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Synth Sense

A pile of useful stuff on the gaps between the notes that make chords sound (mostly) nice.

Andy Honeybone identifies the little gaps between the notes in keyboard chords that make them sound nice (or not so nice).

Chords convey mood. Whether happy or sad, tense or relaxed, down to earth or just plain arty, it is the note clusters which we call chords that set the scene.

How many species of chord are there? - to a first approximation we can safely say lots. Fortunately, the classifiers have been at work and have decreed that there are five basic types (qualities). This month we'll survey what's on offer and throw some light on musical intervals.

First off are the majors which are characterised by the presence of a major third. A major third what? The term expresses a musical distance between two notes using the major scale as a reference. The relationship between any two notes may therefore be stated by quoting their so called interval.

At first acquaintance, it might appear that there is a rather arbitrary naming scheme associated with this interval business. As I've said, it's based on the major (doh, re, me, etc) scale, and the logic behind intervals on the scale is straightforward ie doh to me is an interval of a third - a third because it encompasses three scale steps.

The major scale is fundamental to Western music and is itself characterised by the interval gaps between its component notes. A semi-tone is the smallest interval available on the keyboard, say C to C sharp, whereas a whole-tone is two semi-tones, say C to D. For a scale to be major it must have an interval ladder of tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semi tone ie C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

The pure minor scale (there are too many other variants to discuss here) can be described by tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone ie C, D, E flat, F, G, A flat, B flat, C. Hopefully you can now see the basis for the qualifications major and minor which can prefix the term "third". The third note in the scale of C major is E flat and hence the interval C to E is described as a major third. The third note in the scale of C minor is E flat and hence the interval C to E flat is described as a minor third.

It will no doubt come as a source of further relief to find that the same logic also applies to second, sixth and seventh intervals. Fourths, fifths and octaves aren't so obliging. They are known not as major or minor but start out in life as "perfect", that is, the interval C to G is a perfect fifth. When raised by one semi-tone the interval is said to be augmented and when lowered by the same amount it is said to be diminished.

So that's intervals for you and just to show we mean business, here's an interval ready-reckoner which shows, at a glance, everything you need to know. The abbreviations are as follows:

u unison
m2 minor second
M2 major second
m3 minor third
M3 major third
p4 perfect fourth
+4 augmented fourth (also known as a diminished fifth)
p5 perfect fifth
m6 minor sixth (also known as an augmented fifth)
M6 major sixth
m7 minor seventh
M7 major seventh

Table of Intervals

F major
B minor
G7 dominant seventh type
A minor 7 (b5)
B dim 7

Meanwhile, back at the five qualities, we should now be able to describe fully the structure of a major chord in terms of its component intervals. Simply stated, it comprises a major third and a perfect fifth ie M3 F-A and p5 F-C = F major chord.

Second of the five qualities is the category of minor. The skeleton structure of these chord types is a minor third and a perfect fifth ie m3 B-D and p5 B-Gb (F#) = B minor chord.

Coming in third are the dominant seventh chords which combine a major third with a minor seventh. Although not earth shattering in its significance, it should be noted that the minor seventh is not a note to be found within the scale which generates the bulk of the dominant seventh chord. It is a note borrowed from the generating scale of the major type chord to which the dominant seventh will resolve. The old guitar favourite G7 is a dominant seventh chord: M3 G-B and m7 G-F = G major with added minor seventh. Half-diminished chords form the next group which are characterised by a minor third, a diminished fifth and a minor seventh ie m3 A-C, -5 (+4) A-E flat and m7 A-G = A minor seventh flat five.

The last major division is reserved for diminished chords which are known to have a minor third and diminished fifth. And why not? Confusion arises with talk about diminished seventh chords which technically contain a sixth. For example, m3 B-D, -5 B-F and M6 B-A flat = B diminished seventh! And it was just beginning to look rational, too.

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Hohner B2A electric bass

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Jun 1986


Music Theory

Feature by Andy Honeybone

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