Piano Lesson: Chords And Cadences

All about what chords are, how to build them, how they're named, and how they're used in cadences.

Playing the piano is a fun activity for many people. One of the things that most piano students learn about is chords and cadences. These can be difficult for some students to learn, but really, they are quite simple.

First, each scale has a particular starting note, and that first note is called 1. The chord built on that are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale. It is called the 1 chord.

Each note of the scale has a chord built on it. The "2" chord is built on the 2nd, 4th, and 6th notes of the scale. The "3" chord is built on the 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes of the scale. The "4" chord is built on the 4th, 6th, and 8th (1st) notes of the scale. The "5" chord is built on the 5th, 7th, and 2nd notes of the scale. The "6" chord is built on the 6th, 1st, and 3rd notes of the scale. The "7" chord is built on the 7th, 2nd, and 4th notes of the scale.

Remember that "8" is the same as "1," because all scales begin and end on the same note, and all have 8 notes. Therefore, "9" would be the same as "2," "10" would be the same as "3," and so on. That is why there are some chords that are built with the ¡°lower¡± scale notes on top.

All of these chords also have names. The 1 chord is the "tonic," the 2 chord is the "super-tonic," the 3 chord is the "sub-mediant," the 4 chord is the "sub-dominant," the 5 chord is the "dominant," the 6 chord is the "mediant," and the 7 chord is the "leading tone." Notice that 3 and 6 have similar names, and 4 and 5 have similar names. They will often be used together, or in place of one another.

Chords are also referred to by roman numerals. Whether the roman numeral is uppercase or lowercase depends on whether the chord is major or minor (or diminished or augmented). A "degree" symbol is added (to minor) for diminished chords, and a + symbol is added (to major) for augmented chords



In a major key, the following chords are major: 1, 4, and 5. The following chords are minor: 2, 3, and 6. The 7 chord is diminished. That means the roman numerals look like this: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii¢ª.

In a minor key, the following chords are major: 3, 5, and 6. The following chords are minor: 1 and 4. The following chords are diminished: 2 and 7. That means the roman numerals look like this: i, ii¢ª, III, iv, V, VI, vii¢ª. In minor, the 7th scale degree is raised, so that you use the harmonic form of minor, instead of natural minor. These are the correct chords in HARMONIC minor only.

It is also possible to have "seventh chords." This means that a fourth note has been added to the chord, and it is an interval of a seventh above the first note. For example, a V7 chord is built on these scale notes: 5, 7, 2, 4. It is called a "dominant seven." All sevenths that are added are DIATONIC, which means they are the note that naturally occurs within that particular key. For example, in C major, you could not have the chord "C-E-G-B-flat," because B-flat is not in the key of C major. B natural is in the key of C major. Therefore, you would have "C-E-G-B."

Each chord also has "inversions." A chord is inverted if its BOTTOM NOTE is something besides the first note of the chord (that is, if a I chord had either the 3 or 5 on the bottom). A chord with the 1st note on the bottom is said to be in "root position," because the first note of the chord is also called its "root." A chord with the 2nd note on the bottom is called a "first inversion" chord. A chord with the 3rd note on the bottom is called a "second inversion" chord. A chord with the 4th note on the bottom (if it is a seventh chord) is a "third inversion" chord. It matters what inversion you use! Most chords are used in either root position or first inversion. You should almost NEVER use second inversion. Use it only in a cadence, when practicing your inversions (not part of a piece), or when written in a piece.

If a chord is in first inversion, you will see a small "6" written by the roman numeral. If it is in second inversion, you will see a small "64" written by the roman numeral. These tell you the interval between the bass note and the other notes (in second inversion, there is a 4th between the bass note and the 2nd note, and a 6th between the bass note and the 3rd note).

There are certain "progressions" you can put these chords in. That is, when you put the chords in a certain order, they make a "song." The most common progression is I-IV-V-I, in either major or minor. You will also frequently see I-ii-V-I. Note that ANY chord may follow a I chord. V almost always goes to one, and so does vii¢ª. This is because both chords contain the 7th note of the scale, the "leading tone," which wants to go back to the "tonic." These endings are "cadences."

The rules about which chords can go where are not very important now, unless you are playing music from a particular era (in which case the chords are provided for you). Most piano players will practice their chords through inversions (root position, first inversion, second inversion, and back down) and their basic I-IV64-I-V6-I progression (note the inversions mentioned).

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