There are many systems used to notate harmony, whether that harmony is an interval, an arpeggio, or a chord. For example, orchestral music uses staff notation, harmonic analysis uses Roman numerals, and the Baroque era used figured bass. However, the most popular harmony symbol used in today’s music is the macro symbol, more simply known as a “chord symbol.”
Simply stated, a harmony symbol consists of two parts: the Letter of the harmony and the Type. And although these symbols are seldom used in classical music, they are universally used to specify the harmony of popular music as found in fake books, lead sheets and chord charts. Therefore, a clear and simple understanding of harmony symbolization is essential.
A quick internet search of harmony symbol notation will present you with an overwhelming amount of confusing, incomplete and, dare I say it, wrong information. So, let’s clean the slate, start at the beginning and discover that harmony notation isn’t overwhelming or confusing at all.
For the examples used in this lesson, we will use the C major scale. Let’s begin by presenting the C major scale as seven letters and seven tone numbers, also known as scale degrees. In the first octave they are 1 C, 2 D, 3 E, 4 F, 5 G, 6 A, 7 B. In the second octave they become 8 C, 9 D, 10 E, 11 F, 12 G, 13 A, 14 B. Now, the first thing we need to realize about harmony is that harmony begins with one sound! To many this just doesn’t seem correct, but it is.
Think of it this way. If we were to begin with a complex harmony symbol, say C major 13, which contains the letters and tones 1 C, 3 E, 5 G, 7 B, 9 D, 11 F, 13 A, we would probably quit because as a beginner, that’s a frightening chord! However, if we were to “reduce” this complex harmony by deleting six tones and letters, then, only one tone and letter would remain: 1 C. And that isn’t complex at all. In fact, it’s very simple. Now you can understand that harmony, no matter how complex, begins with one sound, one letter and one tone number. Let’s continue.
Harmony of two sounds is called an interval. In other words, an interval contains two letters and two tone numbers. For this lesson, we will begin with the following intervals: Perfect Fifth: natural 5, Diminished Fifth: flat 5, and Augmented Fifth: sharp 5.
The Perfect Fifth, P5, is simply the fifth sound of the major scale, tone 5 letter G. And when the perfect fifth is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1 letter C, the perfect fifth interval is the result. The perfect fifth interval may be played melodically, which means one at a time, or, harmonically, which means at the same time. Now, to understand the next two intervals, a simple understanding of flat (b) and sharp (#) is necessary. Simply stated, on any instrument, flat is one half-step lower in pitch and sharp is one half-step higher in pitch. To a right-handed player of guitar or bass, flat is one fret lower (to the left) of any letter or tone number, and sharp is one fret higher (to the right) of any letter or tone number. That was easy!
The definition of Diminished is to shrink or make smaller. Therefore, the diminished fifth is simply the fifth sound of the major scale flatted, in other words: tone b5, which is bG in the C Major scale. When the diminished fifth, b5 bG is combined with tone 1 C, the diminished fifth interval is the result. The diminished fifth interval may be played melodically (one sound at a time), or harmonically (at the same time).
The definition of Augmented is to expand or make larger. Therefore, the augmented fifth is simply the fifth sound of the major scale sharped, or, tone #5 which is #G in the C Major scale. When the augmented fifth, #5 #G is combined with tone 1 C, the augmented fifth interval is the result. The augmented fifth interval may also be played melodically or harmonically.
Let’s present the three intervals that are based on tone 3. They are Major: natural 3, Minor: flat 3 and Suspended: sharp 3. You will notice that even though we used the flat and sharp signs with the third intervals, we did not use the designation diminished and augmented!
The Major Third, M3, is simply the third sound of the major scale, tone 3 which is E in the C Major scale. When the major third, tone 3, is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1, the major third interval is the result. The major third interval may be played melodically or harmonically.
The Minor Third, m3, is simply the third sound of the major scale flatted, tone b3 letter bE. When the minor third is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1, the minor third interval is the result. The minor third interval may be played melodically or harmonically.
The Suspended Third, sus3, is simply the third sound of the major scale sharped, tone #3 letter #E. When the major third is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1, the suspended third interval is the result. The suspended third interval may also be played melodically or harmonically.
One more thought. The definition of enharmonic is one sound with more than one symbol. Therefore, it’s important to point out that when C is tone 1, tone #3 is the letter #E and sounds the same as tone 4 letter F, but they are two different symbols. For further clarification of this important concept, see page 102 of Guitar Fretboard Facts http://www.12tonemusic.com/guitar/facts/, or, Bass Fretboard Facts http://www.12tonemusic.com/bass/facts/.
Okay, it’s now time to use the above information to create Nine Triads of Three Types.
Tri is Greek for three. Therefore, triads are arpeggio and chord harmonies which are spelled with three different letters and three different tone numbers. Here’s the essential idea, there are only nine triads upon which all arpeggios and chords are based! These nine triads are created by combining the three third types: major, minor and suspended, with the three fifth types: perfect, diminished and augmented. In the following examples, C is tone 1. Tone 1 is also known as the root, tonic and fundamental. To learn more about the following nine triads, see page 10 of Guitar EncycloMedia http://www.12tonemusic.com/guitar/encyclomedia/, or, Bass EncycloMedia http://www.12tonemusic.com/bass/encyclomedia/.
Now, here is something very important. Notice that the harmony symbol for major is nothing. In other words, there is a harmony letter for major, but there is no type symbol for major. Said a different way, when you see nothing — and yes, you can see nothing — it means something! In other words, in this case, when you don’t see a type symbol after the harmony letter, it means major. Think of it this way, when reading the harmony symbol C, you think, say and play C major.
You will notice that each of the nine triads only have one Type, Name, Tone Spelling and Letter Spelling. However, since there is no standardization of harmony symbolism, some of the nine triads have more than one Harmony Symbol. This really shouldn’t be the case because more often than not, this simply leads to confusion. But, oh well, that’s the way it is.
So, ’til next time, have some nine triad fun… I’ll be listening!