What is a Triad?
Triads are made up of 3 notes played on top of each other. You will often hear people describe triads as chords. They consist of a bottom note (root), a middle note (3rd) and a top note (5th):
How to play a triad
The basic music triad is easy to create – all you need to know is your alphabet and how to count to 8!
First, work out which note you want to build your triad on (in our example we are building one on C).
Now start at the bottom note (C) and count up 3 notes to get the next note (include the starting note when you’re counting) (in our example, 3 notes up from C is E).
Now start again at the bottom note and this time count up 5 notes (5 notes up from C is G).
So, to build a triad on C we have used the notes C-E-G.
Easy, right? Now, the tricky bit.
You will find that if you build triads starting on different white notes then they may sound very different.
This is because the number of semitones (half tones or half steps) separating each of the notes will be different depending on which white note you choose as your starting point.
These differences in intervals will cause you to create different types of triad.
Let me explain…
Different Types of Triads
There are 4 different types of musical triad:
Major Triads, Minor Triads, Diminished Triads, Augmented Triads
Major and Minor Triads
Listen to the difference between a triad built on C (C-E-G) and one built on A (A-C-E).
The first triad sounds positive/happy (this is a major triad), whilst the 2nd one sounds negative/sad (this is a minor triad).
So why the difference?
The difference in sound is due to the change in number of semitones between the root and 3rd notes. Look at the keyboards below:
The difference between the bottom (root) and top (5th) notes stays the same.
There are 7 semitones between the bottom and top notes in both major and minor triads.
The change is in the interval between the bottom (root) and middle (3rd) notes.
In the major triad there are 4 semitones between C and E – 4 semitones equals a major 3rd (hence the happy sound in a C major triad):
In the minor triad there are only 3 semitones between the A and C – 3 semitones equals a minor 3rd (hence the sad sound in a minor triad):
Another way of remembering this is to think of both of the intervals as 3rds:
A major triad has a major 3rd (between root and 3rd) followed by a minor 3rd (between 3rd and 5th).
A minor triad is the reverse – it has a minor 3rd (between root and 3rd) followed by a major 3rd (between 3rd and 5th).
Let’s have a look at some different examples of major and minor triads:
Major Triad Examples
A major triad
E major triad
E flat major triad
A flat major triad
These examples of major triads all begin on different notes, but the intervals between the root, 3rd and 5th notes of the triad remain the same – it is always a major 3rd followed by a minor 3rd.
As a result, they are all major triads.
Let’s have a look at some minor triad examples:
Minor Triad Examples
E minor triad
G minor triad
C minor triad
A flat minor triad
Once again, these examples of minor triads all begin on different notes, but the intervals between the root, 3rd and 5th notes of the triad remain the same – it is always a minor 3rd followed by a major 3rd.
As a result, they are all minor triads.
OK. So that’s not too complicated. What about the other 2 types of triad?
Diminished and Augmented Triads
There are 2 other types of triad – both of which have a slightly unnerving sound quality.
The first is a diminished triad – this is a variation of a minor triad.
To create a diminished triad all you need to do is play a minor triad and then lower the top note by 1 semitone (there are now only 6 semitones between the bottom and top notes of the triad – this is called a diminished 5th).
By doing this you have built a triad by using 2 minor 3rds on top of each other.
Diminished Triad Examples
Have a look at the examples below and listen to how scary and tense they sound:
C diminished triad
To build a diminished triad on C we count up a minor 3rd (3 semitones), which takes us to E flat.
We then count up another minor 3rd (3 semitones) from E flat, which takes us to G flat:
Here are a couple of other examples:
E diminished triad
G diminished triad
You can see from these examples that the interval is always a minor 3rd followed by a minor 3rd.
As a result, a diminished triad is produced.
Augmented Triad Examples
The final triad is called an augmented triad.
To create an augmented triad, play a major triad and then raise the top note up by a semitone (there are now 8 semitones separating top note and bottom note – this is called an augmented 5th). This sounds even more unnerving and is rather mysterious.
In other words, what we have done is built a major 3rd on the root note and then another major 3rd on top.
C augmented triad
To build an augmented triad on C we count up a major 3rd (4 semitones), which takes us to E.
We then count up another major 3rd (4 semitones) from E, which takes us to G sharp:
Here are two more examples of augmented triads:
G augmented triad
E augmented triad
Once again, each triad is built using a major 3rd followed by another major 3rd to produce the augmented triads.
Hope that all makes sense?
Triads are a crucial building block of composing music.
Have a look back over the examples above and try experimenting with different triads beginning on different notes.
Next, we are going to have a look at Primary Chords.