An Introduction to…Chords

An Introduction to Chords

Understanding the basics of music theory can go a long way in helping you read music, create music, and communicate with other musicians. And Sheet Music Direct is here to help! Take a look at our introductions to other key music theory topics, including pitch and rhythm.


A chord is two or more different notes (usually three or more) that are played together at the same time. The most basic chords are triads: chords built in 3rds which contain only three unique notes.

Major Triad

The major triad consists of a root, a major 3rd, and a perfect 5th. To easily spell any major triad, use the root, 3rd, and 5th of the major scale. The major triad is implied by a chord name with no mention of quality.

Minor Triad

The minor triad consists of a root, a minor 3rd, and a perfect 5th. There is more than one way to spell a minor triad. First, spell a major scale and extract the root, 3rd, and 5th. Diminish the 3rd by a half step to make the triad minor.

Another method is to take the root, 3rd, and 5th from a natural minor scale with the same root as the desired minor triad.

Diminished Triad

The diminished triad consists of a root, a minor 3rd, and a diminished 5th. We'll spell it with the major-chord-altering approach, this time diminishing the 3rd and the 5th by a half step. Diminished chords are written with the word dim or a small circle (°).

Augmented Triad

The augmented triad consists of a root, a major 3rd, and an augmented 5th. Spell it with the same approach of altering a major chord, this time raising the 5th by a half step. Augmented triads are written with the word aug or a plus sign (+).

Suspended Triad

Though technically not a true triad because it's not built in 3rds, this three-note chord is important to know because it appears quite frequently. The sus4 chord contains a root, a perfect 4th, and a perfect 5th. If a chord has only the word sus, with no number after it, you may assume it is a sus4 chord.

Another popular chord is the sus2, consisting of a root, major 2nd, and a perfect 5th.

Voicing and Inversion

The particular arrangement of notes in a chord is called its voicing. The notes may be voiced in any order, spread out, or doubled in different octaves without changing the identity of the chord.
When the root of a chord is its lowest note, the chord is said to be in root position.

If the 3rd is the lowest note, the chord is said to be in first inversion. To specify the inversion, you can follow the chord name with a slash and the bass (lowest) note.

If the 5th is in the lowest position, the chord is in second inversion.


An arpeggio is the notes of a chord played in sequence, rather than simultaneously. If your instrument is monophonic (capable of producing only one note at a time) arpeggiation is the only way for you to express chordal, or harmonic, information.

An arpeggio may start and finish on any chord tone and on any beat of the music. Learning to identify groups of notes as arpeggiated chord members makes many jobs easier: reading, memorizing, improvising. A root-position arpeggio (or chord) contains notes on all lines or all spaces only. When chords and arpeggios are inverted (or spread out across octaves), they can be harder to recognize on the staff. In many cases, any sequence of notes that doesn't move in a scalar fashion (line, space, line, space, etc.) is likely to be an arpeggio.

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