What is a chord family?

A chord family is a group of chords that get together on major holidays and fight over gifts and the dinner menu.  Ok…. no it’s not.  But remember when we were talking about how scales and keys are related?  Well just like a certain key will contain specific notes, chord families have specific chords that are grouped together that go within the key as well.  How do we build chords?  Chords are notes that are stacked together, that when played simultaneously, achieve a harmonious result.  Additionally, chords within the same chord family will sound good together.  

We’re so passionate about chord families that we’ve created an entire app, Magical Pick, where you can use them to easily write songs even without your guitar in hand! 

 Typically chords are built by harmonizing notes in a scale in diatonic (again… that means notes that are in key) intervals of three.  That probably sounds a little crazy.  Once you get the hang of it, however, it starts to make a lot of sense.  Go back to the C major scale: C D E F G A B C.  In a previous section, we talked about intervals being the distance between two tones.  In the C major scale for instance the distance between the C note and D note is a whole step (or two half steps aka two frets apart).  So in this case the D note would be considered to be a major 2nd in relation to C.  By comparison, the E note is two whole steps away from the C note.  This would be considered a major 3rd in relation to C. 

Now we just stated that typically chords are built by harmonizing scales in diatonic intervals of three.  If I start to grab 3 notes in diatonic intervals of three from the C major scale, I get the following three notes: C E G (if you look at the scale above, it’s kind of like we’re skipping every other note).  You can keep stacking notes from the scale in this way to build chords with some more interesting note extensions, but for now let’s just focus on this group of three notes that we’ll call a ‘triad’.  If I was to look at both E and G in relation to C, I would see that E is the major third of C as it’s two whole steps away, and G is a perfect fifth (meaning it’s not a sharp or flat fifth) in relation to C.  If you look at this from a fret perspective, you’ll see that a perfect fifth is 7 semi tones or ‘half steps’ away from the root note (this will be important later when we look at a chord in this chord family that’s different from the others; the black sheep if you will). 

With a root note, a major third, and a fifth, I’ve got the spelling for a major chord; in this case C major.  Depending on the quality of the third interval in a chord (i.e. major or minor), that’s going to impact the overall tonality of the chord.  If I replaced the E note with an Eb which is a semitone (or half-step) lower than the E, I’d have a C minor chord.  But let’s stay in key for now and look at the next note in the C major scale.

If we go through the same exercise, but starting on a D note, we’ll end up grabbing the following three notes in key: D F A.  The D note is our starting note (we’ll call that the ‘root note’ from now on).  The F note is a whole step and a half away from the D note… Wait a minute… that’s different than what we just saw right?  Yes.  In this case, the interval between the D note and the F note is a ‘minor third’ apart.  This chord is going to sound a little more somber than the C major chord we just formed above.  With a root note, a minor third, and a perfect fifth I have the spelling for a minor chord; in this case D minor. 

If we go through the entire C major scale like this you’re going to end up with the following triads (these triads are chords):

C E G – C major

D F A – D minor

E G B – E minor

F A C – F major

G B D – G major

A C E – A minor

B D F – B diminished  

Let’s pause for just a second.  We probably just used a word that you may not have heard before.  What is a ‘diminished’ chord?  Let’s look closely at the notes in the B diminished chord.  B is our root note.  The distance from B to D is a whole step and a half (or three semitones).  That’s a minor third interval as we’ve learned.  The F note is six semitones away from the B note.  Remember when we talked about a ‘perfect fifth’ being a distance of 7 semitones.  This one is one semitone lower.  When you raise or lower a scale degree by a semitone you change the quality of the note and will likely add some tension.  When we lower a perfect fifth by a semitone we say it’s ‘diminished’.  When we raise it by a semitone we say it’s ‘augmented’.  This will make more sense later on.  If you play a diminished chord by itself, chances are it’s going to sound a bit dissonant.  Its job is to create tension that you can later resolve to a chord that’s more pleasing to the ear.  You’ll find opportunities to add tension in your own music to add a little drama and flair to your own jams.  In the beginning, it may be more satisfying to experiment with different major and minor chords in key. 

So… to wrap it all up… if we take the notes in a given scale and stack them in diatonic intervals of three, we form chords.  If we harmonize every note of the scale in this way, we end up with all of the chords that are part of the chord family in a particular key.  Because these chords are all related… like relatives in a big happy family… they generally sound good when played together.  The thing to do now is to pick up your axe, strum some chords, and see where it takes you. 

Cheers and happy jamming!!!

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