Part of my teaching philosophy has always been that it’s more important to understand broad concepts about music than it is to memorize lots of little facts and details. Lately, however, I am starting to realize that one of the reasons I can organize seemingly disparate ideas into unified musical concepts is because I have a lot of little facts and details memorized. I used to walk to school reciting my scales and chord tones in time to my walking pace, and I may have underestimated how much that mental repetition, without my instrument, helped me. So, I want to present a simple way to memorize your Major Triads.
Normally I would expect my students to learn their major scales, know how they sound and how to spell them all through the cycle of fourths, understand that Major Triads are built from the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale, know what Major Triads sound like and so on and so forth. I still want my students to do all of that but for now we are going to bypass those concepts and learn some chord spelling!
Triads are built by stacking thirds, so the first thing you need to do is to be able to say your musical alphabet by skipping letters – ABCDEFG becomes A C E G B D F. It helps to say this, out loud, over and over again until it is memorized. Then you should say it backwards. A lot. Music goes up AND down!
Now that you know your musical alphabet by thirds we will learn the first three chords – G,C, and F Major have no sharps or flats so they are easy to memorize. G is spelled G,B,D, C is spelled C,E,G, and F is spelled F,A,C. It’s that simple. Knowing how to spell these chords does not mean you know what they sound like, how to play them, or how they work together. It doesn’t make you a better musician or a smarter person. It’s just one of the many, many things you need to know to be a competent musician.
Moving on, there are three Major Triads with one sharp, and they ALL have the sharp on the third degree. E is spelled E,G#,B. A is spelled A,C#,E. D is spelled D,F#,A. Why? We are not talking about that today!
Finally there is B. It has two sharps and is spelled B,D#,F#.
Memorize these Major Triads. Seriously. Be able to spell them instantly from memory. Here is a handy chart in fifths:
F A C
C E G
G B D
D F# A
A C# E
E G# B
B D# F#
If you can spell all of your Major Triads with natural roots you can spell all of your Major Triads with flat or sharp roots too. For example, since, D is spelled D,F#,A, Db is spelled Db,F,Ab. Also you can learn your minor Triads by flatting the thirds of your Major Triads. A is A,C#,E, so Amin is A,C,E.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have musical knowledge at your fingertips. This stuff just has to be second nature. So spend some quality time inside your head, spelling your triads!