copyright © 1995 Rick Bellinger Last Modified: Oct 1, 1995
This lesson originally appeared on StickWire - the Official Chapman Stick Mailing List.
Reproduced here by permission. This article can be reprinted only in its entirety.

Theory On Tap
Lesson 2: What are Triads?

by: Rick Bellinger

This lesson concerns triads, the most rudimentary chord type. Triads are simply chords with three separate "voices" (i.e., three separate notes.) As with intervals, the most important thing is to associate the sound with the name.

Tertian Harmony

Tertian harmony refers to harmonies based in thirds. This means the second tone of the chord will be a third above the root, and the third tone will be a third above the second tone, etc. Tertian triads form the backbone of European harmony, from which jazz harmony evolved. The basic harmonic unit in jazz theory is the seventh chord (often extended to include ninths, elevenths and thirteenths.)

Symbols and terms

I will use the following symbols and terms in this lesson. I hope the meaning will become clear as you read on.

  1. Terms

    • Chord - group of three or more notes played at the same time
    • Arpeggio - notes of a chord played simultaneously, ascending or descending.
    • Triad - a chord with only three different notes.
    • Root - starting note from which an interval, scale or chord is founded on. The letter name for the root will be the letter name for a chord or scale built on that root. For example, if a major triad has a C for the root, it is called a C major triad. If a minor scale has A for the root, it is called an A minor scale.
    • Consonant - stable or pleasant sounding.
    • Dissonant - unstable or unpleasant sounding.

  2. Symbols

    • R - root
    • Mi - minor
    • Ma - major
    • p - Perfect
    • di - diminished
    • au - augmented
    • sus4 - suspended 4th, a type of triad.

Numbers will usually indicate intervals. For example, 3 will mean a third. Ma3 will mean a major third.

I am using this notation primarily because it is easy for this medium. However, many notation systems exist, along with many arguments about which one is correct. In reality, you should know as many as possible, 'cause you never know what you're gonna find on your lead sheet! We will learn more when we talk about seventh chords. (Note: My jazz harmony teacher preferred Ma and mi as opposed to the more standard M and m because he had trouble telling student's big M's from their little m's!)

Five Common Triads

Here are five of the most common triads in Western music. (Very similar diagrams can be found lining the back of certain lower pages on the Stickwire web page, courtesy of Vance Gloster).

The Major Triad

You will probably recognize the sound of this one instantly. It has a kind of "bright" quality to it. Most songs in a major key will "resolve" to this chord- that is, the other chords played will make you want to hear this chord after them. Here is how to play it on the melody strings

Distances between the notes
Interval from root: R  Ma3  p5
  ^  ^
Interval between tones:  Ma3  mi3

The Minor Triad

This is also a very recognizable chord, just a little less common than the major triad. It has a "darker" quality to it than the major triad does. Here is how to play it on the melody strings:

Distances between the notes
Interval from root: R  mi3  p5
  ^  ^
Interval between tones:  mi3  Ma3

Note: that the only difference between this chord and a major triad is that it has a minor third instead of a major third.
Note: that these intervals are reversed from the major triad.

The Augmented triad

This is simply a major triad with an augmented 5th. It is somewhat rare, and generally occurs only in music with a "minor" key (however, John Coltrane's arrangement of "Summertime" on his "My Favorite Things" prominently features augmented chords!) It has a much more "dissonant" quality. Here is how it is played on the melody strings:

Distances between the notes
Interval from root: R  Ma3  au5
  ^  ^
Interval between tones:  Ma3  Ma3

The Diminished Triad

This is a minor triad with a diminished 5th. It is also dissonant and not so commonly used, but it can provide a "pivot" in jazz chord progressions. Here is how to play it on the melody strings:

Distances between the notes
Interval from root: R  mi3  di5
  ^  ^
Interval between tones:  mi3  mi3

The sus4 chord

This chord began to appear in a lot of '70s pop recordings, including Steely Dan (which usually gets praise from jazz musicians). It is simply a major triad with the major 3rd raised to the perfect 4th. The chord makes you want to hear the 4th lowered to the 3rd ("resolved"), and it may be followed by a major chord with the same root or may act as a "pivot" to a different chord. Here is how it is played on the melody strings:

Distances between the notes
Interval from root: R  p4  p5
  ^  ^
Interval between tones:  p4  Ma2


The voicings (order of tones) of the above examples are all root position voicings of the chords. That means the root is the lowest tone, followed by the 3rd as the next highest, and then the 5th. These tones don't always have to be played in that order. If we play the 3rd, then the 5th, and then the root, we call the voicing the first inversion. If we play the 5th, then the root, then the 3rd, the voicing is called the second inversion You should know all the inversions for each chord. Here is how they are played on the melody strings:

Major triad and inversions

(I designed these charts to save space. Note that the tones of the root positions chords are all on the lower three melody strings. The tones of the 1st inversion are all on the next three strings. The notes of the 2nd inversions are all on the highest three melody strings. I will place the slash \ as a fret symbol to separate different chords when I think they are too confusing).

Minor triad and inversions

Augmented triad and inversions

(Note that all augmented triad inversions have the same shape!)

Diminished triad and inversions

Suspended 4th triad and inversions

Triads on the bass stings

Because the bass strings of the stick are usually tuned in the wider perfect 5th interval, it is not easy to play the above triads on the bass strings. Two ways around this are a) use both hands, and b) use the "B.C." (Bob Culbertson) method, which involves using the thumb of your left hand to play notes. However, because of the relationships of the melody strings to the bass strings, these aren't really necessary. As we learned in the previous lesson, a perfect 4th is the inversion of a perfect 5th, and vice-versa. What this means for the stick is that you can move a chord pattern from the melody strings to the bass strings, but keep the same note as the root. The chord will have the same quality, but all the notes will be inverted! It will sound very similar, but the spacing between the actual notes played is greater. (Note: in legit theory, these voicings are called open structure voicings, which means that the lowest and highest tones are more than one octave apart. The all the chords shown above are close structure chords, meaning that the lowest and highest tones fall within one octave.)

Here is a table for converting the triad forms from melody strings to bass strings. (Note: I admit that I stole these from Jeff Jetton's "Son of INSights" post last Saturday.)

Melody strings Bass strings
closed root position (R-3-5) open second inversion (5-3-R)
closed first inversion (3-5-R) open root position (R-5-3)
closed second inversion (5-R-3) open first inversion (3-R-5)

Try playing all the melody string patterns chord patterns on the bass strings. Listen for the similarities and differences of the chords. (Note: chords generally sound better in higher registers, so try to stick to the higher bass stings.)

Ear training

You should always learn to associate three things in your head: a name, a symbol, and a sound. The sound is, of course, what we're after. The name is for our convenience - it lets us communicate what we are doing to each other. The symbol serves the same purpose, but on paper (or in this case, on your computer screen).

Make sure you can identify all the chords above when you hear them. This takes practice. Play them frequently, and maybe record them in random order and listen to the tape a week later to see if you can identify them. Again, there are some excellent ear training tapes and software available to help you.

Next lesson: Will Pirkle will teach us about the major scale and it's modes.

Lessons: 1| 2| 3 - Part I| 3 - Part II| 4 - Part I| 4 - Part II| 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11| 12|
rick bellinger San Diego, CA

copyright © 1995 Rick Bellinger

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