Seeing Chords

Purpose: Learn to recognize common chords in staff notation. Before doing this one it will probably help to do the Seeing Intervals exercise, since an understanding of intervals is essential for understanding chord notation. This also will teach the usual figured-bass notation for chord inversion (which is also the most compact way to describe the chords in multiple choice boxes!)

Difficulty: Beginning level for the triads, moderate for the levels containing inverted triads and root position sevenths, difficult in the 4th level with inverted seventh chords.

How it works:

You will be shown a chord and asked to choose its name from a number of given choices. Touch the box that corresponds to the correct name of the displayed chord. If you make a mistake you'll be shown the right answer. The "Change difficulty" button lets you decide whether you're going to do triads, sevenths, inverted triads, or inverted sevenths. It's probably a good idea to start with the first level and work up once you're feeling confident. You can play the keyboard if you like, but it will not enter notes on the staff in this exercise.

You can use any clef for the displayed music. To choose a new clef just click on the clef tool above the keyboard and touch the one you want. You can also specify a key signature, but only when you're in Practice mode.

To enter Practice Mode touch "Practice" at the top of the screen. In Practice mode you'll be able to choose the chords you want to learn. To bring up the practice window again touch "Change practice choices" above the selection boxes. To leave practice mode touch "Exit Practice" at the top of the screen.

If you want to work without hearing the chord, just touch the information button for the staff and turn down its volume.

How chords are named

For this activity you'll be asked to identify the chord's quality (major, minor, diminished, augmented) and, in levels 2 and 4, its inversion. To identify a chord's inversion, you will need to understand figured bass notation which is summarized below.

For help with naming chords and understanding figured bass you can download our free eBook, Exploring Theory with Practica Musica, from the iBook store. Chord types are presented in chapter VII and VIII with the help of multimedia examples.

The basic chord types are described in the instructions for the Playing Chords activity, which also makes a good introduction to this activity. To be able to recognize a chord at sight it helps to know how to play it.

Using figured bass notation to identify chord inversions

Chords can be either in "root position" - with the root as the lowest note - or "inverted," where the chord has been rearranged to put one of its other pitches in the bass position.

In music analysis the various positions of chords are indicated with numbers that derive from the traditional practice of figured bass, a kind of shorthand in which the composer would write a bass line with numbers representing the desired harmony, and the musician would improvise to fill in the parts.

In jazz and pop you'll often see chord inversions indicated by naming the bass, for example: C7/E would mean a C seventh chord with an E in the bass, in other words, first inversion. The figured bass system gives you the same information, without specifying note names.

• A chord quality with no number is just a triad in root position. For example: major.

• A chord quality with a "6" alone means it's a triad in first inversion. This is because when you put a triad's middle note into the bass position that creates the interval of a 6th between the bass and the root.

• A chord quality with a "6/4" is a second-inversion triad. The chord root is a fourth above the bass. What was originally the upper note of the triad is now in the bass, making a 6th and a 4th with the upper notes (it doesn't matter what octaves are added; a sixth plus an octave still counts as a sixth for this purpose).

Figured bass notation for seventh chords

• A "7" means there is a seventh somewhere above the bass - this would be a 7th chord in root position. (The types of 7th chords are described in the instructions to Playing Chords, and in Exploring Theory.) The most common 7th chord is the "dominant 7th" - a major triad combined with a minor 7th. This is the chord that can be played using only the notes of the key signature on the dominant (5th degree) in any major key. We'll just call this the "dom. 7" for short. A "major 7," on the other hand, would be a major chord with a major seventh. A "minor 7" would be a minor chord with a minor 7th. A "dim 7" is a diminished chord with a diminished 7th, and a "half-dim 7" is a diminished chord with a minor 7th. That last one is sometimes called a "minor 7 flat 5."

• A "6/5" is a seventh chord in first inversion. For example, we might list "minor 6/5," which would be a minor 7th chord in first inversion. As before, the numbers come out that way because if the third of a seventh chord is placed in the bass it forms a 6th with the root and a 5th with the chord's 7th.

• A "4/3" is a seventh chord in 2nd inversion, in which what was once the 5th above the root is now in the bass. For example "major 6/5" - a major 7th chord in first inversion.

• A "4/2" is a seventh chord in 3rd inversion - it's 7th has been placed in the bass position.

Does this seem very complicated? It may look like a lot of numbers, but you'll find you can pick it up. We're not talking about calculus here.

This is what the basic chord positions look like if the chord is in "close" voicing (all the notes as near to each other as possible). The first is a major triad in its three possible positions, then a dominant seventh chord in its four positions:

The same chords can be in an "open" voicing with the notes spread out - that doesn't affect the name of the chord so long as the bass note is still the same. For example, the dom. 7 chord below is a G7. The "third" of the G7 is B, so if the bass is B - in any octave - then it's a dom. 6/5 chord.

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