Understanding Triads, the Basic Chords of Music

Updated on April 22, 2019
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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

What Are Triads?

Triads, in their simplest state, are chord types composed of three notes separated in pitch by intervals of major 3rds and/or minor 3rds.

If you play the notes C, E, and G at the same time, you're playing a triad called C major. It has three notes and the spacing or interval between the notes C and E (CDE) spans three letters as does the interval between the notes E and G (EFG). That's what makes them thirds.

Both of those intervals (C to E and E to G) are thirds because each spans three letters, but they aren't equal in size. C and E are separated by four semitones or half steps, (C to Db to D to Eb to-E) while E and G are separated by just three semitones (E to F to Gb to G). To distinguish between both types of third, the larger (4 semitone) one (C to E) is called a major 3rd and the smaller (3 semitone) one (E to G) is called a minor 3rd. So the notes, CEG form a triad composed of a major 3rd plus minor 3rd. Triads with that arrangement are called major triads (or simply, major chords).

Types of Triad

As we saw, major triads consist of a major 3rd plus a minor 3rd. There are, in fact, only four possible ways of arranging two major and/or minor 3rds. Each arrangement produces a different type of triad, so there are only four triad types:

Triad type
Examples based on C
major 3rd + minor 3rd
C major (C E G)
minor 3rd + major 3rd
C minor (C Eb G)
major 3rd + major 3rd
C augmented (C E G#)
minor 3rd + minor 3rd
C diminished (C Eb Gb)

Triad Arrangements

As mentioned at the start, the above explanation describes triads in their simplest form. However, they are still triads if they contain any of the following features:

The intervals of thirds that separate the notes don't have to be simple major or minor thirds. They can be compound major or minor thirds. Using again our example of C, E & G, the interval from C to the next E above is a simple major 3rd, but C to the E that lies one or more octaves above the nearest E is a compound major 3rd. The actual pitch register of the notes doesn't matter. It's still a triad.

Any of the notes can be duplicated at any octave any number of times, too. So while the basic C major triad consists of C, E & G, there can be any number of Cs, Es and Gs. Think of a large orchestra ending a symphony on a C major triad. All of the instruments will be playing either C, E or G notes - from the deep notes of the double bass all the way up to the high notes of flutes and piccolos. Dozens of Cs, Es & Gs covering a huge pitch range can all played at the same time and the chord is still a triad.

If any note other than C, E or G is included, the chord will no longer be C major, but some other chord type. And with more than three differently named notes, it will no longer be a triad either.

Root, 3rd and 5th

Another way to look at triads is in terms of the notes compared to a scale. The scale of C major, for example, is CDEFGABC. Our previous C major triad example, consisting of notes C, E & G can be seen in the scale as the first, third and fifth notes.

When comparing other triads we can still refer to the major scale but the notes above 1 (the root of the chord) are numbered as follows:

  • Major chord = 1 3 5 (C E G)
  • Minor chord = 1 b3 5 (C Eb G)
  • Augmented chord = 1 3 #5 (C E G#)
  • Diminished chord = 1 b3 b5 (C Eb Gb)

The C major scale showing the C major triad as scale notes 1, 3 & 5
The C major scale showing the C major triad as scale notes 1, 3 & 5 | Source
The intervals separating the notes of a C major triad
The intervals separating the notes of a C major triad | Source

Inverted Triads

Although a Triad can have any number of doubled notes at any octave, and although the notes can be in any order, the choice of the lowest (bass) note has a significant effect on the sound, so these triads are named as follows:

Root Position

If the lowest note is the root, the chord is said to be in root position. For example, C major arranged as C E G or C G E in order of ascending pitch is a root position C major triad.

First Inversion

If the lowest note is the 3rd of the chord, the triad is said to be in first inversion. C major arranged as E C G or E G C is a first inversion C major triad.

Second Inversion

If the lowest note is the 5th of the chord, the chord is said to be in second inversion. C major arranged as G C E or G E C is a second inversion C major triad.

Note that when a triad is inverted, certain intervals will no longer be 3rds if we count from the bass. It's still a triad, though, because the required 3rds are counted from the root of the chord with the notes arranged in scale order.

For example, the second inversion C major triad has notes G, C & E, which produces intervals of a 4th and a 6th above the bass note, G. Despite having no 3rds in that particular arrangement, it's still a triad because when re-arranged in scale order from the root, the notes will be C, E & G and the 3rds will be back in place.

Example Arrangements of the C Major Triad

Example Arrangements of the Four Triad Types Based on C

some of the countless possible arrangements of the 4 triad types based on C
some of the countless possible arrangements of the 4 triad types based on C

Recognising Triads by Ear

Listen to and compare the sound of root position triads based on the root note C.

Beyond Triads

Even more major or minor 3rds can be stacked on top of triads to produce chords that aren't triads but extensions of triads. Stacking more 3rds produces a variety of 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th chords.

All triads, regardless of the number of doubled notes in any particular arrangement, will have only three different note names that (if arranged in scale order) will be separated by major and/or minor 3rds (simple or compound ). If either of those conditions aren't met, it's not a triad. For example, suspended 4th chords have only three differently named notes (e.g., Csus4 = C F G) but they're not triads because the intervals between the notes aren't 3rds and can't be re-arranged as 3rds. Some modern classical theorists have expanded the definition to include intervals other than major and minor 3rds, but in mainstream traditional classical theory, they're not recognised as triads.

Incomplete Triads
Incomplete major and minor triads are often found in music. The 5th may be left out. It's the least active of the notes and its absence is barely noticed. It's the 3rd of the chord that gives it its distinctive major or minor character. Power chords (5th chords) on the other hand have just the root and 5th and mustn't have a 3rd (or they'll no longer be power chords). The key and chord progression, however, often imply the missing 3rd as either major or minor - so power chords often function as triads, even though they're not.

© 2012 chasmac


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