Chord Types

Different Chord Types, How They Sound, and How to Build Them

Sam Matla Theory 13 Comments

Chord progressions are the foundation for a memorable song. They help to tell a story and to invoke emotion. It’s impossible to write a catchy song without one: they set the stage for your melodies and harmonies to shine.

What exactly is a chord progression? A chord progression is a series of chords played in succession. It can be composed of 2 chords, 3 chords, 4 chords, or more.

Before we dive into writing chord progressions, let’s first talk about the chords themselves. In this article, we’ll look at common chords, how they sound, and where to use them.

Note: This article is meant for beginner/intermediate producers with a very basic understanding of music theory. If you’re brand new to music theory, I’d recommend checking out our TL;DR Music Theory Guide.

Before we get started, make sure you’re familiar with the following concepts:

  • Notes – Can you name the notes on a piano?
  • Intervals – Do you know what a major third and perfect fifth are?
  • Scales/Keys – Do you know what a major scale is?

Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s discuss what a chord is.

A chord is a combination of two or more unique notes. There are several different chord types, and each chord type has a particular sound. Some examples include major chords, minor chords, and diminished chords (we’ll get to these later).

Chords are built off of one note, called the root note. If someone says a chord is a C chord, that means the root note of the chord is a “C”.

While only two notes are needed for a chord, most chords will have at least three. Three note chords are also called triads.

Streamline your workflow with the Chord Progression Cheat Sheet. It’s a one-page guide containing all the essentials you’ll need to write a catchy chord progression. Click here to download.

Chord Quality

The type of chord you are playing depends on the intervals between the notes of the chord. Another name for this is the quality of the chord. Major is one type of chord quality, as is minor.

Each chord quality has it’s own distinct sound. Some will sound happy, some will sound sad, and others will sound mysterious.

Learning these different chord types will make writing chord progressions easier.

Why is this?

If you’re stuck writing a chord progression, but know you want a happy/sad/evil/mysterious chord to follow, all you have to do is choose a chord with that quality.

Now, let’s discuss the common chord types, how to build them, and where to find them.  

Chord Types

There are 9 common chord qualities that you should be aware of. Some of these aren’t used often, while others are used extensively:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Diminished
  • Major Seventh
  • Minor Seventh
  • Dominant Seventh
  • Suspended
  • Augmented
  • Extended

You may have heard of a few of these, while others may be foreign. It’s alright, we’ll have a look at them all in this post.

Each section will contain an explanation of the mood of a chord, instruction on how to build it, an audio clip of how it sounds, and an image of the chord on a piano roll.

Major Chord

Major chords sound happy and simple.

A major chord consists of a root note (1st), a major third (+4 semitones), and a perfect 5th (+7 semitones).

Let’s look at an example: building a C Major chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 4 semitones (i.e. four notes) to find the major 3rd. This is an E.  Then, we’ll count up 7 semitones from C (or 3 semitones from E) to G, which will be our 5th. This is a C major chord: C – E – G.

As you can see, we start counting the half steps from the note above the last one.

Let’s look at this in the piano roll.

Minor Chord

Minor chords are considered to be sad, or ‘serious.’

A minor chord consists of a root note (1st), a minor third (+3 semitones), and a perfect 5th (+7 semitones).

Let’s look at an example: building a C Minor chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 3 semitones (i.e. three notes) to find the minor 3rd. This is an Eb/D#.  Then, we’ll count up 7 semitones from C (or 4 semitones from Eb/D#) to G, which will be our 5th. This is a C Minor chord: C – Eb – G.

Minor chords follow the same pattern as major chords except the middle note is down a half step.

  • A C Major chord consists of a C, E, and G
  • A C Minor chord consists of a C, Eb, and G

Although they seem almost identical, the difference is significant. Listen to the audio clip below, which will play a C Major chord followed by a C Minor chord. Listen for how the tone of the chords differ.

Lastly, let’s look at a C Minor chord in a piano roll.

One way to remember the different chord formulas is to memorize the intervals between the notes in the chord. For a minor chord, you start with the root, move up 3 semitones to the minor third, then move up another 4 semitones (7 semitones from the root) to the the perfect fifth.

Thus, the formula for a minor chord is: 1-3-4

Similarly, we can represent the formula for building a major chord as 1-4-3.

If this clears things up, it can be a handy tool. If not, don’t worry too much about chord formulas.

Diminished Chords

Diminished Chords sound tense and unpleasant.

A diminished chord consists of a root note (1st), a minor third (+3 semitones), and a diminished/flat fifth (+6 semitones).

Diminished chords aren’t used too often, but they still serve an important purpose. Later, we’ll discuss why and where you can use diminished chords.

Let’s look at an example: building a C Diminished chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 3 semitones (i.e. three notes) to find the minor 3rd. This is an Eb/D#.  Then, we’ll count up 6 semitones from C (or 3 semitones from Eb/D#) to Gb/F#, which will be our diminished/flat fifth. This is a C diminished chord: C – Eb – Gb.

For comparison, let’s listen to a C Major chord followed by a C Diminished chord.

Lastly, let’s look at a C Diminished chord in a piano roll.

The formula for building a diminished chord is 1-3-3.

Major Seventh Chord

Major seventh chords are considered to be thoughtful, soft. Major seventh chords also sound “jazzy” because they’re commonly used in Jazz.

A major seventh chord consists of a root note (1st), a major third (+4 semitones), a perfect 5th (+7 semitones), and a major 7th (+11 semitones). Another way to think about major seventh chords is they are a major triad (i.e. major chord) with a major 7th on top.

Let’s look at an example: building a C Major Seventh chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 4 semitones to find the major 3rd. This is an E.  Then, we’ll count up 7 semitones from C (or 3 semitones from E) to G, which will be our 5th. Lastly, we’ll count up 11 semitones from C (or 4 semitones from G) which is B. This is a C Major Seventh chord: C – E – G – B.

For comparison, let’s listen to a C Major chord followed by a C Major Seventh chord. The C Major Seventh chord has a distinct character and tone.

Lastly, let’s look at a C Major Seventh chord in a piano roll.

The formula for a major seventh chord is 1-4-3-4.

Minor Seventh

Minor seventh chords are considered to be moody, or contemplative. If major chords are happy, and minor chords are sad, then minor seventh chords are somewhere in between these two.

A minor seventh chord consists of a root note (1st), a minor third (+3 semitones), a perfect 5th (+7 semitones), and a minor 7th (+10 semitones). Another way to think about minor seventh chords is they are a minor triad with a minor 7th on top.

Let’s look at an example: building a C Minor Seventh chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 3 semitones to find the minor 3rd. This is an Eb.  Then, we’ll count up 7 semitones from C (or 4 semitones from Eb) to G, which will be our 5th. Lastly, we’ll count up 10 semitones from C (or 3 semitones from G) which is Bb. This is a C Minor Seventh chord: C – Eb – G – Bb.

For comparison, let’s listen to a C Major Seventh chord followed by a C Minor Seventh chord. Seventh chords are typically richer than triads, each carrying it’s own unique quality.

Lastly, let’s look at a C Minor Seventh chord in a piano roll.

The formula for a minor seventh chord is 1-3-4-3.

Dominant Seventh

Dominant seventh chords are considered to be strong and restless. Dominant seventh chords are commonly found in jazz and blues, as well as jazz inspired r&b, hip hop, & EDM.

A dominant seventh chord consists of a root note (1st), a major third (+4 semitones), a perfect 5th (+7 semitones), and a minor 7th (+10 semitones). Another way to think about major seventh chords is they are a major seventh chord with the top note lowered by one semitone.

Let’s look at an example: building a C Major Seventh chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 4 semitones to find the major 3rd. This is an E.  Then, we’ll count up 7 semitones from C (or 3 semitones from E) to G, which will be our 5th. Lastly, we’ll count up 10 semitones from C (or 3 semitones from G) which is Bb. This is a C Dominant Seventh chord: C – E – G – Bb.

For comparison, let’s listen to a C Major Seventh chord followed by a C Dominant Seventh chord. Notice how the dominant seventh chord sounds comparatively energetic and restless.

Lastly, let’s look at a C Dominant Seventh chord in a piano roll.

The formula for a dominant seventh chord is 1-4-3-3.

Suspended Chords (sus2 & sus4)

So far every chord we’ve dealt with has been composed of a root, a third, and a fifth. While the most common chords are built off this foundation, there are chords that don’t follow this formula, such as suspended chords. 

Sus2

Sus2 Chords sound bright and nervous.

A sus2 chord consists of a root note (1st), a major second (+2 semitones), and a perfect fifth (+7 semitones). Another way to think about them is they are major chords with a major second instead of a major third.

Let’s look at an example: building a Csus2 chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 2 semitones to find the major 2nd. This is a D.  Then, we’ll count up 7 semitones from C (or 5 semitones from D) to G, which will be our perfect fifth. This is a Csus2: C – D – G.

For comparison, let’s listen to a C Major chord followed by a Csus2 chord. Notice how the sus2 sounds more open and airy.

Lastly, let’s look at a Csus2 in a piano roll.

The formula for building a sus2 chord is 1-2-5.

Sus4

Sus4 Chords, like Sus2 chords, sound bright and nervous.

A sus4 chord consists of a root note (1st), a major fourth (+5 semitones), and a perfect fifth (+7 semitones). Another way to think about them is they are major chords with a perfect fourth instead of a major third.

Let’s look at an example: building a Csus4 chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 5 semitones to find the perfect 4th. This is a F.  Then, we’ll count up 7 semitones from C (or 2 semitones from F) to G, which will be our perfect fifth. This is a Csus4: C – F – G.

For comparison, let’s listen to a C major chord followed by a Csus4 chord. Notice how the sus4 sounds more open and airy.

Lastly, let’s look at a Csus4 in a piano roll.

The formula for building a sus4 chord is 1-5-2.

Augmented Chords

Augmented chords sound anxious and suspenseful.

An augmented chord consists of a root note (1st), a major third (+4 semitones), and an augmented 5th (+8 semitones). Another way to think about augmented chords is they are a major chord with the top note raised one semitone.

Note: augmented = raised, so an augmented 5th is a 5th raised by one semitone.

Let’s look at an example: building a C Augmented chord.

First, we’ll start with C, which will be our root note. Then, we’ll count up 4 semitones to find the major 3rd. This is E. Then we’ll count up 8 semitones (or 4 semitones up from E) to G#, which is the augmented 5th. This is a C Augmented: C – F – G#.

For comparison, let’s listen to a C Major chord followed by a C Augmented chord. Notice how suspenseful and tense the augmented chord sounds.

Lastly, let’s look at a C Augmented in a piano roll.

The formula for building an augmented chord is 1-4-4.

Extended Chords

So far, we’ve only discussed chords with intervals between 2 and 7. There are also chords featuring voicings above a seventh, namely ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords.

There are many types of extended chords, and I won’t bore you with them now, nor should you spend hours memorizing them at this point in your career.

For now, the main takeaway is to know that they exist, and that they’re common in jazz, funk, and R&B. If you’re interested in any of these styles, they’re worth diving deeper into. If not, focus on mastering the other types of chords first.

To give you a feel of the sound of extended chords, I’ll show you a few of my personal favorites:

Dominant Ninth

The dominant ninth nine chord consists of a root, major 3rd (+4 semitones), perfect 5th (+ 7 semitones), minor/flat 7th (+10 semitones), and major 9th (+14 semitones).

In this exampled, I’m playing a C9, which consists of C – E – G – Bb – D.

Lastly, let’s look at this chord in a piano roll.

Major Eleventh

A major eleventh chord consists of a root note (1st), a major third (+4 semitones), a perfect 5th (+7 semitones), a major 7th (+11 semitones), a major 9th (+14 semitones), and an 11th (+17 semitones).

In this exampled, I’m playing a C Major Eleventh, which consists of C – E – G – B – D – F.

 

Lastly, let’s build this chord in a piano roll.

Conclusion

There are far more chords than just these. I’d say if you’re getting started with chords then these are ideal ones to learn about.

Also, as with anything in music – the mood and feel of chords is a subjective thing. You have to discover what chords you like yourself. If something doesn’t sound suspenseful or dark to you, then it doesn’t sound suspenseful or dark to you.

Ready to start writing chord progressions? Check out our article “How to Write a Catchy & Memorable Chord Progression“.

Want this entire article summed up in a one page PDF? Download the Chord Progression Cheat Sheet. It’s a one-page guide containing all the essentials you’ll need to write a catchy chord progression Click here to download.