Gay chords?

November 14, 2006


Yesterday in my music theory class I “introduced” chords. These are smart students, so of course they know their basic triads. I still feel compelled to not take anything for granted and re-introduce them one by one, explaining them as carefullly as possible, with great enthusiasm.

All triads are made up of three notes, and in their close packed position, are two intervals of a third stacked on top of each other. There are two kinds of thirds used in these triads: a minor third and a major third.

I start by playing a single low note on the piano and ask “is this major or minor?” After reminding the class about the overtones softly ringing above this note, I point out that there is already a major chord in the overtone series.


I then press down the E (the 4th overtone) and smack the low C fundamental. We then hear the E ringing very quietly. I hope this illustrated to them that the overtone series has a major chord built into it. I then did the same thing, but this time holding down the E flat. No sound. Point made. For contrast, I played several high notes asking the class whether they could hear the overtones, and the answer was of course, not as many as one could with low notes. They are out of the range of our hearing.

I moved on to the interval of a 5th, an interval that is the top and bottom of major and minor chords. The upper note of a 5th gives a tonal sense of location to the lower note as well as stability as a chordal entity. But the fifth, although powerful and stable, can sound harmonically “hollow.” There is no third in it to warm it up. That is where major and minor chords come in.

The major chord has a MAJOR THIRD on the bottom, giving it its harmonic identity, i.e., a major chord. The minor chord has a MINOR THIRD on the bottom, giving it its harmonic identity. There is also a marvelous symmetry in each chord: the major chord has a M3 on bottom and a m3 on the top; a minor chord has a m3 on the bottom and a M3 on top. Each chord is a mirror image of the other.

(For some reason, the class had been looking sullen today. Perhaps it was that I had just passed back their counterpoint midterms, or that they were just tired. But I had to do something to jolt them out of their stupor. They didn’t look bored, just zombified.)

“And then, there are the gay chords.” I ran to the board to introduce two other less common triads. “There is the diminished chord which is made up of two minor thirds, and the augmented chord which is made up of two major thirds. On the first chord, the 5th is diminished, and on the 2nd, the 5th is augmented.” The class roared. No one seemed uncomfortable, so I kept going.

“Another gay tip involves stem direction for the middle line of the staff. In the treble clef, what does the note “B” stands for?” I stopped and waited for an answer. Dear Lana came to my rescue and said “bisexual.” “Correct!” I responded enthusiastically. “B stands for bisexual; the direction of the stem can go either way, depending upon the direction of the stems of the notes around it.”


Being a music nerd can be fun sometimes.

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