A way to think about chords

I was asked to explain the purpose of chords. I don’t know if I can answer that question exactly, but I like to think of chords in terms of these two opposite feelings: chords that feel at rest (stable) and chords that feel unresolved (unstable).

Here are some other terms that describe the two opposite feelings:

at rest in motion
——- ———
resolved unresolved
stable unstable
in place leading somewhere
at home coming home
balanced off balance

It’s all about context because the same chord can feel ‘at rest’ in one song and in motion in another, depending on the chords that come before and after it.

In general major and minor chords feel the most stable, while diminished and augmented chords feel unstable. The more 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc. that you add, the more unstable the chord feels. The same goes for adding suspendeds, sharping and flatting notes (i.e. E7b5 or B7#9) and adding a non-chord tone in the bass. Using a chord outside the key also adds an element of unresolved or instability.

So the ‘purpose’ of a chord in a song might be to give the listener a stable feeling, for example to indicate the end of a verse or the end of the song.

Or the purpose could be to indicate restlessness or motion (which leads to restfulness, lack of motion, resolution or whatever you call it at the end of a phrase, end of a verse or the end of the song).

A chord can also be used (in a film for example) to create suspense.

If you’re not versed in the more complex chords, you can always work with another musician who will write chords to your melody. I know many songwriters who are lyricists and melody writers, but who do not play an instrument, so they rely on a producer or other musician to supply the chords.

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One Response to “A way to think about chords”

  1. dhconcerts Says:

    I like this post. This is a neat web site. 🙂

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