Photo Courtesy of Barbara A Lane

Harmony is really important when writing a song; the chords you use can really change the feel and mood of your song and help you boost the parts you want to emphasise, such as the chorus.

In this post, you’ll learn how to build any chord you need by following a few simple rules.

What is a Chord?

A chord is made up of three or more notes played at the same time. There are various types of chords; in pop music, the most used are major and minor chords but we’ll be talking about augmented and diminished chords as well.

These chords differ from each other because the distance between the three notes varies, although the note names stay the same.

C major, C minor, C diminished and C augmented will all have C, E, and G in them, but in some types of chords some of the notes may be sharps or flats).

How to Build Chords

Every chord starts with a root note. The root note is the lowest note of the chord, and it’s also called the first. From there, it is necessary to find the third and the fifth note.

In order to find the third note, you have to start from the root note and count three notes, including the root itself. In order to find the fifth note, you have to start from the root note and count five notes, including the root itself. Remember to always start from the root note.

For example, if my root note is C, my third note will be E (C, D, E; three notes including the root) and my fifth will be G (C, D, E, F, G; five notes including the root).

How to Build Major, Minor, Diminished and Augmented Chords

What makes major, minor, diminished and augmented chords different from each other is the distance between the notes that make up the chords. There will be a specific number of semitones between the first and third note of a major chord, and this will be different in the other types. The same goes for the third and fifth note.

A semitone is the smallest distance between two notes. In the diagram below, you can how the octave is divided into semitones, no matter what note you start from.

Semitones displayed on a pentagram from C3 to C4

That distance or a larger distance between two notes can also be expressed as an interval. For the purpose of learning chords, just remember that 4 semitones (C to E) are a major third whereas 3 semitones (C to E♭) are a minor third.

Here are the rules to create any type of these chords:

  • Major Chord: 4 semitones (major third) + 3 semitones (minor third)
  • Minor Chord: 3 semitones (minor third) + 4 semitones (major third)
  • Diminished Chord: 3 semitones (minor third) + 3 semitones (minor third)
  • Augmented Chord: 4 semitones (major third) + 4 semitones (major third)

This means that if I’m starting from C and want to create a major chord, I will go up 4 semitones to reach E, and then go up another 3 semitones to reach G. My C major chord is therefore made up of C, E, and G. Here is what all four chord types look like starting from the note of C.

Different types of chords on a pentagram: C major, C minor, C diminished, C augmented

Major chords have a happy, positive sound and are often indicated with the name of the root note and nothing else. If you simply see “F” to indicate a chord, that means F major. Otherwise you might see the abbreviation F maj.

Let’s keep F as an example for the other types as well.

Minor chords have a sad, nostalgic vibe. You will find them as F min, F m or F-.

Diminished chords have a creepy sound; they’re biggest use is in horror movies when something really bad is about to happen! You can find these as F dim. or F°.

Augmented chords have a dreamy mood. As the fifth note of the chord is one semitone higher that the major, you might see them as F#5, or F aug.

Start from the Major Chord

It isn’t necessary to always count semitones to know how to build a minor, diminished and augmented chord. You can simply start from one chord – the major chord – and work from there.

If you have the major chord:

  • To build a minor chord, simply pull the third down by one semitone. In the chord of C major that would mean that the E becomes E♭.
  • To build an augmented chord, push the fifth up by one semitone. In the chord of C major, our G becomes a G#.
  • To build a diminished chord, from the major chord pull the third and the fifth down by one semitone each. E and G become E♭ and G♭.

Practice Will Make Chords Automatic

When you’ve been playing, studying and writing music for years, you don’t think about semitones or intervals. Your brain memorises the notes which are in a specific chords after you’ve played them enough times. The only way to become fast with chords is to practice them. For me, it’s easier to do on a keyboard because you actually see the individual notes which make up the chords, whereas this isn’t as easy on a guitar. On guitar sometimes its easier to simply learn the tabs and forget the theory behind them, so it’s important to think about what notes make up a chord and possibly write them down. Try this with every type of chord starting from every note and remember to consider the black notes twice (once as a sharp – e.g. C# – and once as a flat – e.g. D ).

If you have any more doubts on major, minor, augmented and diminished chords, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to help!

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