Chords For Beginners

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Here is a very simple lesson in beginners’ harmony and how to make chords. It assumes you know some major scales and how they are made up of whole tones and half tones.

Whether you want to study theory to go on the look at our jazz improvisation pages, or whether you want a preliminary explanation of some of the concepts in our beginners impro course Taming The Saxophone vol 2, you should find a lot of useful material here.

Beginners’ Theory: Chords

Why do saxophone players need chords?

Very simply, we can think of chords as more than one note sounding at the same time. We all know what a melody or tune is, but of course the melody generally only has one note at a time. However in most jazz, pop, blues, rock etc. there are other notes in the backing (whether instrumental or vocal) that form chords or harmony. Often (but not always) the chords may change as the melody progresses. When this happens we call it the chord changes (noun), the  chord  sequence or the chord progression. On sheet music you will see chords written as chord symbols under the melody (e.g. C, D7, Am7  – why the 7?… more on that later)

I often get asked by beginners why saxophone music often has chord symbols written above (or below) the staff, in other words, what are the chords for?

Answer: This shows the harmonic structure of the song. Usually the pianist, guitarist or rhythm section musicians will play an accompaniment to the tune based on this structure. Usually, after the initial statement of the tune (aka “head”), the rhythm section repeats this harmonic structure – while the soloist improvises something which fits the chord changes (aka “changes”) – and usually end up with a final statement of the tune.

Improvising well can be very tricky. It is basically a speeded up form of composing, and the skilled jazz (rock or blues) improviser should be able to make up musical lines which not only “fit”the chords, but which also have some melodic interest and ideally some real shape and structure with tension, release, climaxes etc.

If you are not intending to improvise and just want to play/sing melodies, you never really need to know about chords, although knowledge of harmonic theory is always useful. But when you improvise, or maybe just want to embellish the melody, then it’s important to know the harmony going on underneath in order that the (single) notes you play fit nicely with the mulitple notes (chords or harmony) that are being played or sung at the same time.

With a typical jazz or blues song, the melody is played over the chord progression. Then the chord progression is repeated while different players improvise over that progression, and then return to the melody at the end. The opening melody is referred to as the head, the repeats of the  progression for improvising are called choruses, and finally the head is played again to finish off.

Basic chords

As you probably know, there are 7 notes in a major scale. In C these are C, D, E, F, G, A and B. We number these 1 to 7, often with roman numerals instead of note names, which makes it easier to think about this in any key.
In the key of C:


In the key of F

F G A Bb C D E

As you can see, by thinking in numbers this system is useful when you are discussing harmony in general and do not need to be in a specific key.

In the very simplest harmony system, we add two other notes to each of these notes so there are three notes in all, sounding together (in harmony). This simple three-note chord is called a triad. To build a triad you take a note (which can be any note) and add two alternate notes of the scale above it.

When you take a note of the scale and build a chord on it, that note is called the “root” of the chord. To make this a bit clearer we shall now take a few of these notes in the key of C and build some triad chords. It helps if you can play them on a keyboard so you can hear what the chords sound like when the 3 notes are played at the same time, or spread out (played as an arpeggio)

The I chord in the key of C

In any key, chord I called the tonic. Think of this as “home”. As this is built on the 1st note (aka the tonic), it can be useful to think of this as the home chord as it can sound like it is at rest rather than “needing” to progress to a different chord. Usually a tune in a given key will end up on the tonic chord.

To make the chord we go up the scale scale starting on a root note of C, and use the 3rd and 5th notes along with the 1st (ie the root = C in this case)

Count: 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
Notes C D E F G
Chord C E G

You can see from the video that by missing out the alternate 2nd and 4th notes, we end up with the triad of 1st (root) 3rd and 5th.

The II chord in the key of C

The root note of this is D (the second note of the C scale). To make the chord we go up the scale of C, but this time starting on starting on D (In roman numerals note II of C). As before, we omit the 2nd and 4th notes to make the triad based on D.

This D chord is in fact a minor chord and its chord symbol is Dm (note the lower case to denote minor). All chords built on II of a major key are minor chords. What defines it as a minor chord is that unlike the C major, the musical interval (or difference in pitch) between the root and 3rd is smaller. It is made up of a whole tone and a half-tone (a.k.a. a minor 3rd). The interval between the root and 3rd of a C major chord is made up of two whole tones (a.k.a. a major 3rd). From now on I am going to use a small “m” to denote a minor chord so we will call this Dm or IIm. In classical harmony it is common to use lower case roman numerals to denote a minor, I prefer to use the capitals and add the small “m” as it fits in with standard pop and jazz chord symbol notation.


Don’t Get Confused

Whatever chord we play, we can identify the notes in the chord using the numbers.

  • The note we build the chord on (aka the root) is the 1st note.
  • The next note up we call the 3rd of the chord – remember we count up the scale from 1 but miss out the 2
  • The next note is the 5th – we continued counting up the scale but missed the 4)
  • The next note up is the 7th – like wise we missed out the 6th

It may seem odd that the second note of the chord is a 3rd, and the third note of a chord is the fifth, but remember, a chord is made from alternate notes of the scale so we count the scale degrees but miss out the 2nd and 4th to build the chord.


Count 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
Notes D E F G A
Chord D F A


Once again by missing out the alternate 2nd and 4th notes, we end up with the triad of 1st (root) 3rd and 5th. It’s useful to differentiate between the roman numerals and arabic numerals. The roman numerals (I – VII) always refer to the note as relative to the key you are in, i.e. relative to the tonic. These are the root notes of the triads in that key. The arabic numerals (1st, 2nd, 3rd) refer to the notes relative to each of those chord root notes (I – VII). make sure you understand this, it may be easier to grasp in musical notation:

Triad Chords

In other words:

  • Each chord built on a degree of the major scale (shown as roman numerals I to VII)  has it’s own chord.
  • The root note of that chord  is shown by the arabic numeral “1”
  • The  3rd and 5th notes are counted upward from that root (NOT counted from the tonic of the key)

Beyond Triads – 4 note chords

Chords can be more complex, and contain four or more notes. The same principle applies – miss out the alternate notes but count up to 7:

The abbreviated chord symbol is Cmaj7

This chart demonstrates the four-note chords built on each degree of a C major scale.

chords and scales
Chords built on scale degrees

There are two major 7 chords in the key of C: Cmaj7 and Fmaj7

Part 2: Chord Sequences

Chords are used to accompany single melody lines. This is often done by an instrument capable of playing chords (e.g. a keyboard or guitar) or else by several instruments or voices added together to form chords (e.g. a band or choir). I mentioned above that the I chord (or tonic), can sound “at rest”. Other chords can often sound as if they want to change, either back to the tonic or to a different chord. This is because there is a certain amount of tension, either because they are simply not the tonic chord, or else because the notes within the chord create tension with each other. The use of tension (and it’s subsequent release) is a very important part of music, either in adding interest or creating emotions as the chords move from one to another. When you add harmony to an existing melody, you need to think of two important things

  • The chords must fit the melody. This means that significant notes of the melody are notes of the current chord.
  • The chords often move from one to another in a way that helps to create tension and release, or interest. You can think of a chord sequence or progression as a musical journey.

To get a good idea of this you must play and listen to the chords. I suggest you get hold of a keyboard and start learning where the notes are. You don’t need to be a virtuoso pianist, but you must be able to play chords, even slowly, if you are going to learn music theory. Start with triads:


First of all play a C triad followed by a Dm triad using the charts above to work out the notes. You will hear that whereas the C sounds like “home”, the Chord on D sounds like you have gone somewhere else. This is the start of a journey.


Possibly most important chord change is from the V chord to the I chord, ie G to C in the key of C. This is called a perfect cadence and usually happens at the end of a tune, and also at the end of a phrase within the tune. I mentioned above that when you go from a C chord to a D minor chord it is like the start of a journey. If C (chord I) is home, D minor (chord II) is setting off somewhere else. The G chord (chord V) is the journey home so it is very useful that this chord has the most tension waiting to be released when you finally arrive home.

I mentioned before about tension within the notes of a chord. The V chord (called the dominant chord) is a very good example of this, but first we need to extend the chord. So far we have been looking at three note chords, or triads. The same principle of creating the chords is involved. We are now going to make a four note dominant chord. This is particularly useful because even with music that uses simple triads, more often than not the V chord is extended to a four note chord to take advantage of the extra tension that this chord is capable of when it is most often needed: the final cadence.

Creating a Four-Note Chord

Following on from our method of creating triads, to make a four note chord we just continue counting up the scale from the root of the chord. So if the root is G, we count up the C scale from G and use the alternate notes: root, 3rd and 5th as with a triad, but continue one more step: miss out the 6th note and add the 7th:

Count 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Notes G A B C D E F
Chord G B D F

To differentiate between this and a G triad we call this a G7 chord. In this particular chord (along any V7 chord of whatever key), the interval between B and F (known as a “tritone” as it is made up of three whole tones) is one that has a lot of tension. This used to be called the devil’s interval as it was considered very dissonant. These days our ears are more used to such dissonance. Play this chord on the keyboard, then play just the tritone. You will easily hear how the B seems to want to resolve the tension by moving up to a C, and the F wants to resolve the tension by moving down to the E. Guess what? These are the most significant notes of a C major triad: the C because it is the root and tonic of the key, the E because that is what defines it as a major type of chord. So not only have we just created tension by adding a note (the 7th) to a chord, we created extra tension because that particular note sets up a certain amount of dissonance within the chord, and this tension finds release by progressing to the tonic chord and so completing that journey (or part of a bigger journey):

Home Set off somewhere Journey back Safely Home
Chord I (C) Chord IIm (Dm) Chord V7 (G7) Chord I (C)

This exercise demonstrates a simple journey from G7 to C. The first one uses just the chord tones, the second one introduces passing notes between the chord tones to create a scale.

Perfect cadence in C
G7 to C


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