Illustration: Filip Fröhlich
Triads are the building blocks of music.
Okay, yes, technically notes are the building blocks, and technically sound waves are the building blocks, not to mention the limitations to human hearing which allow us to define what music is in the first place. Still, at the core of music theory, composition, experimentation, and improvisation lies triads.
Whether you’re an instrumentalist or a producer, triads are a crucial element to one’s foundational music knowledge. Though they may seem daunting, in this article we intend to help the construction and function of triads feel more digestible, clear, and ready to integrate into your workflow.
What are triads?
Our Introductory guide to harmony defines triads as “three-note chords that consist of two stacked thirds,” emphasizing that all triads follow this same core pattern. Their elements, a root note (the “one”), as well as a third and a fifth, are referred to as such because they’re two ‘letters’ apart in the scale. The actual interval between those notes, whether it’s made up of half or whole steps, is what differentiates the triads types that we’ll go through later.
Categorizing triads: Qualities and positions
There are a number of ways in which we can define triads with more specificity. At a glance, they are:
- Qualities (major, minor, diminished, augmented), which relate to the aforementioned intervals between the root, third, and fifth.
- Positions (root position, first inversion, second inversion), which defines whether the root, third, or fifth is the bass note, or that with the lowest frequency in the way the triad is written or played.
Before we dig into each of these, be sure to be mindful of one thing: everything described here is relating strictly to the same three-note positions in a scale (one, three, and five). All we’re doing in the seven described alterations above is presenting them differently or making a small, half-step alteration. In the case of the latter, such an adjustment maintains the defining factor of a triad with two-letter gaps between each note; even if a note is sharpened or flattened, the new triad will still feature the same distance between letters (two).
Major and minor triads: Triads differentiated by the third note
The following two qualities we’ll discuss are the building blocks of the first chords we often learn on physical instruments, and for good reason! Most songs are completely constructed of major and minor triads within their given key.
The same as with major scales, these harmonic combinations are often associated with happiness or other sorts of positive feelings. Major triads are constructed with the root note, a major third note, and a perfect fifth note.
In the case of a B major triad, we would take the root of B, followed by two whole steps for a major third of D♯, and one and a half steps for a minor third to arrive at F♯. This F♯ is also the perfect fifth of our root note, B. The B major triad sounds like this:
B major triad—multiple octaves
Here’s a layout of all major triads:
|A – C♯ – E||B♭ – D – F (or A♯ – C♯♯ – E♯)||B – D♯ – F♯||C – E – G|
|D♭ – F – A♭ (or C♯ – E♯ – G♯)||D – F♯ – A||E♭ – G – B♭ (or D♯ – F♯♯ – A♯)||E – G♯ – B|
|F – A – C||G♭ – B♭ – D♭ (or F♯ – A♯ – C♯)||G – B – D||A♭ – C – E♭ (or G♯ – B♯ – D♯)|
Note that the triads in parentheses are enharmonically equivalent—for example, the triads built off of B♭ and A♯ share all of the same pitches, but are simply expressed differently in writing.
Often associated with melancholy and other generally sad emotive responses, minor triads are constructed with a root, a minor third, and again a perfect fifth. If you’re imagining these notes on sheet music, you’ll note that the the overall width of the triad doesn’t change between minor and major, as the lowest note (the root) and highest note (the fifth) are the same distance apart. Since the relationship between the root and the third is what characterizes these triads, it’s in those mid-level frequencies where a listener will be able to directly identify or feel the effects of the triad’s quality.
For comparison, here’s the B minor triad, made up of B, a minor third to D, and a major third to F♯, which again, is the perfect fifth of our root note. The triad sounds like this:
B minor triad—multiple octaves
Here’s a layout of all minor triads:
|A – C – E||B♭ – D♭ – F (or A♯ – C♯ – E♯)||B – D – F♯||C – E♭ – G|
|D♭ – F♭ – A♭ (or C♯ – E – G♯)||D – F – A||E♭ – G♭ – B♭ (or D♯ – F♯ – A♯)||E – G – B|
|F – A♭ – C||G♭ – B♭♭ – D♭ (or F♯ – A – C♯)||G – B♭ – D||A♭ – C♭ – E♭ (or G♯ – B – D♯)|
Augmented and diminished triads: Triads differentiated by the fifth note
Conversely to major and minor triads, we’ll now hear what happens when we narrow or widen the distance between the root and the fifth. Both of the following two triad qualities are far less frequently experienced by both players and listeners, and yes, this is absolutely a challenge for you to change that narrative! There are many reasons that one may hypothesize for this, but an easy example is that these triads are simply more dissonant, and could be more challenging to integrate into a popular song.
An augmented triad is constructed when the fifth note of a major triad is sharpened, widening the chord and creating tension. This tension can be used to the songwriter’s advantage, with a common approach coming in the form of resolution back down to the perfect fifth or up to the sixth within the given scale degree.
While hearing this chord on its own can make it difficult to envision it seamlessly baked into a chord progression, it’s the chords around it and how an artist uses tension to their advantage that make the difference. Among many other popular artists, The Beatles are an example who regularly featured this triad quality, doing so in over 20 of their songs.
Augmenting the fifth of our B major triad sounds like this:
B augmented triad—multiple octaves
Here’s a layout of all augmented triads:
|A – C♯ – E♯ (F)||B♭ – D – F♯||B – D♯ – F♯♯ (G)||C – E – G♯|
|D♭ – F – A||D – F♯ – A♯||E♭ – G – B||E – G♯ – B♯ (C)|
|F – A – C♯||G♭ – B♭ – D||G – B – D♯||A♭ – C – E|
While we didn’t list all of the enharmonically equivalent triads as we did before, the enharmonic equivalents of select individual pitches are expressed in parentheses.
A diminished triad is constructed when the fifth note of a minor triad is flattened, featuring two consecutive minor third intervals. This narrows the chord and creates an incredibly dark, yet again tension-inducing sound.
Diminishing the fifth of our B minor triad sounds like this:
B diminished triad—multiple octaves
Here’s a layout of all diminished triads:
|A – C – E♭||B♭ – D♭ – F♭ (E)||B – D – F||C – E♭ – G♭|
|D♭ – F♭ – A♭♭ (G)||D – F – A♭||E♭ – G♭ – B♭♭ (A)||E – G – B♭|
|F – A♭ – C♭||F♯ – A – C||G – B♭ – D♭||G♯ – B – D|
Unlike the augmented triad, we encounter the diminished triad as the natural quality of a chord in the major scale: the seventh (viio) chord. Though generally, composers will utilize diminished chords for more than just the viio, based on how they’re attempting to lead the melody and movement of a chord progression. The next time you’re building a set of chords, give it a try and see if you can nestle that dissonance well into your idea!
We’ve spoken very formulaically about triads to this point, but as we know, musicians are always looking to think outside of the box, and music theory provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. As introduced above, the term “position” refers to which note in a triad is serving as the bass note. When the root is the bass note, as it was in all of the above examples, this is considered root position.
If you’d like to structure a chord with the third as the bass note, however, this is called the first inversion. In the case of B major, this would call for the third (D♯) as the lowest frequency, and would be noted in sheet music as B/D♯.
You may have guessed it; a triad with the fifth as the bass note is called the second inversion. Our B major chord would be communicated to players in sheet music as B/F♯.
Have a listen to this chord played in each of the three positions on guitar, first in a higher register and then lower in frequency for assisted listening:
B major triads in three positions
And here’s what minor sounds like with this method:
B minor triads in three positions
As highlighted in the linked video of popular songs using augmented chords, it’s important to note that augmented triads aren’t this straightforward when it comes to inversions. The lesson goes as far as to say one can’t invert an augmented chord, though it may be more realistic to say that one can absolutely follow the formula to invert an augmented chord, but musically it then creates an entirely different chord. This is because they’re often using accidentals, or notes outside of a scale, and therefore inverting these triads can be far more difficult to mask in a progression and can become quite confusing to notate in sheet music.
Triads in training: Scale exercises for performing and composing
As a performer, triads provide an excellent framework for a number of exercises to sharpen your music theory knowledge, physical coordination and precision, and overall improvisation skills. Performance is a discipline, and a higher understanding of triads can be achieved simply by soloing over a basic chord progression. Start off by listening to the chords and understanding their roots, thirds, and fifths, and from there, create solos which center around these notes as the chords change.
The following exercise for guitarists can be applied across voice, a MIDI keyboard, and any other melodic instrument you play. It’s great for regular warmups, but can also serve as a practice session in itself. Some of the below examples require a metronome, which of course could be done with a click track on your DAW if you don’t have access to a physical one.
To take on this exercise, begin with the B note on the low E string (7th fret) and play the major scale in this position a few times. From there, you can mirror the below example by playing the triads natural to the scale up and down the neck.
Have a listen and play along:
All triads in the B major scale, played in 7th position ascending and descending in 3/4
Once you have the base structure down like this rough take, begin to speed up. Sing the notes as you play them. Sing the next note to harmonize with what you’re playing and test your ability to anticipate the upcoming minor or major third. Continue to challenge your ear and your command of your instrument.
A personal favorite that comes with a second audio example is to change the time signature in which you’re counting along. This can be applied to a wide range of exercises, and can do incredible things for one’s ear and ability to subdivide. Below, you’ll hear a metronome counting in twos instead of the threes against the same audio sample. If you really count in twos, you’ll find yourself out and back into phase with the three-note triads over time.
Check it out:
The same triads in 7th positions, against a 2/4 tempo
Can you count along, despite the downbeat feeling like it’s splitting the triads at the wrong times? The goal here is to actually feel the notes as if they’re in tuplets, shifting one’s perspective from sets of three ascending notes to interchanging ascending and descending intervals (rather than hearing “B – D♯ – F♯, E – G – B,” we want to hear “D – D♯, F♯ – E, G – B”). You may be playing the same notes at the same BPM, but the beats per measure can shift your entire perspective towards the note relationship.
And the best part it? You can continue to come up with different ways just like this to start a habit of un-learning your listening and playing habits, along with your overall cognitive tricks that help music make sense in performance and listening. The goal here is to keep yourself guessing, never becoming fully comfortable, and therefore continuously learning.
We hope that you’ll use these exercises to improve your skills and influence your sonic brand. If you make something you like, please share it with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Triads are indeed the building blocks of music. We know that music is incredibly mathematical, but despite the very prescriptive formulas presented here, music isn’t math. In many ways, our rules are meant to be broken, or at least challenged. A strong foundational knowledge of these structures can help you to most effectively leverage music theory in your music, but it can also inform how and when you’d like to break away from them. We hope this piece can help you achieve either or both!
June 2, 2023