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The Right Root

Article from Making Music, September 1986

IMAGINE FOR a minute that you are a humble guitar player, trying to work out one of those songs made famous in the golden age of Broadway, or Hollywood, or jazz.

You get the sheet music, but what do you find? A set of chord boxes designed for a ukelele, if you're lucky. Otherwise, it's down to the dots.

What you need is some way of quickly converting the piano player's black inspots into some kind of reassuring chord name that we fret enfusiasts love so much: Amaj, Bmin, Eflat diminished and the like.

Well, we can't promise instant score reading, but here's a start. Anyone who can read the basic notes on the stave should be able to discover rapidly the root, and hence the name, of any chord that they come across. And that's useful.

Grey dots are the root notes.

Right, the easy ones first. Here's a simple triad, built on F (Fig 1). And here's one built on G (Fig 2).

In both cases you'll notice that the notes are evenly spaced vertically, on the spaces in the first instance and on the lines in the second. And in both cases, the root - which gives the chord its name - is the bottom note.

Of course, finding the root is easy when it's a simple 'root position' triad. Unfortunately, piano music includes large numbers of right hand inversions, i.e. chords which have a note other than the root on the bottom. Here's a first inversion, meaning the third's at the bottom (Fig 3). Here's a second inversion chord: the fifth is at the bottom (Fig 4).

In either case, the root is immediately above the gap. In the rare event that there are two gaps, the root is above the bottom gap (Figs 5 & 6).

What about third inversion chords, I hear some of you ask. These are chords including a seventh and in which the seventh is on the bottom: there's no gap. Never mind: in these cases, the root can be found by detecting the two notes in the pile which are a second apart. In other words, B and C, or C and D, or D and Eflat. The root is always the top one of the two: in this case D (Fig 7).

So now we know how to find the name of any chord with a minimum of fuss and bother. Sadly, there's no equivalent trick for discovering what type of chord it is. To do that, you have to work out the relationship between the notes to discover whether the chords and sevenths are major or minor, or you have to work from context, i.e. where the root note stands in relation to the key.

One more slight area of unpleasantness: because of the undoubted fact that piano chords are spread over two hands, you may well find a strange and unexpected chord in the right hand. You pick out a chord, and using these rules, identify it as Dsomething. Closer scrutiny and working-out reveals it to be Dhalf-diminished7. Bleagh!

Luckily, lurking in the bass clef is a Bflat which we are quite within our rights to regard as the root of the chord, magically turning it into a Bflat9 which, if not easy-peasy, is at least in the same universe as most of us. Dhalf-dimished and Bflat9 are what we call chord synonyms: there are lots more, but that's another article.

So now you know how to find the root note of any chord you might come across. All you have to do now is work out the precise nature of each chord: maybe next time.

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

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Making Music - Sep 1986


Music Theory

Previous article in this issue:

> Works Outing

Next article in this issue:

> Brass Tacks

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