How to Hear the Four Qualities of Triads

You can get the music theory behind the four qualities of triads elsewhere, and that’s really important. However, we like to stay grounded in the sound of these things. Here are four little melodies to help you remember the sounds of these triads.

First off: What’s a triad? Well, for now a triad is a chord made of three notes. There are four official qualities of triad and each of those qualities can be understood by singing one of these four little melodies. For a more formal description, see elsewhere on the web. There are MANY descriptions! But here, we want to stay laser focused on the sounds of the triads, accessing those sounds by singing through each triad with these lyrics:

MAJOR: “The bright day”
MINOR: “The dark night”
DIMINISHED: “Shadow bound”
AUGMENTED: “Outer space”

Notice that they all start on the same note: They all share the same root. Notice also that the upper notes change.

This is singing for understanding, not performative singing. You’re not going to get on stage with this song. These melodies are to help you hear and recognize the tones in these four chords. Since conjuring them from scratch requires you to generate them from your imagination, doing so makes recognizing them in a musical context much, much easier than trying to without ever embodying the chords with your voice. Remember: the voice is the connection between the ear and the mind!

If you are beginner, it is perfectly sufficient to sing all of these on one note. As you advance and become more comfortable singing these melodies, you can start on different notes.

I got the lyrics for the major triad and the minor triad from the great jazz composer Maria Schneider, who did a residency at New England Conservatory when I was there getting my Masters degree. I’m still searching for just the right lyrics for the diminished and augmented, though “shadowbound” feels pretty good.

It’s important to remember that these lyrics aren’t intended to tell YOU how to feel about the sounds of these triads. Instead, they are words to sing and make the tonal relations a little more sticky in your memory.

As always, the only instrumental skill you need for this is the ability to play one note on an instrument. There are plenty of apps out there that can provide you with a drone, and you can simply use the piano like I am doing.

If you are a music teacher, this is a great way to introduce the sound of triads BEFORE bringing up the music theory behind it. Notice that I’m not getting into describing what happens to the third and the fifth on the different qualities. That’s because we want to stay grounded in the sound of the music before engaging the rational thinking brain that performs music theory operations. I believe that the more we can teach music from a sound-before-symbol approach, the more authentic and long-term the learning will be for our students.

Have fun!

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