The 3 Basic Triads Explained

Music Theory: The 3 Basic Triads Explained

This article will explain the 3 basic triads – What that means, what they are, where they come from and what they sound like.

What Is A Triad?

A triad is a chord formed of 3 notes. Only certain chords are triads, for example a power chord is not a triad, as it’s made of only 2 notes, and major 7, minor 7 or dominant 7 chords, being made of 4 notes, are not triads either.

A triad’s 3 notes are:

  • A root note, or ‘tonic’ (i.e. the note that gives the chord its name) aka “The 1”
  • A major or minor third aka “3” or “b3”
  • A perfect or flattened fifth, aka “5” or “b5”.

How Are Triads Formed?

Triads are formed by starting from each note of the Major scale in turn and calling that the “1”. From there, you skip a note, and call the next one the “3”. Then skip another one, and call the next one the “5”. In practice, this looks like this:

C Major Scale:

C Major Scale

What These Triads Are

As you can see, there are 3 triad types that form naturally within the major scale. These are

1 3 5 = Major Triad

1 b3 5 = Minor Triad

1 b3 b5 = Diminished Triad

In principle, there is no difference between a major triad and a major chord. A major triad is a major chord. It’s just that very often on the guitar, we play voicings of chords that use all 6 strings, or 5, or 4. These chords aren’t basic triads, as they contain more than 3 notes. However, if these chords are major, minor or diminished, they will only contain 3 different notes – The 3 in the triad. It’s merely that some of these notes have been doubled, or played across multiple octaves, to make the chord sound more expansive and full.

Of course, there are also plenty of chord shapes on the guitar that are just the basic triad shape – A root, a third and a fifth. If you don’t already know some of these, go and learn a few shapes now. Or better still, work them out using your fretboard and interval knowledge. Can you form a basic major, minor or diminished triad, from any starting note, anywhere on the fretboard?

Using Your Knowledge of Triads

Triad knowledge is useful in so many ways, including these:

  • Forming Chords: If you don’t know how to play a certain chord, you can still figure it out using your knowledge of what that chord is made of (i.e. Knowledge of that chord’s triad)
  • Understanding Chords: The reverse of the above. If you know a certain chord shape/name, but don’t know what it is, or what it’s made of, you can use your triad knowledge to dissect and understand it.
  • In soloing: Chord tones (i.e. the notes in any given chord) are vital in soloing. Great licks are often created by the relationship between the note in the lead guitar part and the underlying chord. You can use your triad knowledge to figure out what notes are in any given chord, and solo better!
  • Theory: Triads are the starting point for just about all chord theory. Before you can get onto major7#5 chords and dominant 13th chords, you need to know what kind of 3rds and 5ths are in all basic chords. These are foundations of chord theory, and crucial to wider music theory in general too.

How Do These Triads Sound?

This is ultimately kind of subjective – There’s no substitute for simply playing each one, assessing its structure and analyzing its sound. In short though, if you have any concept of how major and minor chords sound already, this follows suit. Major triads sound complete, resolved, bright, happy, upright and so on. Minor triads also sound complete and resolved, but in a sadder, droopier, less bright, more melancholic way. Diminished triads are something altogether different. They certainly sound more minor than major (due to its minor 3rd). However the flattened fifth (b5) gives it a much more discordant, unresolved quality.

As with all aural elements of theory, I encourage you to play, listen, assess, and find your own associations, keywords and descriptive terms. This internalization is the key to developing a good ear.

Good luck, and enjoy!

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