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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. 😉

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 © 2014 Matthew Woodward

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