Triads - The Final Frontier

There's no way to get around triads in music, no matter the style or genre! Some composers might associate a triad with "simple-minded", right? Well, let's find out together why that's not true at all!

Note: Please note that there are many musical demonstrations in the audio version of this episode, which are not accessible in the transcript.

Hello, all you guitar players out there. Welcome to the Music Interval Theory Academy's podcast. Today, we have some great subjects we're going to talk about. My name is TC, I'm your host for today, and you'll love this show.

Everybody Loves Triads

Oh yes. I am a man with a dream! A dream of all guitar players being free to think theoretically on the guitar so they can compose for television, film, video games, songs, whatever you want to do. You'll be able to be free. That's Music Interval Theory; that's the subject that we're going to be talking about today, and specifically, we're going to talk about triads, the final frontier.

Now, when we talk about triads, we're not just talking about major or minor. We're talking about three notes.

Any three notes are a triad.

That's what triad means. Three legs, three feet. It stands on three notes, creating an identifiable and specific sound for those three notes. The first triad we're going to start with is one we all know and love, the major triad. That's made of scale tones. Scale tones 1, 3, and 5 is the one that is the most heard in diatonic music, which means pertaining to a scale. Now, I want to take major triads and voice-lead them.

That's a new concept for guitar players.

Voice-leading means we will connect major triads in the opposite direction the bass moves. So, in other words, if I'm going to play an E flat major triad to an F major triad, that bass note is going up, but I'm going to voice-lead the triads descending in the opposite direction against an ascending bass. It would sound like this if we voice-lead major triads descending against an ascending bass.

[please listen to this episode at 3:02 min.]

Those are all major triads with the bass line, moving by whole notes up while the voice-leading is moving down. This gives us contrapuntal and balance in our compositions. Now, those were major triads. Now let's try taking the triads from a scale and playing them in the opposite direction of the bass.

[please listen to this episode at 3:39 min.]

Scale-wise voice-leading is a mixture of triads major, minor, and diminished. However, we refer to diminished as an equivalent because it has the same spacing between all its notes. They are equivalent.

What gives major triads their sound is the formula "4+3".

 That means there are 4 semitones between the first and the second note and 3 semitones between the second and third note, and that's in the basic position. Minor triads, on the other hand, are the reverse. They are "3+4". We'll be talking a lot more about the intervals between notes and the interval combinations that make up triads.

But for now, just know a major chord is "4+3", and a minor chord is "3+4".

Okay. Now let's go back to our major triads of "4+3", adding some passing tones, some changing tones, and substituting tones between each triad. Check this out.

[please listen to this episode at 5:10 min.]

I'm sure you can hear the musicality coming out of these major triads when we put passing tones, changing tones and substitute tones between each structure. Now let's talk about voicing, not voice-leading, but voicing. Voicing can be open voicing or close voicing. What you just heard in our last example is close voicing, but we are also voice-leading the triads. Listen again.

[please listen to this episode at 5:59 min.]

You can hear how the triads are descending. Now let's put an ascending bass underneath it.

[please listen to this episode at 6:16 min.]

So now we've taken close-voiced triads, put voice-leading to them in the opposite direction of the bass, and added substitute tones, changing and passing tones. And it's becoming more musical. So that was close voicing. Let's listen to what open voicing sounds like.

[please listen to this episode at 6:49 min.]

Open voicings are easy to find. Take your close voice and drop the note under the melody one octave, and you'll have an open voicing. Open voicings are rich, full-body, and great when playing solo guitar. We're going to look at how triads can be applied using a lot of open voicings.

Combining Triads with Melodies

One thing you want to remember when you're orchestrating for guitar is where you want to play the melody. Do you want it on top of the triads or do you want it on the bottom of the triads? Let's hear an example of the bottom of the triad. What that would sound like.

[please listen to this episode at 7:44 min.]

Great. Now let's listen to a little melody called "Tippy Toes", where the melody is on the bottom of the triad first, and halfway through the piece, it goes to the top. Take a listen.

[please listen to this episode at 8:14 min.]

Great. That's the sound of triads being connected with diatonic passing tones, substitute tones, little resolutions, and returning tones. We'll explain all of these in another podcast, but these are simple movements you can apply to triads.

Creating Melodies by Connecting Triads

I know this is a lot going on, but these are triads. When you put passing tones and changing tones and returning tones and diatonic passing tones between the triads, connecting them, you get music that sounds much like the Baroque era, if you want. You don't have to use them this way, however. I really like this little tune, "Tippy Toes", so I decided to play it on an electric guitar and not a steel string acoustic. So you could hear what it sounds like, just the guitar. No bass, straight-ahead guitar; only triads. Check it out.

[please listen to this episode at 10:10 min.]

Woo. If you don't think that's a workout for your hands, you're one heck of a guitar player. I had to spend a lot of time trying to really practice this slow, but it was worth it because you hear how great just triads can sound. Okay. Let's move on to some other fun triads. Maybe not just the "4+3" or "3+4", but maybe we'll pull them from different scales, like the octatonic scale. That has some really interesting triads in it. Let's check some of those out.

Using Triads from the Octatonic Scale

Let me introduce to you two triads that work together great, "4+2" and "5+1". Here's what they sound like.

[please listen to this episode at 13:17 min.]

That is close voicing of the IC "4+2" and "5+1". Those are triads that come right out of the octatonic scale. That's a great scale, and it has eight notes. It also embraces several different tonalities. That'll have to be another podcast, but just know that these ICs "4+2" and "5+1" come right out of that scale.

You may remember from an earlier podcast that "1"s can expand to "3"s and that "2"s are dominant. When we have a "4+2", we have a 4-interval and a dominant interval of "2". And the "5+1", we have a very stable interval in the "5", and the "1" can expand to "3". Let me demonstrate, starting with the "4+2".

[please listen to this episode at 14:49 min.]

Because of the 2-interval, there are a couple of great places that that chord or triad or IC "4+2" can take us. And you can hear it sounds right. Like it's supposed to go there. Now let's try "5+1". "5", a stable interval, and "1", an unstable interval that really wants to resolve. And we've learned that "1"s can resolve to "3"s, and they can resolve either by the top tone moving up or the bottom tone moving down. Let me play them for you.

[please listen to this episode at 15:48 min.]

We can hear the natural resolutions, and they take us to pretty new tonalities. That is the nature of understanding Music Interval Theory on the guitar. Now we're going to do open voicing, and I want you to know that a "4+2" when it becomes open, it becomes a "6+10", and a "5+1" becomes a "6+11".

Using Some Advanced Concepts

These two ICs or triads can create really contemporary-sounding music. The octatonic scale is the basis of a lot of jazz playing, but it also can be sweet, like this intro, check this out.

[please listen to this episode at 17:06 min.]

Wow, that's really sweet. But these intervals, ICs, and triads can become super Avantgarde and were great for keyboard players, too.

[please listen to this episode at 17:33 min.]

Okay. Well, I would say simmer down, simmer down. That's a little outside, but we can be beautiful with these types of ICs and triads.

Well, I guess it's pretty obvious that there is a wide variety of ways we can express ourselves once we know how these ICs or triads work and what systems we want to apply them to, scale systems or just free. Remember, I'm a man with a dream. Sadly, this is the end of this podcast. But before we leave, I've sketched a nice little tune called "Toodles" for the piano.

[please listen to this episode at 18:50 min.]

In a future podcast, we'll orchestrate this for guitar, maybe even add orchestra. Thanks for hanging out with us today. This is TC saying "au revoir", we'll see you soon.


Most composers and musicians think of major and minor structures when they hear the word "triad", but there's much more to them. To transition smoothly into those more complex structures, start with your major and minor structures and use substitute tones later, like scale tone 4+ for 3, or 4+ for 5 - those structures sound great and interesting!

Author: Thomas Chase Jones