The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Chords – Who, What, Where, How & So What?

Found in: A Way of Listening


Image via Gavin Whitner (

In search of the first chord

Have you ever wondered when the first ever chord was played? How did it happen? Where did it happen? What is a chord? And what is its importance in understanding Western Music?

This article will attempt to briefly answer some of these questions – and I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore the amazing world of chords… whether you think you need to or not!

I have been teaching Simply Music since 2004, and have had some students over the years who say, “I don’t want to start the Accompaniment Program. I don’t like singing along with the Accompaniment pieces – I just want to play Classical (or Pop) pieces”. To this I usually reply, ”So you only want to play the melodies and not the harmonies?” How could you possibly play classics like Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ or Mozart’s ‘Sonata in C, K 545‘ without having the harmony, or the chords to support the melody… it would be impossible!!!

Truly, chords are the foundation of the whole harmonic language on which western music is based. But it wasn’t always this way. There were a number of pivotal transitions, spread over hundreds of years, that brought about the use of chords as we know it today. It would be impossible to explore all the implications and historical developments in this article, so please consider this as a brief summary!

Some context needs to be given to understand the transformation, so here goes…


Early Medieval (Approx. 400 – 1300 A.D.)

So let’s briefly step back in time – back to the Days of the Middle Ages in Europe. There were predominantly two genres of music: Secular Music and Sacred Music.

Secular music was sung by Troubadours (South of France), Trouveres (North of France) and Minnesingers (Germanic). These were wandering musicians who would travel from court to court singing and entertaining nobility and local communities.

Their music was probably close to what we call ‘Folk Music’ today; telling stories of current events and of course of courtship and love. Often the players would carry the same melodies from town to town, with a change in the text to suit the new township or occasion. The music was sung either unaccompanied (a capella) or with a simple Lute accompaniment, and often percussive instruments of some kind. Actually, because these minstrels travelled more than most people, they were partly responsible for the sharing of musical ideas and developments around Europe during this period.

Secular Example: Under der linden – Walther von der Vogelweide


Sacred music was sung predominantly by male voices in a Cathedral or Church. The melody was sung in ‘unison’, or at the same pitch, with no chordal accompaniment. Occasionally one singer would sing using a single note and a second, more florid melody would be sung over the top. We commonly know this as “Gregorian Chant”. The text was exclusively religious in nature.

Sacred Example: Aurora Surgit, Dies irae (Sequentia) 13th Century


Interestingly, both the Secular and Sacred styles had many things in common:

  • The composers focused on creating beautiful melodies (horizontally) without thinking so much about chordal accompaniment (vertically).
  • If more than one voice sang, either:
    • They would sing in unison (same pitch);
    • Or one voice (or instrument) would provide a ‘drone’ (single unchanging pitch) and the melody would be sung above the drone.
  • The composers’ palette was taken from collections of notes called “modes”. It is from these modes that our major and minor scales evolved.


Towards the End of the Middles Ages (Approx. 1300 – 1500 A.D.)

As time went by, towards the end of the middle ages, sometimes choirs would sing in octaves, later adding 4ths and 5ths. This was known as Organum. Sometimes this was quite chaotic, as composers were still composing horizontally. That meant each vocal part had its own melodic line, which quite often clashed with another melodic line. You can demonstrate this yourself with Dreams Come True: Play the melody with your LH, and at the same time play it with the RH but starting on B instead of E. You are playing the same melody a 5th apart. What do you think of the sound?

Example: Gregorian chant – Deum verum



Example: Palestrina – O Magnum Mysterium 1525 Italian



Example: Allegri – Miserere mei, Deus 1630



The Start of the Renaissance (Approx. 1400 – 1600 A.D.)

At this time composers began to think of harmony as a ‘vertical’ phenomenon, to regard the sound of notes heard simultaneously as a definite entity. Although the basic style of composition was still primarily linear, more thought began to be put into the way those lines interacted, and sometimes clashed. This is when composers started to consider the concept of melody with accompanying harmony for the first time.

Also during this time, the tuning of instruments was different to today, which had the effect of limiting what could be done. Moving a melody from one key to another could sound terrible and there were fewer options for combinations of notes that worked, so songs tended to stay in one key. It took centuries of experimentation before a universal system for tuning instruments was developed. When I talked about this with my piano tuner, he said ”Oh Elizabeth, there has been many a war when the topic of equal temperament has been discussed!”

Equal temperament, standardised in the early Baroque period, is a way of tuning instruments so they can sound good together in any key. It meant composers could modulate (change home keys) during a piece, thus opening the doors to a whole new range of possibilities, and importantly it made possible a chordal hierarchy which is still the norm today.

More than ever before, composers started working with full consideration of keys and chords.

The Flemish Josquin des Prez was the leading composer of the Renaissance (1300 – 1600), exploring multi-part, or contrapuntal writing, working with up to six parts instead of the traditional three. The increased number of voices led to further enrichment of the harmony. A typical Josquin device using harmony for expressive purposes was the suspension, a type of dissonant harmony that ‘resolved’ to a consonance. In a suspension one note of a chord is sustained while the other voices change to a new chord. This technique led to the Suspended, one of the chords taught early on in the Simply Music Accompaniment 1 Program.

Example: Josquin Des Prez Tu solus qui facis mirabilia



The Italian Claudio Monteverdi (1567- 1643) experimented with a heightened use of dissonance toward expressive ends. The major change at this time was in the development of vertical harmony. The bass line became the generating force upon which harmonies were built. It was often written out with figures below it to represent the harmonies to be built upon it. From this single line—plus figures, known variously as figured bass, basso continuo or thorough bass—the accompanying instrumentalists were expected to improvise a full harmonic underpinning for the melody of the topmost voice or voices. This is where the importance of chords was fully established.


The Baroque Period (Approx. 1600 – 1750 A.D.)

The period known as the Baroque, from approx. 1600 – 1750, saw an explosion in all the arts of ideas, inventions, science, and musical instruments. Creativity flourished throughout Europe.

In 1722 Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote Traité de l’harmonie, where the theory of chords moved to a whole new level. Rameau delved head first into the concept of Inversions – playing the notes of a chord in different orders.

All of this prolific experimentation and theorizing set the stage for the Classical then the Romantic composers to fully explore the new concept of tonal harmony.

When I studied theory at the Conservatorium of Music, our main focus was the analysis of J.S. Bach’s 4-part Chorales. These formed the basis on which “acceptable” harmony was composed. In this example, listen to the development from Gregorian Chant to Bach – a far more complex sound with Vocals, Orchestra, rhythm and, most of all, harmony.

Example: J S Bach – St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 – Part One



Example: J S Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier Book One: Prelude in C Major BWV 846, harpsichord



And for those who are feeling brave, enjoy this five minute potted history of harmony with the great Leonard Bernstein:



This is by no means a comprehensive history article… but hopefully just enough for you to realise that the understanding of chords and their relationship with each other is a vast study, and the Simply Music Accompaniment Program is a tremendous launching pad to start playing and understanding what makes chords tick!!

If you haven’t started the Accompaniment 1 Program yet, then get very excited because when you do you are going to love it! It will definitely give you a greater depth of knowledge of chords and how they work.

The Chord Drill

Elizabeth Gaikwad is a SM Master Teacher from Sydney, Australia. She has recently put together a program that helps you to really get to know many chord styles. It’s called The Chord Drill. It seamlessly works alongside the Accompaniment program and helps you to remember all your chords in every key! It has two parts:

  1. Part 1 sets out the chords in the Accompaniment 1 Program in a way that helps you to remember the various chord shapes & qualities.
  2. Part 2 adds rhythmic variations and delves into a practical demonstration of all the chords in 1st & 2nd Inversions.