The Weird Chord (part 2)

Yesterday we were talking about weird chords, in particular one that’s called ‘diminished’.  I thought maybe in the interest of accuracy I should probably point out that so far we’ve been talking about chords with three notes in them.  However in some forms of musical theory language (I know, there are a few) a ‘diminished chord’ actually has four notes, not three.  In that case it has the three notes we talked about plus another one on top (for what it’s worth, the top note is based on the 7th note of the scale, then lowered down a semi-tone)  For now I just wanted to point out that in some circles what we were talking about is actually a diminished ‘triad’ (triad = 3-notes) rather than a diminished ‘chord’ (chord = anything more than two notes).  Triad is a word you’ll hear a bunch when we’re talking about music.  I figured you might as well know.

The Weird Chord

You and I have been looking at chords for a while now.  I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve given you the idea that all chords are either major or minor.  They’re not.  There are other options, although we don’t hear them quite so often. There’s one particular chord it’s good to know.  I think of it as ‘the weird chord’.  You won’t come across it every day, but every once in a while.  And when it does come up it’s good to have someone in the room who knows what to do.  So think of this as your own musical heimlich manoeuver.

When it comes to chord names if it doesn’t say major or minor there’s a good chance it’ll say ‘diminished’.  It’s definitely a weird-sounding chord, but it’s not as unusual as you might think (you see it a bunch in things like ragtime and a lot of old-school pop music).  You can arrive at it a few ways.  Me, I start from a known and work from there.  And for me there is no bigger ‘known’ in music than the major chord.  So let’s start there.

Let’s work from a C-major chord (just because in C there aren’t any sharps or flats to confuse things, but you knew that, right?).  A major chord is made up of doh, mi and soh in a major scale.  So a C-major chord would be C and E and G-notes.  Okay, once we’re there the rest is easy.

Remember that the only difference between a major and minor chord is that the minor chord has the middle note a semi-tone lower.  So the three notes that make up a C-minor chord are C, E-flat and G.

All good so far, nothing new there.  But what if we also take the highest note of that C-major chord, the G-note, and do the same trick, change it from a G-note to a G-flat by lowering it a semi-tone?  Our new three notes would be C, E-flat and G-flat.  And those are the notes that make up a C-diminished chord.

So if you know the major chord you can figure out the diminished.

  • If a D-Major-chord is made up of D, F-sharp and A-notes,

a D-diminished chord is made up of D, F and A-flat notes.

  • If a G-major chord is made up of G, B and D-notes,

an G-diminished chord is made up of G, B-flat and D-flat notes.

Yup, it’s that easy, once you know the major chord.  So next time somebody chokes over a diminished chord, you’ll know what to do.

You’re welcome.

(Sidenote–the distance from C up to G is called a fifth.  You figure if we lowered it a semi-tone it’d be a ‘minor fifth’.  But there’s no such thing.  Neither is there a ‘major fifth’.  If a fifth is exactly where it would be in the major scale it’s called a ‘perfect fifth’.  And a semi-tone down from ‘perfect’ it’s called diminished.  Same is true of a fourth, and an octave for that matter.  So for this reason it’s useful to remember 1458.  When we go from doh to any of those notes in the scale they’re all referred to as ‘perfect intervals’, not ‘major’.  And a semi-tone lower is called ‘diminished’, not ‘minor’.  A little goofy, but good to know.)

What’s a Minor Scale?

While we’ve been talking about chords I’ve mentioned the minor scale a couple of times.  So now we know at least two things about a minor scale.  We know that the 3rd note of a minor scale is a semi-tone lower than the 3rd note of a major scale.  And we know that an A-minor scale is the only one that has no sharps or flats.  And since we know there’s a pattern of tones and semi-tones that make up a major scale, you can figure out that there’s probably another pattern of tones and semi-tones that makes up a minor scale.  And of course there is.

Let’s use the A-minor scale.  Since it has no sharps or flats the notes will be A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A again at the top.  I asked you to remember that there’s a tone between every note except in two places, and that’s between E and F, and between B and C.  So that minor scale is going to have a tone between every note except between B and C, and between E and F.  So if I lay that down it would be;

  • A–up a tone to
  • B–up a semi-tone to
  • C–up a tone to
  • D–up a tone to
  • E–up a semi-tone to
  • F–up a tone to
  • G–up a tone to
  • A

So the pattern of tones and semi-tones that make up a minor scale are.

Tone, Semi-tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-tone, Tone, Tone.

Which you can memorise like that if that’s your style, although I think of it as;


Tone, Tone,Semi-tone

Tone, Tone

which makes up a rhythm I can remember.

But however we remember it, if we start on any note and adjust any letter name we need to by using sharps or flats to get that pattern of tones and semi-tones we will always get a minor scale.

So if we start on a G, we go up a tone to A.  Then the next note is up a semi-tone, but from A up to B is a full tone, so we need to lower that B-note by a half-step, making it a B-flat.  B-flat up to C is a tone, and that’s right.  C up to D is also a tone, also good.  The next note is supposed to be a semi-tone up from D, so it won’t be an E (that’s a full tone), it’ll be an E-flat.  Then up a tone from E-flat is F.  And finally a tone up from F is a G, and we’re done.  So a G-minor scale is G, A, B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, and G again at the top.

So try that using a few different starting notes and see what you get.  Of course you can try working these out on your instrument, too.  But I think it’s a good idea to be able to work these out without playing them.  Sort of why you work to get the words down for a song, it just works better.

Actually there are a couple of different minor scales, the one we’ve been talking about is sometimes called the ‘natural minor’ scale.  There’s another version where it’s slightly different going up from coming down.  Going up the 7th note is raised a semi-tone (becoming like ‘ti to doh’ at the high end of a major scale), and coming back down the 7th note is back where you’d expect it to be, down a semi-tone from where you raised it (now there’s a full tone between the 8th and 7th notes of the scale).  This fancy version is sometimes called the ‘melodic minor’ scale.  But the natural minor is a little more useful to us when we’re figuring out chords and such.  So I start there.

Tone, Semi-tone

Tone, Tone, Semi-tone

Tone, Tone.

Minor scale, naturally.

Sketching Chords (part 3)

We’ve been talking about sketching out chords for a while.  The last time we walked through what we’ve looked at so far, and I left you with the thought that if there’s a number attached to a chord (say you’re asked to play a G9-chord) you count up the scale that number of notes from the letter name of the chord (9 notes up from G is A, if you remember music starts counting at 1, not zero), and the note you get to is part of the chord.

I just want to move this along one more small step today.  This one’s fairly easy, but it’s kind of important.

So far we’ve been talking about chords based on the notes in a major scale, starting on whatever letter name you’re given.  And if the chord says ‘major’ (or if it’s not called anything specific, in which case it’s assumed to be a ‘major’ chord), you figure out the notes of the chord using the major scale.  But if the chord is called ‘minor’, you cannot use a major scale.  A minor chord uses the notes of a minor scale.

What does that mean?

Well, you’ve got two ways you can go at it.  One is to know the pattern of tones and semi-tones that makes up a minor scale, like I showed you the pattern for a major scale.  If you can remember that a C-major scale is the one that has no sharps or flats in it, you can probably also remember that an A-minor scale is the minor scale that has no sharps or flats in it.  (I’ll show you a couple of cool things about that relationship between major and minor later, for now just remember that A-minor is your friend.)

The other thing you can use as a shortcut, though, is to remember I told you that the difference between a major-chord and a minor chord is that where the major chord uses doh-mi-soh as the three notes, the minor chord uses the same doh and soh, but lowers the ‘mi’ by a semitone.  And that is the only difference between a major and minor chord.

Example–a C-major chord is made up of 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a C-major scale.  That’d be C, E and G.

So a C-minor chord is going to be made up of C, E-flat and G.

In other words, if you can tell me the notes of any major chord, you can easily figure out the notes of the minor chord from there.

So now you know that a C9-chord is a C-major chord, plus the 9th note of a C-major scale.  So the notes involved would be C, E, G and D.

And you also know that an A-minor-9-chord would be an A-minor chord, plus the 9th note of an A-minor scale.  So the notes involved would be A, C, E to make the minor chord, plus a B-note on top.

So when you’re sketching out chords, knowing whether it’s major or minor is important.  And the other important thing is knowing what note of the scale matches any number you’re given as part of the chord name.  (Shortcut note–subtract 8 and then start counting, 9 is one note above high doh, 11 is three notes above high doh, and so on.)

So, walk through a bunch of fancy chord names and see if you can figure out what notes are involved.  Heck, make ‘em up and see what they’d be.

  • G-minor-7 chord
  • G-9 chord
  • B-flat-13 chord
  • C-minor-9 chord
  • F-major 7 chord

Once you’ve got a bit of that in your brain, then we can start sketching.  And that’s where this gets really interesting.

Sketching Chords (part 2)

You and I have been talking about chords for a bit, specifically about how to take a chord you’ve been told the name of and figure out how to play it on a guitar tuned in DADGAD.  Because my own approach is to play just enough notes to give an idea of what the chord sounds like, rather than making sure each and every note is present and accounted for, I think of it as ‘sketching out the chord’.  And by the time we’ve wandered through these thoughts you’ll have a pretty good idea of how I get there.

Just a reminder  of where we’re at.  We started by getting used to finding the root note of a chord (doh, the one the chord gets its name from), and adding the fifth above that (soh), I gave you a headsup about some of the more common 5ths to give you a model to work with, then we paused for a minute to admire the grooviness in the pattern called the ‘circle of fifths’ just because it is so groovy after all.  After that little side-trip I asked you to wrap your head around the pattern of tones and semi-tones that make up a major scale no matter what note you start on.  And we explored how we can figure out ‘mi’ for any given ‘doh’.  And, of course, a while back I dropped on you the concept that a major chord is made up of doh, mi and soh starting on the letter-name of the chord–in other words a G-major chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a G-major scale.  So that’s where we’re at so far.  Any questions?  Yeah, me too, but let’s push on and see if we can get to where this all fits together.

The next idea I want you to get is actually quite simple.  You’ve probably seen the names of some chords that include a number.  For instance a C-chord which has a number 6 attached to it is called a C6-chord.  A G-chord with a number 9 attached to it is called a C9-chord.  Okay, here comes the simple bit;

  • make the letter name of the chord number 1, start counting up the scale and stop when you get to the number in the chord name.  That note is part of the chord.

So for a C6-chord, start with C as 1 (music always starts on 1, ain’t no zero), and count up to 6.

1 = C

2 = D

3 = E

4 = F

5 = G

6 = A

So you know that a C6-chord is going to involve an A-note.

And because you already know that a C-chord uses the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the C-scale, and we’ve just counted them out, you also know that a C-chord uses a C-note, an E-note and a G-note.

So a C6-chord is a C-note on the bottom, an E-note above that (called ‘the 3rd’ of the chord), a G-note above that (called ‘the 5th’ of the chord), and finally the A-note just above that (yup, might well be called called the ’6th’).

Important to remember two things here;

  • It’s easy for a C-scale, because you remember that a C-scale is the only scale that has no sharps or flats–other scales are a bit trickier so you have to work out the major scale pattern of tones and semi-tones (that we talked about earlier) starting on the letter-name of the chord you’re trying to figure out.
  • If you haven’t got to your number before you arrive at the 8th note in the scale (hi ‘doh’, also called ‘an octave’), just keep going–hi ‘re’ is 9, hi ‘mi’ is 10, hi ‘fa’ is 11 and so on.

And so far we’re only talking about major chords, okay?  In other words, all this works only if the chord you’re trying to play is either clearly called a major chord (like say, a C-major 7 chord), or it has no special name attached to it (no extra words), as in a C-chord, E-flat chord, G-sharp chord (as oppposed to a chord which uses words like ‘minor’, ‘diminished’, ‘augmented’–you figure those out differently, we’ll get there).

So take a minute and work out the notes that might be involved in some examples–maybe a D6 chord, or a B11-chord, or maybe an E-flat13-chord.  Each one has doh, mi, soh, plus the number.  Use the major scale tones and semi-tones pattern and see what you come up with.

We’re almost there.

What’s a Major Scale?

Before we go along too much more it might be worth making sure you and I both know how a major scale is put together.  The thing that makes a major scale sound the way it does is the distance between every one of the notes as it goes along–the distance i’m talking about is the number of tones and/or semi-tones from doh to re, from re to mi and so on all the way up the scale.  It turns out that no matter what note you start on the same pattern of tones and semi-tones will always turn out a thing that sounds exactly like a major scale.  So instead of trying to remember all of the scales I can either remember the pattern of tones and semi-tones if I’m that way inclined, or I can use one of the scales as a model to help me recognize and remember the pattern.

If I’m going the ‘remember the pattern’ route, the easiest major scale for me to remember is the one starting on a C-note.  I remember that one because it’s the only major scale where the letter-names of the notes have no sharps or flats (“note to self, circa 1974, only major scale with no sharps or flats is C-major”).  So armed with that tiny bit of information I can tell you without checking that a C-major scale goes up like this;

C = doh

D = re

E = mi

F = fa

G =soh

A = la

B = ti

C = doh (the high one this time)

And one other thing that you might remember because it’s one of those useful trivia bits I told you about is that there are two semi-tones (and two semi-tones are the same as a tone) between every note EXCEPT between;

a B-note up to a C


an E-note up to an F.

The distance between B and C is only a semi-tone.  Likewise the distance between E and F is only a semi-tone.

So if I put together knowing that a C-scale has no sharps or flats, and that there is a tone between every note except B-C and E-F, I first get this;


and then if I fill in the rest of the blanks with them being a tone apart, I get this;


And that pattern of tones and semi-tones is a template I can use to map out a major scale starting on any note.  It’s actually not hard to remember in itself, really.  I figure if I remember ‘two’ and then ‘three’ the rest sorts itself out–that’s two tones then something different (a semi-tone), then three more tones and something different (another semi-tone).  So a major scale goes;

Tone, Tone


Tone, Tone, Tone


At least if I’m in a memorizing mode.  But to tell you the truth I find it quite challenging to memorize disassociated jumbles of words and numbers.  So usually I don’t.  See I find it quite easy to remember melodies.  I’m sure I’ve explained to you that I remember long songs or poems by learning the melody the sound of the words makes.  Believe me, it’s way easier.

So in this case I just say this a few times;

Tone, Tone, Semi-tone

Tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-tone.

It’s a two-line song.  Sing it a couple times a day for a week or so.  The when someone asks you to put together a major scale starting on, say, a G-note.  The first thing you do is sing the scale song;

Tone, Tone, Semi-tone

Tone-Tone, Tone, Semi-tone.

The second thing you do is lay out the letter names;

G, A, B, C, D, E, F.

The third thing you do is remind yourself where there is only a semi-tone of distance between two notes (you remember that it only happens twice).  Right, only a semi-tone between B and C, and between E and F.

And the last thing you do is start matching up the pattern of tones and semi-tones with the letter names and see which ones need adapting with a sharp or a flat.

G to A is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

A to B is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

B to C is a semi-tone–also matches the major scale pattern

C to D is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

D to E is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

E to F is a semi-tone–doesn’t match the pattern, need to be a full tone, so the F will have to be raised by another semi-tone.  That F will have to be an F-sharp.

F to G is a tone–but the major scale pattern calls for ti and doh to be only a semi-tone apart.  Yes, but look, you just changed that F-note into an F-sharp.  And the distance from F-sharp up to G is in fact a semi-tone–just what we need.  So now you’ve successfully mapped out a major scale starting on a G-note;

G, A, B, C, D, E, F-sharp, G .

Not all that tough, see?  Try doing the same thing starting on something like an F-note and see what you get.  This pattern of tones and semi-tones is going to be helpful in a few different ways as we go along.  For instance, since we know that the distance between the 7th and 8th notes of a major scale is a semi-tone, that means we also know that given any high doh, the second last note of the major scale will be the semi-tone below that, and that’s pretty easy to figure out.  If doh is an A-note, ti will be a G-sharp (the semi-tone below A).  If doh is an E-note, ti will be a D-sharp (the semi-tone below E).  Works for the sharp and flat keys, too.  If doh is a B-flat note, ti will be an A-note.  So suddenly, as long as you keep in mind that special relationship between B and C (they’re a semi-tone apart, one of the two exceptions) , and between E and F (ditto), it becomes easy to know what the 7th note of any major scale is.

Seeing as I’m working with my guitar in DADGAD, it’s good to have a handle on a D-major scale.  So if you figure out what the notes are in terms of letter-names and sharps or flats for a major scale starting on a D-note, maybe we’ll use that as a starting point to get to know our way around the neck of the guitar a little bit.  Spend a couple of days figuring it out and getting it solid in your head, then we’ll begin the exploration.

A Thing About Fifths

So while we’re thinking about fifths, the distance between doh and soh, here’s something that’s kind of neat.

Take a C-note and go up a fifth, that’d be a G-note

G up a fifth is D

D up a fifth is A

A up a fifth is E

E up a fifth is B

In each case we’re taking the first note and going up five notes of a scale.  It’s actually 3-and-a-half tones, but who’s counting.  Let’s keep going with the same pattern, we were at a B-note.

B up a fifth is F-sharp.  (If you like you can figure it out by first counting 5 letters up, and remembering that music always start on 1, not zero, from B that’d be B, C, D, E, F.  So you know it’s an F-something, you figure out whether it’s sharp or flat or just normal (actually they call it ‘natural’ when the note has no sharps or flats to go with it, you knew that, right) by counting up 3-and-a-half tones, in this case from B.  You remember that there is no sharp or flat between a B-note and the C-note just above it.  So from B to C is the smallest step we make, that’s a semi-tone.  C up to D is a tone (there’s a note in between them unlike B and C), and from D up to E is another tone.  So we’ve moved 2-and-a-half tones up from our original B so far.  The 5th (soh) is 3-and-a-half tones, so we’ve got another full tone to go.  We’re on E, and we remember that the only other place where there’s no sharp or flat in between is from E to F.  So if we need one more full tone that F-note is actually going to have to be a semi-tone higher.  That make it an F-sharp, 5 letter names up from B, and 3-and-a-half tones in measurement.  Actually the first five notes of a doh, re, mi starting on a B-note would be B, C-sharp, D-sharp, E, F-sharp, I’ll show you how you figure that later.  For now let’s just focus on how B up a 5th is F-sharp.

Okay, so let’s continue where we left off.  I’ll do the counting, but feel free to check my work.

B up a fifth is F-sharp

F-sharp up a fifth is C-sharp

C-sharp up a fifth is G-sharp

G-sharp up a fifth is D-sharp

D-sharp is the same note as E-flat, so let’s count up from there

E-flat up a fifth is B-flat

B-flat up a fifth is F

F up a fifth is a C-note

Which is where we started.  And part of what’s cool about that is not only did we end up where we started, with a C-note, but we went through every one of the notes, all the letter names and all the sharps and flats in between, exactly once each before we got back to the beginning.  Works the same no matter where you start, of course.

Part of what’s neat about music is there are patterns everywhere, patterns in time, patterns in pitch, patterns in the relationships between chords.  Patterns everywhere.  Look there’s one now.  This particular one has a name.  It’s called The Circle of Fifths.  I don’t think of it that way, myself.  It’s just that really cool pattern.  But what do I know.

Mess around with it.  See what it says to you.

On Theory

websitemusicfermataSince you and I are spending a bit of time wandering through some of the slightly more technical aspects of music, I thought maybe I should share this with you.  It fell out of my mouth many years ago.  And then later I read it elsewhere, so apparently it’s a useful thought.  I was asked, “Do you understand musical theory?”  My immediate response was, “Not enough to get in the way.”

They thought I was kidding.  No really.

Feel free to do likewise.

A List of Fifths

So you’ve had a little time to introduce youself to fifths–that is, the sound you make when you play two notes together, the 1st note of a scale (think of it as ‘doh’) and the 5th note of a scale (that’d be ‘soh’).  And you’re good with the idea that we call the distance from doh to soh ‘a fifth’.  Of course this all started with us talking about what it takes to sketch out a chord.

Since you’ve been working out fifths you’ve probably already got a lot if this, but I thought I’d lay it out for you.  The note on the left is doh, the note on the right is soh (up a fifth from doh).  Play the two together and you’re playing a fifth.

First the straightforward starting notes and their 5th above;








And just in case you want to get more adventurous;








Of course if you’re ahead of the game you’ll know that C-sharp and D-flat are the same note, and A-flat is that same as G-sharp.  To save a little confusion I’d think of the notes going up like this;


And think of the notes going down like this;


(Notice again that there’s nothing in between an E-note and an F-note.  Likewise there’s nothing between a B-note and a C-note)

But mostly I wanted to make sure you had the fifths working out okay.  Take a bit more time getting a few more of those fifths sorted out, then we’ll move that sketching out a chord thing ahead a bit more.

Have fun.


I’d like to give you one more thing to think about while you’re spending a bit of time getting used to what 5ths feel like.  And I’d like to come at it from a different angle than what some folks suggest.  First, let me lay this on you–you can already play both some major and some minor chords, right?  (And just to confirm something you’ve probably already figured out, if it’s for instance called a D-chord that’s actually a D-major chord, or if it just says G that’s a G-major chord, kinda saves time.  Small point.  Got it?  Good.  Onward.)  Well, have you figured out that there’s only one tiny difference between a major chord and a minor one?    Absolutely.  And that difference is the middle note.

Remember that a major chord is made up of three notes, that they’re notes in a major scale (the scale that starts ‘doh, re, mi…’), and that they’re the 1st, the 3rd and the 5th notes of that major scale (‘doh’, ‘mi’ and ‘soh’ in doh-speak).  So if we’re talking about a C-major chord, and since the first five notes in the C-scale are C, D, E, F, and G, you and I can figure that a C-chord is made up of a C-note, an E-note, and a G-note.  And I guarantee you that every C-major chord you ever play has only those three notes, although it might have more than one of each just to keep things interesting.

fretc3The thing I want to focus on for the moment is the 1st and 3rd notes of that scale, the C and E-notes (the C-note is the bass note in your C-chord, and the E-note is the 2nd fret on your middle D-string, that’s the third from the bass, check out the diagram to see what I mean).  First of all let’s solid up the notion that the there’s a musical distance between those two notes.  That distance is called ‘a third’.  Actually a major-third, but ‘third’ will do.  Much like you’ve been reminding yourself that a 5th has a sound, a 3rd has a sound too.  It’s sweet and pretty, whereas I think the 5th sounds kind of square and hollow, like a frame that’s going to have some walls put on it to make it a house.  The 3rd is very different from that, can you hear it?

I love all kinds of intervals (that’s what the distance between any two notes is called, ‘an interval’, now you know).  All the different intervals have their own sound and feeling, kind of like all the different herbs and spices have their own taste when we’re cooking.  Trust me, when you’re looking for pretty, reach for a third.

fretcminorOkay, that’s all been fun, but here’s the thought I want to leave you with.  If you take that note you’re playing with your second finger and move it down one fret so you’re playing a note on the first fret instead, that E-note has now been changed to an E-flat note.  And if you leave the other two notes the same and play all three of these three notes now you’re playing a different chord.  That chord is a C-minor chord.  Cool, eh?

So the only difference between a C-major chord and a C-minor chord is that one fret, one note.  In official language you’d say that to make a C-major chord into a C-minor chord you lower the 3rd by one semi-tone.  So while you’re walking your way through all of those 5ths, I want you to think about what we just figured out.  You already know how to play G-major and F-major chords, for instance.  If you do a bit of figuring you might be able to turn them into minor chords.  See if you can make sense of that thought and I’ll follow it up later.  In the meantime, spend a little longer on those 5ths and then we’ll get back to sketching out chords.  Have fun.