Lesson 18: Chord Functions

Lesson 18: Chord Functions

In my last blog post, I discussed chords, which are a harmonic component of every key in music.  In this lesson, we’ll be looking at the different functions various chords have within each musical key.

The previous lesson taught you that chords are built by skips from the starting note, and C major was used as an example: a C major chord is built as C-E-G, which is the root position spelling of the chord.  A C major chord can also be written in first inversion as E-G-C, or in second inversion as G-C-E.

It’s possible to build chords in the same way for every degree of the scale in a given key.  We assign Roman numerals to chords according to what scale degree they’re built on within the key.  So, because C is the first step of the C major scale, C-E-G (and all of its possible inversions) is referred to as the I chord in the key of C major.

You can also build chords on the other degrees of the C scale and assign the appropriate Roman numerals to them.  For example, the fifth step of the C major scale is G, so the chord comprised of G-B-D would be called the V chord in the key of C major.

Check out all of the chords in the key of C major, all spelled in root position and in ascending order by scale degree:

You may be wondering why some Roman numerals are uppercase while others are lowercase.  Different styles of Roman numerals denote the quality of the chord, or in other words, whether it sounds major (bright and cheerful) or minor (dark and sad).  So, while the I chord in C major (C-E-G) sounds happy, the ii chord (D-F-A) sounds noticeably different.

Try playing all of the different chords in any key you choose from the circle of fifths; make sure to follow the key signature as you go. Listen for the differences between major and minor triads as you play each Roman numeral chord.

The next lesson will explain dotted rhythms in music.

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