major  triads

Of all of our musical resources, the three note major triad is perhaps the most widely used in creating our western music. Beginning it's rise to wider popularity in the mid 1500's in England, the use of thirds was described as the "running of deer." As equal temper evolved and the piano emerged, the ability to create in tune major triads with various combinations of instruments from any of the pitches of the chromatic scale signaled a new new era of music taking shape. Are there other types of triads besides major? Absolutely. So why is the major triad so dear in our hearts and in much of the music over the last 500 years or so? Well, probably because composers wrote music based on this color and the emotional environment it creates? That the joyous, uplifting and optimistic nature of the major triad coincided with the rise of freedom for the people of this world over the last 5 centuries? So with these ideas in mind, let's start by exploring the theory of this three note colossus in the various styles of American music.

Theory of the major triad. As the name major triad implies, the all important interval of the major third defines the sound of the three note major chord or triad. Thinking from the root, we stack a major third then a minor third above the root to create the common major triad. Here is a handy picture of the building process of the proper intervals above the root. Example 1.

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Thinking in the tonal center of C major, the tonic or C major triad is created by the 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degrees of the C major scale. Here are the pitches of the C major scale and their numerical scale degrees. Example 2.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C D E F G A B C

Here is a piano illustration of C, E, and G, ( 1, 3, 5 ). At the piano, a root position C major triad is struck thus in grey tones, click to hear the sound. Example 3.

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Cool with this? Sound familiar? Good, tis a very popular component of the American sounds. So what do we commonly do with the major triad? Use the 3 note chord to support melodies from the major scales types? Example 4.

     pick up  C major   G major   F major

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Pretty straight ahead eh? In the last dea we simply use the chords built on the 1st, 5th and then 4th degrees of the major scale to support the melody. Isn't that G major triad in first inversion? Yep, good ear. Are there triads for each of the 7 pitches of the major scale? Of course there is, but you knew that right? Example 5.

 C maj   D min E min F maj  G maj A min B min  C maj

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So, not all triads are the same eh? Nope, but all come in handy somewhere along the way. Are there triads for other scales? Yep. Can we create a major triad on each of the pitches of the chromatic scale? Of course we can. Lets do it. Here is a chart spelling out the major triad from each of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale organized by the cycle of fourths. Example 2f.

triad root major third perfect fifth
C C E G
F F A C
Bb Bb D F
Eb Eb G Bb
Ab Ab C Eb
Db Db F Ab
Gb Gb Bb Db
B B D# F#
E E G# B
A A C# E
D D F# A
G G B D

Here is the sound of the above chart of the 12 major triads of equal temper. Example 2g.

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Got these under your tongue or fingers? Hip to sing the line / play the line? Understanding the theory and executing the major triad is potentially of great importance to the emerging player of American music. In all 12 keys, yes in all 12 keys. Even if you do this triad / 12 key exercise only once, you'll be amazed at your new perspective, appreciation and understanding of our equal temper system, let alone how you will henceforth view your instrument. For jazz players, this 12 key thing is rather essential. So what is the intervalic distance from the root C to it's fifth G? Any clues? How well do you know your musical intervals? Have we always had chords in our music, like from ancient times? Curious about the history of chords? 

Melodically speaking, every renowned improvising musician has used the three notes of the triad in various configurations as a basis for melodic ideas. For example, explore the simple triadic nature within the melody of the Dixieland jazz standard "When The Saints Go Marching In." Then compare this use of the major triad in this melody with the triadic melodic and harmonic ground broken by John Coltrane with his historic writing and recording of "Giant Steps", on Atlantic Records, which is also strongly based on the major triad and variations. All jazz and emerging jazz musicians not hip to this composition are encouraged to seek out and absorb "Tranes" intellect and energy in this recording, as he deftly weaves simple triads perhaps the most complex levels of improvisation still to date.

Where to next?
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Ah, but a person's reach should exceed their grasp, or what's a heaven for? Robert Browning

Isacoff, Stuart. "Temperament ... The idea that solved music's greatest riddle." U.S.A. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2001. Page 62.