Types Of Chords - Triads, Extended Chords, Suspended Chords

Types Of Chords:
Triads, Extended Chords & Suspended Chords

CHORDS help shape the tone, mood, emotion, vibe, and feel of your song.

And when you know about the different types of chords — and how to use them — you'll be able to more clearly and effectively communicate the emotional message of your song and connect with your listeners on a deeper level.

In this article, you're going to learn how to build chords — some basic, some advanced. Here's the plan:

  1. Chords & Intervals
  2. Four Basic Triads
  3. Extended Chords
  4. Suspended Chords
  5. Inversions

And here are all the chords we're going build:

Let’s begin...


What Are Chords?

It’s simple. A chord is when you play (at least two) different notes at the same time.

A chord is when you play different notes at the same time.

The most common type of chord has three notes and we call these triads. Here’s some triads in the wild:

A triad is a chord that has three notes.

In the picture above, look at the distance between the notes stacked on top of each other...

Then look at how the distances between the notes is slightly different from chord to chord...

These distances are called intervals.

What are intervals in music?

An interval is the distance between two notes.

 An interval is the distance between two notes.

Intervals are SUPER important because...

  • Intervals are the building blocks of chords.
  • The size of the intervals inside a chord define the type of chord.

In other words...

If you change the size of the intervals inside a chord, then you change the type of chord.

Different intervals = different type of chord.

The size of an interval is measured by the number of half steps between the two notes, and a half step is simply when two notes are right next to each other.

We measure intervals in half steps. And half steps are simply an interval of +1.

Half steps on a piano.

Half steps are the smallest interval we recognize in Western Music. And again, we use them to measure the size of intervals. Let me show you:

The size of an interval is measured by the number of half steps between two notes.

In Chord A, the interval between the first two notes (C3 to E3) is +4 half steps. And the size of the outer interval (C3 to G3) is +7 half steps.

In Chord B, the size of the bottom interval (D3 to F3) is +3 half steps. And the size of the top interval (F3 to A3) is +4 half steps.

So, to measure intervals, all you have to do is count the half steps!

3 Key Intervals: Major Third, Minor Third, Perfect Fifth

In the next section, we’ll start building the 4 basic triads.

The 4 basic triads serve as the foundation for almost all the chords you know. Most other chords are just fancy versions of the 4 basic triads.

But before we start building the 4 basic triads, there are 3 special intervals you need to know:

  • Major Third interval -- defined as +4 half steps
  • Minor Third interval -- defined as +3 half steps
  • Perfect Fifth interval -- defined as +7 half steps

Three important intervals for building chords: major third, minor third, and perfect fifth.

(Don’t worry about where these interval names come from for now.)

Intervals of a third are going to be SUPER important throughout this entire article. So say “third” five times before we move on.

Third. Third. Third. Third. Third.

Great job. Now we’re ready to build the 4 basic triads.


The 4 Basic Triads

A triad is a three note chord consisting of a root, a third, and a fifth.

The "root" note is the base of the chord. The "third" of the chord is an interval of a third away from the root. And the "fifth" of the chord is an interval of a fifth away from the root.

There are 4 basic triads, and these 4 basic triads serve as the foundation for almost all the chords we know.

To build them, all we have to do is stack two intervals of a third on top of each other. If that’s confusing, just keep reading...

Just like babies can stack blocks, you can stack thirds.

We already know about the Major Third (+4 half steps) and Minor Third (+3 half steps), so stacking them in different ways gives us the 4 basic triads:

The four basic triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads.

Click play below to listen to each type of chord. You’ll hear C major, C minor, C diminished, and C augmented.

Pay attention to how each chord makes you feel. It’s amazing that all the chords have the same basic ingredients, yet how they’re stacked completely changes the sound and emotion.

Chord Construction Formulas 

Chord construction formulas are just what they sound like: a formula that helps us construct chords. And they're going to make our lives way easier.

The chord construction formula we'll use boils EVERYTHING down to counting either 3 half steps or 4 half steps. So if you can count to 3 or 4, then you're good to go.

We already know that to build triads we stack Major Thirds (+4 half steps) and/or Minor Thirds (+3 half steps). So that gives us the 4 basic triad construction formulas:

  • Major Triad: 1+4+3
  • Minor Triad: 1+3+4
  • Diminished Triad: 1+3+3
  • Augmented Triad: 1+4+4

And here we're building the 4 basic triads using C as the root:

Now let’s look at each triad in more detail.


Major Chord

Major chords are everywhere. They are by far the most common and popular chord. And they're most commonly associated with positive emotion like happiness, joy, etc.

To build a major triad, start with a major third (+4 half steps) and stack a minor third (+3 half steps) on top. That gives us the following major chord construction formula: 1+4+3

To build C Major...

  1. Start on C
  2. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to land on E
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to land on G

So the notes of C major are C-E-G where C is the root, E is the third, and G is the fifth.


Minor Chord

Minor chords tend to sound sad, serious, or melancholy. While major chords and keys are the most common chords in general, minor chords and keys are the most popular in dance music.

To build a minor chord, we start with a minor third (+3 half steps) and stack a major third (+4 half steps) on top. That gives us the minor chord construction formula: 1+3+4

To build C minor...

  1. Start on C
  2. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to E-flat
  3. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to G

So the notes of C minor are C, E-flat, G where C is the root, E-flat is the third, and G is the fifth.

PAUSE: Think about how cool this is. The major and minor chords are SO similar. They literally only differ by one note. Take the third in a major triad and drop it down a half step and you get a minor triad. So one tiny little note can completely change the way a chord feels. Pretty powerful stuff!


Diminished Triad

The diminished triad is pretty uncommon, but it's a cool chord that shows up here and there. It has a tense and dissonant sound. And it's typically used to set up a resolution.

To build a diminished chord, start with a minor third (+3 half steps) and stack another minor third (+3 half steps) on top. That gives us the diminished triad construction formula: 1+3+3

To build C diminished...

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to E-flat
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to G-flat

So the notes of the C diminished triad are C, E-flat, G-flat where C is the root, E-flat is the third, and G-flat is the fifth.


Augmented Triad

Augmented chords are extremely rare. And like diminished chords, they have a very tense and dissonant sound which calls for a resolution.

To build an augmented chord, start with a major third (+4 half steps) and stack another major third (+4 half steps) on top. That gives us the augmented triad construction formula: 1+4+4

To build C augmented...

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to E
  3. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to G-sharp

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E, G-sharp where C is the root, E is the third, and G-sharp is the fifth.


Extended Chords

We’ve been having so much fun stacking thirds. Why stop now?

Well….......we don’t have to!

We can keep stacking thirds on top of the basic triads to get even richer chords. Like this:

Once we get past the basic triads, we can keep stacking and inverting major and minor thirds. So you can imagine how the number of chords would grow exponentially (until we run out of notes).

So we’ll just focus on the most common extended chords:

7th chords and 9ths chords

Before we start adding notes, understand this:

It doesn’t matter what notes you add on top of the major, minor, diminished, or augmented triads, the fundamental “quality” of the chord (major, minor, diminished, augmented) will stay the same.

For example:

If we add some notes to the major triad, it will still be a major chord fundamentally. It’s just a major chord PLUS some fancy notes.

Likewise:

If we add some notes to the minor triad, it will still be a minor chord fundamentally. It’s just a minor chord PLUS some fancy notes.

In other words, the underlying structure of extended chords is like this:

And most of the time, the extended notes are added by stacking thirds -- exactly like what we’ve been doing all along.

Let’s start stacking.

7th Chords

Triads have 3 notes: root, third, and fifth. Seventh chords are typically 4 note chords: root, third, fifth, and seventh. (However, you don’t always have to play the fifth in a 7th chord.)

These chord names (root, third, fifth, and seventh) ultimately come from their position in a scale. But in this article, we’ll continue to understand and build chords via stacking thirds and construction formulas.

To build 7th chords, all we have to do is stack another third on the basic triads. Here are the four most popular 7th chords:

You can see that the Major 7th Chord is just a major triad plus a major third interval stacked on top. And same with the Half-Diminished Chord: it's just a diminished triad plus a major third interval stacked on top.


Major 7th Chord

Major 7th chords are simply beautiful. They might be my favorite chords. They're lush, airy, dreamy, hopeful, floating, etc.

Major 7th Chord Construction Formula = 1+4+3+4

How to build C Major 7:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to E
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to G
  4. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to B

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E, G, B where C is the root, E is the third, G is the fifth, and B is the seventh.


Dominant 7th Chord

Dominant 7th chords are energetic, edgy, and funky. They are great for creating a lot of tension before a resolution. You can see that a dominant 7th chord has a diminished triad inside of it (minor third + minor third) — no wonder they're so jarring and tense!

Dominant 7th Chord Construction Formula = 1+4+3+3

How to build C Dominant 7:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to E
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to G
  4. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to B-flat

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E, G, B-flat where C is the root, E is the third, G is the fifth, and B-flat is the seventh.


Minor 7th Chord

Minor 7th Chords sound beautiful just like Major 7th Chords, except they're a little more moody and thoughtful. These chords are extremely popular because of their slightly more sophisticated emotional color.

Minor 7th Chord Construction Formula = 1+3+4+3

How to build C Minor 7:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to E-flat
  3. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to G
  4. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to B-flat

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E-flat, G, B-flat where C is the root, E-flat is the third, G is the fifth, and B-flat is the seventh.


Half-Diminished Chord

Half-diminished chords add a major third interval on top of the diminished triad which really smoothes out the sound. These chords are rare, but they definitely more usable and friendly than jarring and unpalatable diminished triads.

Half-Diminished Chord Construction Formula = 1+3+3+4

How to build C Half-Diminished:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to E-flat
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to G-flat
  4. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to B-flat

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat where C is the root, E-flat is the third, G-flat is the fifth, and B-flat is the seventh.

Note: the C Half Diminished is the same as taking the C Minor 7 chord and lowering the fifth by one half step. That's why another name for this chord is "C Minor 7 Flat 5" where "flat" refers to lowering the fifth by one half step.

9th Chords

Can you guess what we do here? You guessed it…

To build 9th chords, we just stack another third on top of 7th chords.

The sounds and emotions of 9th chords are similar to 7th chords — with just and extra bit of color. They just sound a little more lush and sophisticated.

Here are some popular 9th chords:


Major 9th Chord

Major 9ths are really just more lush versions of Major 7ths. They sound beautiful and rich. And if you look, you'll see that Major 9ths are just two major triads stacked on top of each other.

Major 9th Construction Formula = 1+4+3+4+3

How to build C Major 9:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to E
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to G
  4. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to B
  5. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to D

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E, G, B and D — where C is the root, E is the third, G is the fifth, B is the seventh, and D is the ninth.

See how C Major 9 is really C Major + G Major? This gives a really strong and rich sound.


Dominant 9th Chord

Dominant Construction formula (stacking thirds) = 1+4+3+3+4

How to build C Dominant 9:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to E
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to G
  4. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to B-flat
  5. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to D

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E, G, B-flat and D — where C is the root, E is the third, G is the fifth, B-flat is the seventh, and D is the ninth.


Minor 9th Chord

Minor 9ths are gorgeous sounding chords. They are so lush and rich. Plus they sound more serious and melancholy than Major 7ths and 9ths. If you're making minimal, or more groove based house music, throwing in a 9th chord can fatten the entire track up and fill the frequency spectrum.

Also, like Major 9ths, Minor 9ths are just stacked minor chords. C Minor 9th, for example, is just C Minor + G Minor. Again, this gives a very strong and rich sound.

Minor 9th Chord Construction Formula = 1+3+4+3+4

How to build C Minor 9:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to E-flat
  3. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to G
  4. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to B-flat
  5. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to D

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E-flat, G, B-flat and D — where C is the root, E-flat is the third, G is the fifth, B-flat is the seventh, and D is the ninth.


Major 13th Chord

We can keep stacking thirds on top of 9ths to get 11th chords and 13th chords. But then it stops. After all, there are only 7 notes in the major and minor scales, and once we reach 13th chords, we’ve used up all the available notes.

That means that you can play a chord that has ALL the notes in a scale!

Outside of jazz, these chords are very rare. But I'm throwing these chords in for theoretical interest. They further hammer in the idea that chords are just stacked thirds. And we can continue this stacking using all 7 notes in a scale to create an epic mega chord...

The 13th chords.

Construction formula (stacking thirds) = 1+4+3+4+3+3+4

How to build C Major 13:

  1. Start with C
  2. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to E
  3. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to G
  4. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to B
  5. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to D
  6. Go up a minor third by counting 3 half steps to F
  7. Go up a major third by counting 4 half steps to A

So the notes of the C augmented triad are C, E, G, B, D, F, and A — where C is the root, E is the third, G is the fifth, B is the seventh, D is the ninth, F is the eleventh, and A is the thirteenth.


Suspended Chords

So far, we’ve built chords by stacking intervals of a third. We started with the basic triads (root, third, fifth) and then added the extended notes (seventh, ninth, eleventh, thirteenth).

But let’s go back to the basic triad -- specifically, the major and minor triads.

Really they only differ by one note: the third.

If we take the third away, then a chord can’t be major or minor. It’s neither. It's just a perfect fifth.

And that’s the perfect segue for Suspended Chords.

(Get ready for 2 new intervals...)

A suspended chord replaces the third with a Major Second or a Perfect Fourth.

A major second is +2 half steps up from the root. And a perfect fourth is +5 half steps up from the root.

So after replacing the third with a Major Second or Perfect Fourth, we’re left with these two Suspended Chords:

Think of Suspended Chords as suspending the "quality" (major or minor) of a chord. You don’t know whether it’s major or minor.


Sus4 Chord

Suspended chords in general sound very open with a gentle amount of tension. Suspended chords can be treated as chords themselves so you don't have to resolve the inner tension.

Suspended 4 Chords, or sus4 chords, are more popular than sus2 chords. To me, they sound a little brighter. I like to use sus4 in major contexts because the perfect fourth is only a half step away from the major third. So it creates a very natural movement and resolution of the subtle tension.


Sus2 Chord

Suspended 2 Chords, or sus2 chords, sound very open with some gentle tension — just like sus4 chords.

I personally prefer the sound of sus2 chords. They're a little darker. Plus they're great in minor contexts because a Major Second is only a half step away from a Minor Third. So you can resolve the sus2 tension in a natural and subtle way.


Chord Inversions

Chord inversions are simple. You basically just rearrange the order of the notes in a chord. Same notes. Different order.

All the chords we've been looking at have been build from the root up. We started with the root note and then stacked other notes on top. So the root note has always been the lowest note, or the "bass" note.

A chord is in root position when the root note is the bass note. In an inverted chord, the root note is NOT in the bass.

For triads, there are just two inversions:

  • First inversion = when the third of the chord is on the bottom
  • Second inversion = when the fifth of the chord is on the bottom

Extended chords, or chords with more than 3 notes, can also have inversions. And the idea is the same, except you have more inversions. Below are the inversions of C Minor 7 (Cm7):

As you can see, when chords have 4 notes, like seventh chords, they have 3 inversions because 3 other notes other than the root note can serve as the bass. In a third inverted 7th chord, the seventh serves as the bass note.

And so on with 9th, 11th, and 13th chords. 9ths have 4 inversions, 11ths have 5 inversions, and 13ths have 6 inversions.

Why Do We Invert Chords?

Reason #1: For smoother voice leading in chord progressions.

This basically means that when you have a chord progression, the individual notes, or voices, don't have to move very far to get to the next note.

Here's an example of bad voice leading — where all the chords are in root position.

Imagine someone singing the highlighted notes in the picture above. That's really hard! They have to jump up and down large intervals. That is NOT smooth voice leading — quite the opposite!

If we invert some of the chords, the chords all of a sudden belong in the same "space" — which you can see visually. But more importantly, you can hear it. The chords and notes aren't jumping around like crazy.

Note that the biggest distance that the highlighted notes have to travel is two half steps (or one whole step). And the same is true for the top line and the bottom line. That is what smooth voice leading is all about. And chord inversions help, big time.

We'll stop this explanation here because this article is about building chords, not chord progressions. But inversions play a key role in making chord progressions sound smooth — as you can see and hear.

Reason #2: Voicing tension, stability, and instability

The most stable note arrangement for a chord is root position — where we just stack thirds.

When you start inverting a chord — like using the third or fifth as the bass note — you introduce instability and tension into the sound. The reason is that you're changing the intervals between the notes.

In a root position major chord, we have a major third interval between the root and third, and a perfect fifth between the root and fifth. These are consonant, stable intervals.

Root position major chord: major third interval between root and third, and perfect fifth interval between root and fifth.

In contrast, a second inversion major chord has a perfect fourth interval (+5 half steps) between the bottom and middle note. And we have a major sixth (+9 half steps) interval between the bottom and top note. These are dissonant, unstable intervals.

Second inversion major chord: perfect fourth between bass and root, major 6th interval between bass and third. Second inversion chords are also called "six-four chords" because of these interval relationships.

So even though the exact same notes are involved, how you order them, can significantly change the stability of the chord's sound.

How can you apply this knowledge? Well, knowing how to effectively using "voicing tension" will mostly come from experience and practice. But, of course, knowing about the concept is the starting point. Here are two ways to apply the concept:

(1) Most of the time, you want to have the tonic chord in root position. Then just use the principles of voice leading to ensure a smooth chord progression for the other chords. Like this:

(2) If you've programmed a sweet chord sound in a synth, and you want to create a tense vibe, try inverting the chord MIDI and using the fifth or any extended note as the bass note. This creates a subtle feeling of tension, suspense, and anticipation.

Reason #3: Avoid Overlapping Frequencies With Other Sounds

Have you ever heard of the concept of arranging like a mixing engineer? Well, inverting chords is actually an application of the concept.

For example...

Let's say we have a bass sound that has harmonics that stretch up to about 220 Hz.

And here's a piano playing a G major chord progression (G, D, Em, C) where the G chord is in root position and the root is around 196 Hz.

Both both the bass and Clearly there is the some over lap between the bottom of the piano and the top of the bass, like this:

Which sounds like this:

This overlap could lead to a problem called masking — which is where one sound is dominating the clear expression of the other sound in an undesirable way.

Of course, you could reach for an EQ to fix the problem, but there is another way. A cleaner way....

What is you just leaped all the bass notes up an octave?

The result would be a G minor chord in the first inversion because the third (B-flat) would now be in the bass. And the B-flat above 196 Hz has an associated frequency value of 233 Hz.

And here is the before and after using the inversion trick to avoid masking problems.

Before inversions:

After inversions:

Before inversions (with drums)

After inversions (with drums)

Sounds cleaner, right? 

This approach to solving the problem is thinking like a mix engineer because you're deliberately avoiding a build up of overlapping frequencies. But this principle goes beyond our example:

In general, when you choose sounds and write parts, keep in mind where everything sits in the frequency spectrum. This way, you'll avoid a lot of mixing nightmares later on, and your productions will be clean from the ground up.


Conclusion

You've learned so much. Now you know about...

  • Chords and intervals
  • The major third, minor third, and perfect fifth intervals
  • The 4 basic triads: major, minor, diminished, augmented
  • Stacking thirds
  • Chord construction formulas
  • Extended chords like 7th, 9th, and 13th chords
  • Sus2 and sus4 chords
  • Chord inversions for any type of chord
  • Voice leading and voicing tension basics
  • How to use inversions to fix masking problems

And there's still so much to learn!

Download everything in this post for your own files:

  • Get the Chord Construction Cheat Sheet (printable)
  • Get the MIDI files for the chords (+inversions)
  • Get 194 Chord Samples for your sample library
  • Downloads as a 100 MB .zip file

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