What is a Picardy Third?
A Picardy Third (or Tierce de Picardie) is where a major chord is written as the final chord of a piece that has mostly been in the minor key.
This is achieved very simply by raising the minor 3rd of the expected minor chord by a semitone to create a major 3rd.
For example, in a piece of music written in the key of C minor you would expect the music to end on a C minor chord (using the notes C, E flat and G).
However, if the composer wanted to finish on a Picardy Third the E flat would be raised by a semitone to an E natural to create a C major chord (C, E and G).
Have a look/listen to the difference between the expected last chord and the Picardy third in this example:
A Picardy third is usually written at the end of a piece of music, but it can also be used at the end of a section of music within a piece.
Picardy Third Examples
The Picardy third originated in the Renaissance period and became commonplace throughout the Baroque period. It is generally accepted that it was used by composers to give a more uplifting, positive and generally happier feel to the end of a piece.
Here is an example of a Picardy third from J.S. Bach’s prelude no. 6 in D minor (BWV 875/1 Well Tempered Clavier Book II).
You can hear/see clearly how the music is in the key of D minor (key signature is one flat – B) and is expected to end on a D minor chord (D, F, A). However, Bach raises the minor 3rd by a semitone from an F natural to an F sharp to form a D major chord, thus creating a Picardy third.
Origins of the Tierce de Picardie
There is considerable debate over the origins of the Tierce de Picardie.
Some scholars suggest that it originated in the region of Picardy and takes its name from this.
Others suggest that it derives from the French word “picart” (sharp) as the minor third is sharpened to form the tierce de picardie.
Later Examples of the Picardy Third
The Picardy third was common up until the end of the 18th century.
Since then it has been used a lot less by composers, but there are some notable examples of composers returning to the Tierce de Picardie as a composition tool.
For example, Chopin’s Nocturne in F minor ends on repeated F major chords:
Dvorak uses a tierce de Picardie in the finale of his New World Symphony.
In more contemporary music, bands such as The Beatles have experimented with musical ideas including the Picardy third.
Famously, their song “And I Love Her” ends with one:
In their song “I’ll be back” each of the verses end on a major chord despite the fact that the song is in a minor key.
Composing Using the Tierce de Picardie
It is fun to experiment with the Tierce de Picardie when composing in the minor key.
However, it is a very distinctive sound and so should be used carefully as it has a very significant impact on the feeling/emotion of the ending of a piece.