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Organ Talk

Chord Formation

Article from Electronics & Music Maker, December 1981

In the November edition, we looked at the question of re-arranging sheet music. Plenty of albums of light music for organ are available but, assuming that only a piano arrangement of a given number is published, it may be necessary to self-arrange that music for three staves. As it stands, a piano score is quite unsuitable for a sustained note instrument.

With a little practice, it will not be too difficult to make this re-arrangement at sight — as the music is read. The solo and pedal parts present no real problems but the accompaniment and harmony generally are not quite as simple and require considerable thought until more used to the system.

One finger chords and automatic pedal facilities certainly help in getting the beginner started but they tend to sound monotonous after a while. It is better to get to know something about the structure of chords and how to use them, taking advantage of the useful information provided in the line of Chord Symbols.


The study of Harmony and Counterpoint is a fairly laborious process. Public libraries have a number of books on this subject but they tend to be very dry reading and are probably more appropriate to music students than readers of E&MM. We are primarily interested in lighter types of music and chord formation in particular so musical purists will have to forgive my musical shortcuts. Even so, basic musical knowledge must be acquired along the way, which can only be to the good.

In order to form the basic chords upon which music is based it is necessary to know the intervals of the scale in any key signature — or the positions of the notes within the scales. Combining several known intervals will provide the required chord in root position, which can be inverted to suit the arrangement. The more complex chords encountered when reading Chord Symbols will for the most part be variations of the four basic chords to be described.


An interval is the distance between two musical notes and is described by the inclusive number of letters from one to the other. For example, the interval from C to G is a fifth as five letters (CDEFG) are involved. Figure 1 shows the intervals of the scale of C major.

Figure 1. Intervals in the scale of C Major.

Figure 2. Positions of notes in C Major scale.

For our purpose, we are more concerned with knowing the positions of the notes of the diatonic scale so the same information appears in slightly different form in Figure 2.

The intervals can be increased by a semitone (augmenting) and can be flattened by a semitone when working out chords. The process of decreasing the interval will result in either diminished or minor intervals depending on whether the original interval was perfect or imperfect in the first place. This technicality need not concern us here: we will simply consider the interval as flattened, leaving the reader to consult 'Rudiments of Music' for a further explanation.

Diatonic Scales

The key signatures of fourteen Major Scales are shown in Figure 3. This may appear mind-boggling for a start (seven sharps!?) but there are only twelve to get used to if you accept that F#=Gb and C#=Db. Light music tends more towards flat keys than sharp keys so perhaps ambivalent black notes are best viewed as 'flats' in this context.

Figure 3. Key Signatures of Major scales.

Knowing the sound of the ascending scale of C major, the player may be able to find and remember the other major scales without referring to Figure 3 continuously. The individual positions of the notes in keys other than C Major have not been shown but are counted upwards in exactly the same manner. In any case, it is better that the organist gets to know and remember these by experiment.


Knowing the positions of each note in the major scales, we can use a form of musical 'shorthand' to remind us how to form the basic chords. The numbers refer to the position of the note in the Major Scale: a b sign indicates that the note is taken down by one semitone. Figure 4 shows root positions of the chords to be described.

Figure 4. The four basic chords of C and F b in root position.

Major Chord

1 3 5 (Chord Symbol: C)

The keynote, 3rd and 5th are used to form this chord (in any key, of course). It is good practice to try to recognise the sound of a particular type of chord: the Major Chord sounds bright and cheerful.

Minor Chord

13b 5 (Chord Symbol: Cm)

In this case, the keynote, minor 3rd and 5th are combined, giving a more melancholy impression.

Seventh Chord

1 3 5 7b (Chord Symbol: C7)

Strictly termed Dominant Seventh, this is the Major Chord with minor seventh added. It has an 'unfinished' sound, leaning towards the next chord which is normally a fourth higher. For example, C7 propels the sequence into an F chord of some sort (major, minor or seventh).


1 3b 5b 6 (Chord Symbol: Cdim or C°)

The Diminished Chord comprises keynote, minor third, diminished fifth and diminished seventh. Musically, the diminished seventh is strictly 7bb but for the purpose of our shorthand we will call it the 6th.

This chord has a somewhat eerie sound (try a series in chromatically ascending order) but is easiest to remember as there are only three versions. If you experiment with it in each key you will find that you keep getting inversions of the same notes. For example, C, Eb, Gb and A all share the same diminished chord.

Chord Symbols vary slightly according to the publisher of the music, those shown above being typical. For chords of 'X', they take the form:

X X Major chord
Xm X Minor chord
X7 X Seventh chord
Xdim or X° X Diminished chord


Counting up from the keynote, using Major Scales and 'shorthand' will have allowed us to form the 48 basic chords — all in the root position (that is, with the keynote at the bottom of the stack).

However, where the accompaniment manual is concerned, the root position chord may not be entirely suitable. A chord played at 8' pitch too low on the keyboard will sound muddy, whereas played too high it will tend to interfere with the melody line.

Any chord can be inverted by taking the keynote up an octave (i.e. moving it from the bottom to top of the chord) so that it occupies another area of the keyboard. If necessary, a second inversion can be made by repeating the process; in fact, the notes of the chord can be played in any order you wish.

My preference is to try to limit the part of the accompaniment keyboard used to the octave F — F either side of middle C (at 8' pitch) when re-arranging at sight. Later on the arrangement can be altered or embellished but this part of the keyboard seems to me to be the optimum and allows counter melodies to come through clearly.

Figure 5 shows the chords of Figure 4 inverted to suit the F — F octave. They should, of course, be written in the bass clef as accompaniment chords but the two illustrations are more easily compared by using the same clef.

Figure 5. Inverted chords of Figure 4 — shown in treble clef for comparison.

This aspect is as important as finding the right notes in the first place so it is imperative to consider this point alongside the 'shorthand'. As the same chords crop up time after time, it doesn't take long to memorise a stock of them for a lifetime's use.

Although it would be quite feasible to publish a complete table of suggested inversions of the 48 chords that can be found by this method, I believe that it is far better to have to work them out initially as they are more likely to become part of the personal ROM that way!

There are a good few chords in addition to these but they are mainly extension or variations of the four chords examined so far: we will be examining some of these later in this series.

Figure 6. The Chord Wheel.

The harmonic structure of entertainment music frequently goes through a sequence of chords which is often similar in the case of totally different melodies. The 'Chord Wheel' shown in Figure 6 illustrates how the Dominant Seventh chords lead into the next — always a fourth above.

The chord sequence of a given tune occasionally jumps over a few chords anticlockwise but then starts to drift back in the direction of the keynote chord. As an exercise, try going round the wheel clockwise by playing the succession of Seventh chords to prove how each modulates into the next.

Chromatic or totally unrelated chord sequences are also found in modern music which abrogate many of the rules of harmony but nevertheless sound attractive. The chords involved will often be among those seldom used normally — so beware! In this respect remember that the black notes all wear two hats — so that we take F# as being Gb for the sake of simplicity.

Finally, perhaps I can suggest that the reader finds a piece of music with Chord Symbols and extracts the solo and pedal parts as proposed in the previous article. For the moment, the chords indicated can be played on the accompaniment manual in sustained form until we get round to methods of using them in rhythmic music in the next edition.

Footnote. The legal column of the Financial Times a few weeks ago contained a letter from a reader who had bought an organ six months previously but had taken an interest in using the pedals only recently. He found the pedals were sticking and wondered if he could get a refund.

The newspaper's legal experts advised the reader that the seller could contend that the instrument had developed the fault due to dampness or misuse. There's a moral here somewhere! Perhaps he should also take E&MM...

Previous Article in this issue

Elka-Orla X-50

Next article in this issue

Making Notes

Publisher: Electronics & Music Maker - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Dec 1981

Feature by Ken Lenton-Smith

Previous article in this issue:

> Elka-Orla X-50

Next article in this issue:

> Making Notes

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