Question: Do musicians use chords or cords?

Answer: Both


     In music a chord describes the relationship between at least two different pitches. Realizing chords is the analysis of intervalic relationships. It is easiest to analyze a chord if the pitches are being observed simultaneously. If pitches do not occur at the same time it may be more appropriate to identify the pitches as part of a key signature, even if enough the notes presented over time to outline a chord structure.


     While it is possible to analyze a chord with just two notes within a given key signature, like a D5 chord, three notes can provide a more in depth description. A triad is made up of three tones as follows:




     Chords are generally built from the bottom up. A triad in its most basic form starts with the first note as the lowest pitch, the root. Identifying the root is the most important part of chordal analysis. From there you can determine the nature of the chord.

Major To Minor:

     In their most basic configuration triads are a major or minor chord. A triad is a three note chord built from the root up. A triad can have various forms as changes are made to the third and fifth changing the quality of the triad from Major to minor, augmented, or diminished.

Suspensions And Inversions:

     Triads can also be rearranged so that while they are still only using three different pitches, their mathematically based musical function is changed. A suspension in root position maintains its root as the lowest pitch. Suspension occurs when the third has been raised or lowered to the position of second or fourth. The abbreviation for suspended chords is sus.

For example a root position sus4




Or a root position sus2




     Note that the root and fifth are unchanged. The third is not longer played during these suspensions. The third is replaced by the second or the fourth. It is possible to have a chord include both the third and the second and fourth but these chords are no longer called suspensions. The second and fourth would actually be called the ninth and eleventh because they are not replacing the third and are occurring beyond a one octave, eight note interval.

7th Chords And More:

     To review, a triad is made of just three notes. When arranged in root position they can be changed from major to minor by raising or lowering the third. If lowering both the third and the fifth the chord becomes diminished. If raising the fifth of a major triad the chord becomes augmented. The fifth can be raised a whole step turning it into a Major 6 chord. If the third of a Major triad is raised a whole step the chord becomes a sus 4. If the third of a triad is lowered a whole step the chord becomes a sus2. And all of these chords can be inverted so that the root note is no longer at the bottom. Any of the notes above the root can be moved to the lowest note, which can make identifying the chord and its inversion challenging, sometimes determined by its surroundings in a harmonic progression, the melody, and key.

     Chords can become much more complicated by adding additional notes. If building upon a Major triad adding the seventh will create a new chord. In most popular western music using Ionian or Aeolian mode the seventh will turn the chord into a Major 7, dominant 7, or half diminished chord. A root position seventh chord will stack from the bottom as follows:





     The quality of a seventh chord is determined by the intervalic relationship between the chord's root and the seventh. A Major triad with a Major seventh is a Major seven chord. A minor triad with a minor seventh is a minor seven chord. A minor chord with a Major seventh is a minor Major chord.

Dominant Chords:

     A dominant chord is built on a Major triad with a minor seventh. Dominant chords have been staples in American music since the evolution of blues music, which has influenced all other American styles including jazz, country, rock, and pop. The function of this type of chord is what gives it dominance in music, it clearly wants to resolve to the tonic, or the chord an interval of a Perfect fifth below. Dominant chords create a strong sense of tension musically and mathematically needing to be resolved called a cadence. Hearing a cadence sounds like resolution that returns home to the original key.

     Dominant chords can be used deceptively to surprise a listener for example by changing a note in a chord that is outside of the key of the song so that an unexpected chord becomes dominant and pulls the music to a key a fifth below the modified dominant chord. This deception can carry on as extended dominants where each dominant chord moves a fifth down to the next chord also being dominant, so that dominant V7 to I7 makes every new I7 the V7 of the next chord so that the chords continue cycling until coming back to the original chords of the original key. This is commonly learned as the circle of fifths.

     A dominant chord is made of a major triad with a minor seventh, sometimes referred to as a Major minor chord. When notating Major and minor chords handwriting and many fonts can be confusing when notating chords with a lower case or capitol m or M. Dominant functioning chords are simplified by removing the m or M. For example they are written as G7 or D7 or Eb7, etc.

     Dominant 7th chords are not the only chords with a dominant function. Additional tensions can be added such as the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth. These will also have no m or M to indicate minor or Major. They will look like G9 or D11 or Eb13, etc.

     Just as triads can be Major or minor and augmented or diminished, so can dominant chords. A major seven chord is a major triad with a major seventh. A minor seven chord will have a minor triad with a minor seventh. A half diminished chord is a diminished triad with a minor seventh. A diminished chord is fully diminished, meaning it is built on a diminished triad but a double flat seventh instead of just a minor seventh.

     Dominant functioning chords can still get even more complex with modifications like Ab7(b9, #11) or C+(b7,#9) as well inversions placing any of the chords notes as the lowest note so the chord's root is no longer at the base of the chord.

Realizing Chords:

     The act of realizing chords is called a harmonic analysis. Due to enharmonic spellings, chordal functions, placement in regards to the melody and surrounding harmonic progression, and key signature complex chords can be identified in different ways. For example, in one instance an A# may be the appropriate identification of a chord while those same pitches could be more accurately identified as a Bb in another instance. An A# chord sounds exactly the same as a Bb chord but must be written differently based on its usage in a piece of music.

     Realizing chords can be even more interesting when involving a pedal tone or an inversion. And some instruments are limited in how many notes they play at once some a chord like D/E could also be a D11. In these instances one must look at the music being played by all instruments as a whole rather than an individual part. This is why when having someone transcribe a piece of music for you it is wise to provide them recordings of not just one instrument, be sure to also include a recording with all of the other instruments playing as well to provide context.


     Vocalist sing with their cords. Terminology is often confused since the pronunciation for chords and cords sound the same but they mean totally different things for musicians. A cord usually refers to a rope or wire while a chord describes a combination of notes played simultaneously. A somewhat famous misspelling can be found in a document Whitney Houston's head of security sent to her family reporting on her substance abuse and her resulting diminished performing capabilities. He referred to damage to her vocal chords where he should have said cords. He was relieved of his position soon after, though not likely due to his misspelling.

     A solution to the confusion over the term cord is to refer to vocal cords as vocal folds, which is a common nomenclature.

     Vocal cords are located within the larynx, which is ultimately the singer's instrument. Cavities like the throat are the resonant chambers, the mouth is the sound hole like on a guitar where the sound escapes, and air is the catalyst, or fuel. When the vocal cords are brought together or, adducted while air is streaming past them, they folds vibrate. The length and speed of the vibration produces a resulting pitch. A fun fact is that the air pressure doesn't need to be subglottal, you can make your vocal folds phonate during inhalation too!

True And False Vocal Cords:

     To avoid the confusion when discussing music I suggest referring to vocal cords as vocal folds instead of cords. Anatomically this is more logical when you consider that the folds just above the primary vocal folds are called the vestibular folds. Colloquially they are referred to as "false" vocal cords. Their anthropomorphic function is to provide a layer of protection for the "true" vocal folds.

     Contemporary singers often engage their "false" vocal folds to make their performance more interesting, similarly to adding more color to an object, or more flavor for food. Generally, the resulting sound is referred to as a growl. Singers like Christina Aguilera, Kenny Loggins, and Stevie Wonder are known to engage their "false" folds when singing. The resulting growl is not to be confused with rasp, which is a similar supralaryngeal affectation resulting in a non-modal phonation.