By Jon Chappell from In Tune Monthly

How to break up, suspend, alter, and cluster chords

You can learn chords by memorizing a chord chart and playing them in songs, but the more you know about how chords are put together, the better you'll be able to relate them to scales, melodies and harmonies. This is especially important when you want to use advanced chords.

Second: The most basic chords are triads, which are created by stacking notes in intervals called thirds. Chords like C major (C-E-G) and A minor (A-C-E) contain the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of their respective scales, which form two intervals of a third. Add another note a third above the last and you have a 7th chord (C7 and Am7).

STACKING THIRDS You can keep stacking thirds higher for more colors--tones that add flavor but don't change a chord's major or minor function--all the way through 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths. After that point, the notes, "start over" (just like the musical alphabet goes from A to G and then starts over). Chords are all about "threes": triads and stacking thirds to get different qualities. So once you've built all these chords, how do you use them in music?

BREAKING THE "BLOCKS" Playing all the notes at once is the most obvious way, but playing in this "block style" has some limitations. Let's take a look at ways to "break up the blocks," first by exploring ways to fragment chords, then by burrowing down into the chords themselves to see what happens when we change their basic DNA.

All chords are first taught as "stacks," but what happens when you play the notes one a time? When you, you're playing arpeggios, which are technically just the notes of a chord played separately.

Another approach to chord playing is to split up the notes of the chord by putting the bottom note on one part of the beat and the rest of the chord on another. This yields the famous boom-chick or oom-pah feel that's a trademark of some country styles. You can hear similar rhythms in the samba music of Central and South America as well as the folk dances of Eastern Europe.

ALTERING THE TONES Beyond simply playing standard chords in different ways, you can also change the chord tones themselves. Probably the best example for guitar is the suspended chord, where the 3rd (the F# on a D chord, for example) is changed to a higher or lower note. The "sus 4" chord (where G is used in place of F#) and the "sus 2" (E is added in place of F#) is especially common in pop and folk music. Remember, these suspensions work in all keys. We used D as an example because it's probably the easiest to play on a guitar.

These kinds of chords usually want to "resolve" -- that is, go back to their normal major 3rd. Try playing a D sus in fist position (D, A, D. G) and then change to a D major. (D, A, D, F#). Sound pretty cool, right!

Augmented and diminished chords also alter one of the three notes in a triad: this time, it's the 5th. Augmented chords are based on major chords with the fifth raised one half-step. An A major chord is A, C#, E; an A augmented is A, C#, F. Diminished chords start with a minor and lower the fifths. A minor is A, C, E; A diminished is A, C, Eb.

Like suspended chords, these uses need to resolve somehow, often to another chord.

You'll find many other permutations in pop and jazz. One of the most popular for blues players is the "#9" chord. When you raise the 9th a half-step, you're playing the same note as a minor third, and it gives a very cool harmony. Try an E7#9 chord: E, G#, D, B and G (that's the sharp 9).

These chords can be hard to hear at first, but the more you practice them, the easier they are to understand.


In Tune Monthly is the only magazine written exclusively for music making students in grades 7 - 12 and their teachers. Used by teachers as an in-classroom text, the magazine focuses on enriching and broadening the traditional music curriculum in middle and high schools and appeals to the independent player as well.