This is an overview day. We are going to look at Half Steps and Whole Steps and how to build a Major Chord. Ultimately I want you to know that a C Major Chord is comprised of the notes C – E – G. I expect the rest to be intimidating. We’re on the internet so . . . trust me. I will be skirting other issues and I want you to treat everything else as a preview, a first impression of things that will be explained slowly and in detail one thing at a time as we go forward.
First, here is the C Major Scale notated on the staff:
The numbers below each note are Scale Degrees. The distance between any two of those notes is called an interval. Without explanation, I will say that an interval can be minor, major, perfect, diminished, augmented, or unison. The dickens you say! That’s a lot of mystery and I’m going to leave all that be for now. You don’t need to remember any of that today, but you have been forewarned.
The reason to talk about Scale Degrees is that if we transpose a piece of music from C Major to E Major, the third scale degree in C Major is going to mean the same relative thing in E Major. More mystery, I’m afraid.
We will now look at Half Steps and Whole Steps. With a basic understanding of those we can recognize what kind of chord we are dealing with, even if we don’t know what key we are in.
If you play every single note, all the black and white keys in order, from Middle C to the C above, you have played a Chromatic Scale. If you move from one note to another note playing every black and white key in between then you are moving Chromatically. Again, we aren’t going to worry specifically about Chromaticism today, but there are two chromatic moves within the C Major Scale. A chromatic movement is a half step. Let’s look at the piano keyboard to see what on Earth I’m talking about:
If you play every key from one C to the next, all the black and white keys, you are playing all half steps. Notice how E and F do not have a black key between them. Also B and C are the same. From E to F is a half step, and from B to C is a half step. However, from C to D is two half steps. C to C# (C sharp) is a half step and from C# to D is a half step. This I need you to know and know well.
From C to D is a Whole Step. From C to E, count them, is four Half Steps or two whole steps. Two whole steps is a Major Third. C to E is a Major Third. Today is vocabulary day.
How many Half Steps is it from E to G? Count the keys on the way up and don’t skip the black key. You should get three Half Steps, or a Step and a Half. A Step and a Half is called a Minor Third. I need you to know this too.
When we look at three-note chords, six of the seven chords natural to the C Major scale are either Major or Minor. A Major Chord has first a Major Third and then a Minor third built on top of that. In the key of C Major, the Chord C-E-G is a Major Chord. Check it out:
C to E is a Major Third, and E to G is a Minor Third. This is important! We are only going to focus on this one chord today and next time, but let me show you all seven just to scare you:
You need not remember this for today, but all those symbols will be extremely important. Chords are represented theoretically as roman numerals where a major chord is a capital Roman numeral and minor chords are represented by small Roman Numerals. Let me show you the difference:
Capital Roman Numerals: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII
Small Roman Numerals: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii
These Roman Numerals correspond with the Scale Degrees I mentioned and pictured earlier. If we say the Chords are C Major, F Major, and G Major, then we are lost if we try to play the same thing in a different key than C Major. But if we instead call them I, IV, and V, then if we try to play them in a different key we will (someday) know how to handle it.
In the picture above, the vii° has a degree symbol after it. That means diminished which is a Minor Third with a Minor Third built on that. Check it just for fun. B to D is a Minor Third, and D to F is a Minor Third.
A plus sign would mean Augmented, which is a Major Third with a Major Third built on that. An Augmented Chord is not natural to the C Major Scale because there is no way to make one using only the notes of the C Major Scale. We will not be using an Augmented Chord for quite some time and you should feel free to forget all about it for now.
This is getting long and complicated. Here’s what I want you to take from today:
You should know what a Half Step and a Whole Step is. You should know what a Major Third and a Minor Third is. And you should know that to build a Major Chord you need first a Major Third and then build a Minor Third on top of that. Finally, you really really need to know that the chord C – E – G is a C Major chord.
Forget everything else for now, it will all be covered later and in more detail. You might want to reread this article.
Next time we will write a “song” in C Major using only a C Major Chord. I expect we will discover that to make a better song we need to use at least two chords.