Chord Formation: Can A Musician Create Chords?

In the process of chord formation, can a musician create chords?

A vast majority of people reading this blog have come across a musician (if not two or more) who has claimed to create his/her own chords.

Although the goal of this post is NOT to make them sound like they’re lying (Lol). However, in the next 5 minutes or so, you’ll find out if it’s really possible for a musician to create chords or not.

“What Is A Chord?”

A chord is an aggregate of three or more related notes which may be played or heard together.

From the definition of a chord, you can practically play any set of three or more notes together to form a chord as long as they are related.

Let’s discuss briefly on the relationship between the notes of a chord (aka – “chord tones”).

Scale Relationship Between Chord Tones

The chord tones of any given chord must be related by an underlying scale. It is this underlying scale relationship that determines if an aggregate of notes can be considered as a chord or not.

The chord tones of the C major triad:

…which are C, E, and G are related by the C major scale:

C is the first tone of the C major scale:

E is the third tone of the C major scale:

G is the fifth tone of the C major scale:

Without the scale relationship between the tones of the C major triad, it can’t be considered as a chord.

Interval Relationship Between Chord Tones

Chord tones are also related by the distance between successive chord tones.

In the C major triad:

…the distance between successive chord tones is in third intervals:

C to E is a third:

E to G is a third:

The use of third intervals as the interval between successive chord tones produces what music scholars call tertian harmony and that’s the traditional harmony of European-American music.

Interval relationship can also exist between successive chord tones in second intervals and fourth intervals.

“In A Nutshell…”

Irrespective of the chord type, the chord tones in every given chord type must be related. The chord tones in the triads below:

The C major triad:

The C minor triad:

The C diminished triad:

The C augmented triad:

…are all related by an underlying scale and a stipulated interval between successive tones.

“Can A Musician Create Chords?”

From the definition of a chord and the relationship between chord tones, it’s NOT possible for any musician to create a chord and here’s why:

Within tonal music, there are ENDLESS harmonic possibilities. Coming up with a new chord is like writing a number that you think does not exist.

There is no combination of related notes that anyone can possibly come up with that is not a harmonic possibility. Just like in mathematics, every possible combination of numbers from 0-9 is a mathematical possibility.

Let’s say I combine numbers randomly like the example below:

 495, 384, 950, 304, 934, 836, 283, 920, 349, 348

Although I’m certain that you’ve NOT come across this particular number all your life, I can’t possibly say I created the figure, or that I’ve written a number that doesn’t exist and this is because the number written above is a mathematical possibility.

Yes! It’s not been written before, but that doesn’t mean I created it.

Same thing is applicable to chords. As long as there’s a relationship between the tones of a chord, the chord formed is just a harmonic possibility.

Question: Does this mean that a musician can’t create a chord (irrespective of how creative he/she is)?

Answer: Yes!

“Yes! You Can Create Chord Voicings”

Although it is not possible for a musician to create chords, he/she can come up with his/her voicing techniques and voicings.

A voicing (or chord voicing) is a rearrangement of the notes of a chord using rearrangement techniques known as voicing technique.

The D dominant 13th chord:

…can be rearranged into the following voicings:

Voicing #1:

Voicing #2:

Voicing #3:

…and any voicing you can possibly come up with.

So, if a musician can come up with a never-before-seen rearrangement technique or voicing approach, he/she has indeed created a chord voicing.

Final Words

Face it — you can’t create chords.

Although you can’t create chords, it’s possible to come up with voicing techniques that are unique and can add an extra dimension to your harmony and chord progression by extension.

In subsequent lessons. we’ll be breaking down these voicing techniques — especially voicing techniques that are predominantly used in gospel music.

See you then!

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Chuku Onyemachi

Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. I started teaching musicians in my neighbourhood in April 2005. Today, I'm humbled to work as a music consultant with HearandPlay Music Group for musicians in Africa and beyond.

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