Music Theory

Understanding Major Chords

The major chord is a popular and well-used chord in modern music. Understanding major chords and how they are used and built will make your songs better.

In today’s post we’ll be looking at the major chord and…

  • What they are
  • How you build them
  • Their relationship to scales
  • And how you can use them in your song

Let’s get started.

What is a major chord?

Major chords are known to be happy and positive, the complete opposite to minor chords which are deemed to be sad and gloomy.

They are commonly used in music to portray emotions which are uplifting and warm regardless of the context of the story.

Let’s listen to a row of major chords – B major, C major, D major and E major.

The energy in me is increasing, and I’m feeling more alive and happy!

How do you build a major chord?

A major chord is built using a major triad which consists of 3 notes, and is built by stacking a major 3rd (4 semitones from the root) and a perfect 5th (7 semitones from the root) giving you the chord formula: R – 3 – 5. It is also known as stacking a major and minor 3rd.

How do you build a major chordPin

For example if A is our root note, C# is our major 3rd which is 4 semitones away from A (3), and E is our perfect 5th which is 3 semitones away from C#, and 7 semitones away from A (5).

A major is: A C# E.

Major chords and scales

In a major scale the 1st, 4th and 5th chords from the scale are major chords, and the 2nd, 3rd and 6th are minor chords and the 7th chord is diminished. Let’s look at the scale of C major as our example:

  1. C major
  2. D minor
  3. E minor
  4. F major
  5. G major
  6. A minor
  7. B diminished

In a minor (natural) scale the types of chords are the same, however they are rotated starting from the 6th note. A is the 6th note in the C major scale which is a minor chord. Therefore, major chords are now the 3rd, 6th and 7th in the scale. Let’s take the scale of A minor as our example:

  1. A minor
  2. B diminished
  3. C major
  4. D minor
  5. E minor
  6. F major
  7. G major

As you can see the C major scale, and A minor scale both contain the same chords because they are relative to each other – they contain the same notes.

How to use major chords

Unlike diminished and augmented chords, major chords are very pleasing to the ear and can easily fit into any chord progression to portray a beautiful wave of storytelling.

Common chord progressions such as 1645 and 1564 naturally include major chords, so how can you make the use of them more interesting, more relevant to the context of the story?

1. Transition between major and minor in the same key

The common chord progression of 1645 is great for storytelling due to the perfect blend of tension and release, however if you need a little more ‘edge’ or more resolution consider adding in a minor chord of the same key prior to the major chord.

For example the C major scale contains C D E F G A B, let’s use a G major chord: G B D. Before we hit the G major chord, we could play G minor. This makes the transition to G major more satisfying. All that changes is the middle note in the chord, Bb to B.

Let’s listen to this transition – 1645:

  • C -> Am -> F -> (Gm G)

2. Use chromatic major chords

Although music students are taught which notes belong to certain scales, it doesn’t mean you have to stick to them. Every single major chord has a different flavour, though in general are perceived to be positive.

Let’s take the scale of A major – A B C# D E F# G#. From this scale we have 3 major chords: A, D and E. But you don’t have to stop there when it comes to major chords. Add in a chromatic major chord to the mix.

Let’s listen to these 2 examples:

  • A (A C# E) -> C (C E G) -> E (E G# B)

C major is the chromatic chord as it falls outside the A major scale.

  • A (A C# E) -> B (B D# F#) -> C# (C# E# G#)

B and C# major are the chromatic chords as they both fall outside the A major scale.

3. Expand on the major chord

The tonic chord has the most stability in the scale such as A major in the A major scale. A great way to dissolve its stability or to change the perceived mood is to add additional notes to the chord.

Let’s continue with the A major scale – A B C# D E F# G#, the A major chord has the most stability in the scale. We can expand on the A major chord by creating a 6th, 7th or 9th:

  • A major seventh – A C# E G#
  • A major ninth – A C# E G# B
  • A major sixth – A C# E F#

If we add one or two of these chords to a 1645 chord progression we could have this:

  • Amaj7 -> F#m -> D6 -> E

4. Play with inverted chords

Every chord whether it’s major or minor has a variety of inverted versions. An inverted chord is when the root note is no longer the bass note of the chord, for example in A major, the bass note is an A note. However, if it became a C# instead, this would be an inversion.

Major triads have 2 inversions because there are two other notes that could be bass notes. For example with the A major chord A C# E:

  • 1st inversion: C# E A
  • 2nd inversion: E A C#

Let’s listen to the second inversion in a 1645 chord progression, it’ll replace the A major on the repeat:

  • A -> F#m -> D -> E -> A/E -> F#m -> D -> E

Inverting your major chords can add an interesting element into your chord progressions, when you feel as though the standard major chord is just a little too boring.

It’s over to you

Major chords are a popular and easy to use chord to put into your songs, however you don’t have to use them as standard in a common chord progression.

By changing the chord that comes before it, or playing with inversions you can impact the listener differently without losing that ‘happy go lucky’ major chord feeling.