This article will not be about Chinese mafia or other kinds of organized crime.
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If you’ve been trying to learn guitar, you might’ve come across the word “triad”, and wondered what it meant. Maybe you’ve heard about it in a YouTube video or had a friend tell you about it.
It’s one of those terms that sound fancier than what it actually means. The theory behind triads is pretty easy to understand, as long as you take your time to understand it. I could explain it in three sentences, and you’d understand the essence of it, but you’d miss the big picture.
And that big picture is important because triads are the foundation of building chords and progressions.
So I’m going to start at zero and go step by step. Good luck!
What’s A Triad Chord?
Triad technically means “group of three”. This term is used across many categories. It’s used in the entertainment, in science, in politics, in literature, and also in organized crime. None of that is important for this lesson, but it’s good to know there are many applications of the word that all come back to the literal meaning: “group of three”.
In music, what are we referring to when we say “group of three”? To answer that question we must first refresh our memory on major scales.
Natural major scales
A natural major scale exists of seven notes that are ordered in a very specific way. We talked about that in this lesson: Natural Major Scales. I’m not going to explain the theory behind major scales, because that would take half this lesson. If you’re interested in how scales are built, I recommend you visit that page first.
There are twelve notes in Western music, and all these notes can be a starting point of a new major scale. This means there are twelve natural major scales. All these scales have different chords and different triads. For now, I’m going to use the C major scale, because it’s the easiest, there are no sharps and flats in the C major scale.
The C major scale looks like this:
So when we say “group of three”, we’re going to pick three notes from our scale. These notes will be our triad chords.
But which notes do we pick specifically?
A root note will be the starting point of any chord, the triad chords included. There are seven notes in a major scale, so there are seven possible roots. The root note is the most important note of the triad. It’s so important that the triad will take its name.
Here, C is the root note:
Here, G is the root note:
To make it a little easier, I’m going to take G an octave below:
If you’re wondering why there’s also a G below, this post might be interesting for you: Notes On The Guitar.
The third note will decide if a triad is major or minor. I find it easiest to write down the notes of your scale like this, to make it more clear:
When we pick C as our root note, the third note from C is E.
When we pick G as our root note, the third note from G is B
The fifth is the fifth note from the root or the third from the third.
When we pick C as our root note, the fifth note from C is G.
This is a C major triad chord.
When we pick G as our rote note, the fifth note from G is D
This is a G major triad chord.
There’s always this clear pattern of playing a note, skipping a note, playing a note, skipping a note, playing a note. This works anywhere on any scale. Maybe you’ll have to extend the scale a little as I did below:
These are not all the triads, because the picture wouldn’t have been clear if I’d added all the triads in there. But you can see the pattern: Root, skip, third, skip, fifth.
Major & Minor Triads
You can see in the picture above there are major triads and minor triads.
Now, what makes a triad major or minor? I already told you it’s got something to do with the third.
To explain this, I will add all the remaining chords in between the notes of the C major scale:
The marked letters are notes of C major. Now let’s look at the root and the third in a C major triad.
The third is not D, because we ignore the unmarked notes when we’re building our triads. Those are not part of our C major scale. I’m adding those because we’re going to count the distance between the root and the third. Let’s try the C major first:
As you see, E is five notes away from C.
Now let’s try D minor:
F is four notes away from D.
You’ll see that this is always the same.
In a major triad, the third is five notes away from the root. In a minor triad, the third is four notes away from the root.
We used C major as our example. C major is the easiest scale because it has no sharps and flats. But any other major scale works the same.
Let’s pick the D major scale:
It’s exactly the same, just with other notes. The first chord of the scale is major again, the second chord of the scale is minor again. Last month, I made a lesson that’s a bit more in-depth about the relationship between scales and chord progressions. If you’re interested in how to build chord progressions, and which chords are major and which are minor, that lesson might be a good addition to this lesson.
Difference Between Triads & Normal Chords
The definition of the triad was “group of three”. A triad always has three notes: a root, a third and a fifth.
A regular major or minor chord uses notes from the triad, but it can have more than three notes. Let’s pick a regular E minor:
E minor has three E’s, which are roots (or octaves). Two B’s, which are fifths, and a G, which is the third. These are all notes from the E minor triad. But the E minor triad would only use each interval once.
An E minor triad would simply be:
Triads are the foundation, and that’s why they’re so important.
I hope this lesson was helpful to you. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. I’ll be here to answer them.