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What is a chord? [And why you should care]

Updated: May 1, 2023


What is a chord - and why you should care

Go ahead, grab your ukulele and make a chord. Any chord will do. Now, strum the strings. Ahhhhh yes -- that familiar sound of four individual strings vibrating in sweet togetherness.


But why does strumming that chord produce a different sound than [cue: strum another chord] this one? And why should you care?


Here's the dry-but-concise reason for why you should care about what makes chords sing:

Knowing what chords are helps to reinforce your knowledge about how chords work together, and therefore how songs work, and therefore how to play said songs.


Here's the more touchy-feely reason: Knowing what a chord is, and which notes are in it, helps you tease out more emotion and color and texture in a song, bringing it closer to how the song makes you feel in your heart, not just in your ears.


During my first year or two of learning to play the ukulele, I was in that lovely state of bliss where I was building a musical ability a mile wide with repertoire ... but only a few inches deep in good technique and musical knowledge.


I wasn't yet at the point of knowing that caring about what makes a chord a chord could give me a leg-up on being able to play songs more closely to how I felt them -- and playing along with others more nimbly.


Also, once I started creating my own chord sheets when I couldn't find them elsewhere, I would find the melody notes on my uke and then try different chords with that note in it until I found that first chord. And so on to the next chord and the next, throughout the song. It also helped when I needed to change keys to better fit my voice or my chord knowledge.


NOTE: The information below is based on the standard ukulele tuning: G, C, E, and A. Armed with a nice, cold beverage, you can happily spend your afternoon extrapolating it to other instruments.


What makes a chord a chord?

Western music is made up of seven main notes represented by our old friend, the alphabet. In musical language, Roman numerals are used to refer to their order:

I. A II. B III. C IV. D V. E VI. F VII. G


Major chords are also represented as letters. They are made up of three specific notes: the 1st, the 3rd, and the 5th notes. Extra symbols that you sometimes see -- like b or # or 7 and such -- add flavor to the notes and chords. We'll get into those later.


If we're trying to find the notes in the A chord, you easily see that it's made up of A, C, and E: The I, the III, and the V. So, whatever instrument you're playing, You are making those three notes when you're playing an A chord.


If you want to find out which notes are in another chord, start your count on the letter that is the name of the chord. For example, to find the notes that make up the C chord, you start your count on the C, like this:

I. C II. D III. E IV. F V. G VI. A VII. B


What notes are in the C chord? The I, III, and V: C, E, and G


But there are four strings on the ukulele! How can we be making only three notes? Excellent question! Many instruments have more than three strings, whether it's the ukulele, banjo, guitar, piano, or an instrument that looks like it's part airship, part sea creature. It's the same for them all: The notes simply repeat.


For the C chord, for example, we'll start counting with the C as shown above. The C is I, the E is III and G is V. The top string of the ukulele is tuned to the G note - hey, that's one of our notes! The next string down is C - still works! The next string down is E - still good. So far, we've got C (1), E (III), and G (V) ... but what about the leftover string at the bottom?


The bottom string on the ukulele is tuned to produce an A note. That note is NOT found in our CEG formula, so we need to correct it. By holding it down at the third fret space, you're turning the A note into a C note. Badda BING! Now we have all the notes -- and ONLY the notes -- that make up the C chord. Any extra strings your instrument may have simply repeat the notes C, E, and/or G.


Go ahead, make another chord and figure out which three notes are in it. It helps to know where the notes are on your fretboard. If you have a piano keyboard tattooed on your psyche, the same patterns prevail on the uke - all white AND black keys are represented on the neck as spaces between the frets. If you have no piano experience, it's never too late to start using it as a tool to learn more about your ukulele!


Ukulele fretboard compared with piano keyboard
A ukulele fretboard reflects the arrangement of notes on a piano keyboard.

Figuring out which notes make a chord gets more complicated as you fancy 'em up with sharps (#) or flats (b) or minors (m) or something like Abmaj7b5. We'll worry about that when we've got another cold beverage in hand.




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