5-Minute Piano Lessons: The Hierarchy of Chords

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The Once and Always King

The idea of a monarchy has influenced the Old World for millennia; this included, of course, the ancient West.  In the Middle Ages, there was one church, one God, and one king.  There were “debates” on who that one king was.  These debates took place on the battlefield and had very little to do with words.

Western music theory was born out of this time.  Over the thousand-year period (give or take a few hundred), melody gave way to multiple melodies played at once.  The concept of harmony came out of that.  Eventually (about the 1600s and well after the middle ages) harmony settled in to a hierarchy of chords.

Currently, there is a war in music theory circles (thankfully without swords).  Those against the hierarchy if there is still a place for such structure in our present post-modern culture of non-structure.

Music theory doesn’t fit the philosophies of democracy and individualism.  Neither does a business or a family.  There is always a king and queen in charge somewhere.  Honestly though, you shouldn’t mix how you treat chords with how you treat people.  The hierarchy of chords just sounds… well it sounds really good.  Until someone can replace it with a methodology that sounds better, this hierarchy will remain king.

The question I will answer here: why do they sound so good?


An extremely brief history of music theory

500 BC: Pythagoras discovered the ratios of stringed instruments, out of the 3/2 ratio, he developed a seven-note scale (8 if you include the repeating first pitch).  This also made the octave.  Learn how to play a C Major scale for the right hand and the left hand.

566 AD (about that time): Gregorian Chants came to be; they used a strict scale system.  I might discuss our modern incantation of the church modes later on.

991-1050 AD: Guido De Arezzo is attributed to creating a six-note scale and setting up the basics of the solfege system.  Remember that song from the sound of music?  (my music students do) “Doe a deer a female deer, ray a drop of golden suuuuuun!…” (Guido De Arezzo’s version went Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La).

1685-1750 AD: J. S. Bach re-tuned the clavier (an early type of piano) from the Pythagoras form of tuning.  In short, he tuned things slightly out of tune to trick our ear into accepting it.  We use Bach’s well-tempered method of tuning to this day.

All of these concepts contributed to what we are about to learn.

In the last post I discussed the seven chords and the emotions our Western culture attributes to them.  They weren’t attributed at random.  There is a specific signature for what makes a minor and a Major chord, but the theory for that is too deep for our lesson today (hint: it has to do with 3rds).  You will just have to trust me (I have a BM Degree in Music Theory and Composition if that helps).


Review and Rename

Play through the chords bellow one at a time.

Don’t forget to curve your fingers.

piano_hands

Imagine that the 1-3-5 fingers are made of wood.  This will help you attack all three pitches so that they sound at the same time.  If you are having trouble playing chords go here.

C-E-G Major chord (M for short)

d-f-a minor chord (m for short)

e-g-b m

F-A-C M

G-B-D M

a-c-e m

b-d-f diminished (it sounds very ugly compared to the other chords)

The name of the chord is the first note of the chord (called the root) and its mood or given hierarchy.

Play them with their new names.  Be sure to say each name of the chord as you play it.

C Major

d minor

e minor

F Major

G Major

a minor

b diminished

Let’s rename the chords with roman numerals.  This is how we will explain them from here on out.  Upper case roman numerals mean the chord is Major.  Lowercase mean, you guessed it… minor.  The diminished sign is a degree sign “º”.

Play the chords a third time with their new names.

I

ii

iii

IV

V

Vi

viiº

 

The beautiful thing about terminology here, its very name gives the hierarchy away.

There are three Major chords I, IV, and V

There are three minor chords ii, iii, and vi

There is one diminished (rarely used) chord… the viiº.


The power of the I and V

Let’s play the slightly less than perfect cadence in all of Western History.

Play the V and then the I.

Most songs end in this cadence.  This means from pop to rock and even classical and rap songs… they all usually end with a V to I.

We call this the imperfect authentic cadence (or the IAC).  There is a perfect authentic cadence but I’ll talk about that later.

The power of the IAC is found in the leading tone.  I could write a whole post on leading tones!  But for the sake of this post here is a primer:

Play the C Major scale (not the chord but the scale) with your right hand.  Omit the final pitch.

It should look like this: C-D-E-F-G-A-B.

Do you feel like something is missing?  If you hold the B pitch out for any length of time… you will want to finish it with the following C pitch.

Congratulations! You have just discovered the leading tone (the B pitch in this scale).  We call the B pitch a leading tone because it longs to finish up on a C pitch.  It just leads our ears in that direction.

Play and hold a V chord.  Notice that the leading tone B pitch is in the middle.  This causes you to long for the I chord whose root is the very next C pitch!

This is the power of the V chord and why it dominates all the other chords.  This is why we also call it the Dominant.

The I chord is called Tonic.  The online dictionary defines tonic as: giving a feeling of vigor or well-being; invigorating.

The tonic I chord feels like home.  It usually begins the piece and ends it.  Wherever the song wanders about, home is where the heart is.  This is the second most powerful chord.

Exercise

Play these chords: ii-V-I-I (Yes… the I chord is to be played twice).

Now play and hold them for 4 seconds each.

ii-V-I-I repeat for as long as you want

You have just played a very common jazz progression.  If you aren’t taping your feet or nodding your head after playing it… you must not have been counting!  Get back to work!

Other piano lessons to peruse at your leisure

Happy piano playing!

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