Guide to Chord Formation by Howard Wright (
Chapter 1 : Introduction

1.0 : Introduction

The idea of this FAQ is to give you the information you need to be able to work out and understand which notes make up a certain chord. Using this FAQ you will be able to:
  • Work out the notes you need for any chord.
  • Work out what chord name should be given to a particular bunch of notes.
A lot of people are put off from delving into a little chord theory because there seems so much to learn, it often seems confusing, and it's hard to give hard and fast rules. When someone posts a chord shape and asks 'What is the name of this chord?' there are usually at least four different replies given. It is true that in a lot of cases there is more than one way to look at things, and often a chord could be given two names, but it's still surprisingly easy to get to grips with the basics of chord names.

What do you need to know to be able to work out chord names for yourself?

Well it is hard to give 'Golden Rules' of harmony or music theory which can be followed to the letter always giving the right answer. However there are a small number of basic guidelines which you can follow that should take 95% of the mystery away from music theory as applied to chords.

First things first. To work out chord names the first and most important skill is to be able to count. Hopefully everybody mastered this skill some years ago, so we're off to a good start.

The second most important skill is to know the major scale. Most people will be pretty familiar with this too, but in any case it is very easy to learn.

The scale is characterised by the distances between successive notes. If we choose G as our starting point, it goes like this:
Note of the scale    Distance up from root note    Actual note
  1  (root note)             0                        G
  2                          2  semitones             A
  3                          4  semitones             B
  4                          5  semitones             C
  5                          7  semitones             D
  6                          9  semitones             E
  7                          11 semitones             F#
  8                          12 semitones             G
*** Important note for all you folks in America ***

Over in Britain we have things called tones and semitones. From what I know, you have things called whole steps and half steps. The conversion is:
  One tone = one whole step
  One semitone = one half step

As I'm used to writing about tones/semitones, those are the words you'll see. I think you can translate easily enough to steps/half steps.

*** Another note for people in Germany and Scandinavia ***

I will use the British conventions for note names - so there will be Bs and Bbs. To 'translate':
German/Scandinavian    British/Others
              H     =     B
              B     =     Bb
Likewise, if any of you that are used to Bs and Bbs see chord names like H7, use the above to translate back.


The pattern of tones and semitones is what characterises the scale. Obviously you can choose whatever note you like to start on, but if you simply count up in semitones, using the middle column above, you will get the major scale of that note.

It makes things easier if we refer to the notes of the scale as 'the 7th' or 'the 3rd'. If we know we are talking about a major scale and we know what the starting note is, then we can work out what the '7th' or '3rd' of that scale is. We use this idea to "spell out" chords - this is where you say something like:

The major chord is made up of 1st 3rd 5th

This means choose your starting note (the 1st) find the 3rd and 5th of its major scale and you have the right notes for the chord. The advantage of this method is that it can be used to find any major chord - you just change the starting note.

If you want to put in a little effort, you can quite easily learn the major scales of every key. That way you don't have to actually count up in semitones every time you want to find the 5th of a certain key. (See Appendix C)

But - if you want to keep things really simple, counting will work just as well. So, a little example.
You want to find out what notes are in a D major chord.
Your starting note or root note is D (the 1st)
To get the 3rd of the major scale count up 4 semitones - F#
To get the 5th count up 7 semitones - A

So the notes are: D F# and A.
So all this chord stuff comes down to these 3rds, 5ths and so on. These are called intervals.

Guide to Chord Formation by Howard Wright
Reformatted and noded (with permission) by Space Butler
Index   |   Intervals   >

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