Monday, January 8, 2018

Scale Degrees and Chord Colors


Scale Degrees

In the greater musical world, the chords are not identified by color, but by the scale degree on which the chord root sits.

First things first: what are scale degrees?  Think of a any scale and just assign a number to each step of the scale. Do=1, Re=2, etc.

Build a triad on top of the root notes. A triad is made of intervals of a 3rd and a 5th stacked on top of a root. First, I'll draw them in "snowman" shape so you can easily see which notes are in the triad/chord.

Our favorite triads/chords are 1=Red. 4=Blue. 5=Yellow.  In the key of C that means the C chord is RED, The F chord is BLUE, and the G chord is YELLOW. Can you see it in this illustration? 




Because we don't like having to jump our hand around on the keyboard, we can rearrange the notes of the triad (inversions).  We make the blue chord look like it's stretching up high. We make the yellow chord look like it's crouching down. 

But we didn't change the notes of any chords!  Red has CEG. Blue has FAC. Yellow has GBD. Now you can play all of those chords with your hand in C position, and you only have to stretch a tiny bit.

Don't they all look very familiar in those inversions?

*This is all we have shown our second year students so far, so they always say a snowman-shaped C chord is a RED chord.*. And YES, that C chord is RED when Do is C.

Key of F

This time I will show you the key signature with one flat. The RED chord is F. The BLUE is Bb. The YELLOW is C.

Can you can find the same snowman-shaped C chord in this illustration that was in the illustration above?

It's yellow now! (I drew CEG twice on step 5 so you could see that either one would still be a C chord). Nothing about the chord actually changed, but DO HAS MOVED, so the C chord plays a different role/ does a different job in this song.




A C chord can be RED (I) if Do is C.  It's YELLOW (V) if Do is F.

Key of G

Just for fun, can you find the C chord one more time?  Notice the key signature has changed. One sharp means this is the key of G.




You found a triad built on a middle C?  THIS time the C chord is on the 4th step of the scale so it is a BLUE chord.

That C chord can be RED (I) when Do is C, BLUE (IV) when Do is G or YELLOW (V) when Do is F! It's like saying a woman is a mother, daughter, and grand-daughter, depending on where you start counting.

A woman can also be an aunt and a cousin and a wife, so it's not surprising that in other keys, our C chord can play other interesting roles, too. 

What if Do were Bb or E? C would not be Red, Blue or Yellow.  Maybe orange or pink would be fun colors to represent chords built on the 2nd or 6th step of the scale.

The roles of triads built on other steps of the scale is a little beyond Let's Play Music, but you have a great foundational understanding of how scale degrees give chords ROLES to function in songs, and you'll love introducing new characters to your family of chords in any key. Enjoy!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher



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