Understanding chord formulas and the major scale
TIME TO COMPLETE: 20-30 minutes
WHAT YOU NEED: 50 Essential Chords Pack
SKILL LEVEL: Beginner-intermediate
This lesson will explain how you can use formulas to figure out any chord you need as well as how to figure out the notes in a Major Scale. The skills and knowledge gained in this lesson is enough to push a beginner to the intermediate status when applied. This lesson is heavily based on music theory so if you read through it and feel overwhelmed, don’t stress, it just means you’re not ready for this type of theory. The theory in this lesson will have a huge impact on how you understand music and what you can do with it.
If you have the 50 Essential Chords Pack you will notice a chord formula below the chord diagram on every card. There will be a sequence of numbers and letters such as:
1 (C) 3 (E) 5 (G) on the C Major card.
Chord formulas are extremely helpful for figuring out other potential chords that you don’t already know. For example: If you know the chord formula for a major chord and want to figure out what notes would be in the chord B Major, you can use the formula to figure the notes out. Once you have a basic understanding of formulas and scales, you can figure out any chord you have the formula to. Alternatively, if somebody gives you a chord to figure out what it’s called, you can use the formula to do it.
THE MAJOR SCALE
To understand the formulas on your cards, we need to have a quick look at the Major Scale. All the formulas are based on the Major Scale. There are two ways of writing the formula for the Major Scale as shown below:
The first version with the Ws and Hs explain the intervals between the notes in the scale. The number version is what we use for all the chord formulas.
To figure out the notes in the C Major Scale we start on C and use the W & H formula to find all the other notes. In this formula W represents a ‘whole tone’ or two frets distance on your guitar. H represents a ‘half tone’ or one fret distance on your guitar. Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense yet as it will after you apply it a couple of times.
So to figure out the C Major Scale we take the formula W W H W W W H starting on C. A whole tone up from C is D (C C# D). A whole tone up from D is E (D D# E). When we follow the formula through to the last H we get the notes C D E F G A B C. Notice that the first and last note is the same. We do this so we know we end on the right note.
C w D w E h F w G w A w B h C
As you can see above, the Ws and Hs represent the gap or ‘interval’ between the notes. This will be a whole lot easier to understand if you are familiar with the notes on the fretboard. Start on any C on your fretboard then work your way up the neck to understand this (or use a fretboard diagram if you haven’t yet learned the notes).
Now we assign a number for every note in the scale starting with 1 for C. So for the entire C Major Scale the formula is C (1) D (2) E (3) F (4) G (5) A (6) B (7) C (8). Notice that 1 and 8 are the same. This will be important later on for more complex chords.
Now that we know how the Major Scale is formed and what the numbers represent, we can figure out the chord formulas. The formula for a Major chord is 1 3 5. Every Major chord will use the same formula (check your cards if you are unsure). In other words we can use this formula to figure out any Major chord.
To figure out the notes in the chord C Major, start with the C Major Scale and pick out the notes 1, 3 & 5. If you look above you will see that C is 1, E is 3 and G is 5. So the notes in C Major are C, E & G.
Now what if we want to figure out the chord G Major? This time we know that 1 will be G the same way that C is 1 for C Major. The hard part is that this changes the rest of the scale. You need to go back to the Ws and Hs to figure out the G Major Scale. Try this out and compare your results to the correct answer below:
G w A w B h C w D w E w F# h G
So the notes in the G Major Scale are G A B C D E F# G. The number version would be G (1) A (2) B (3) C (4) D (5) E (6) F# (7) G (8). From this we can pick out the notes 1, 3 & 5 as being G (1), B (3) & D (5). So the notes in G Major are G, B & D.
By applying the same scale formula you can figure out all the Major Scales. Likewise, by applying the Major Chord formula you can figure out every single Major Chord. At first this will be a bit difficult as you need to follow a few steps, but after practice you will be able to do this effortlessly. The exercises later on will help you walk through the steps.
Once you feel comfortable understanding the formula for a Major Scale and the chord formula for a Major Chord, you can start looking at other types of chords such as minor chords. The formula for a minor chord is 1 b3 5. The ‘b’ in this formula is a modification to the basic Major chord. This ‘b’ means to ‘flat the third’ or to lower the 3rd by a half tone. So if C Major is C (1) E (3) G (5), then C minor will be C (1) Eb (b3) G (5). We simply lower E by a half tone which ends up Eb (or D# depending on how you look at it).
Notice that even know this time we are working out minor chords, we still start with the Major Scale.
For one more example, we will work out G minor. You can see above that G Major uses the notes G (1) B (3) D (5). So now to work out G minor, we will take B (3) and lower it by a half tone which is A# or Bb. So the notes in G minor are G (1) Bb (b3) D (5).
All this theory will only make sense after you give it a go yourself. Try out these exercises then check the answers at the bottom to see how you went. This is a very important skill to have so it’s worth the effort.
- What are the notes in the F Major scale?
- What are the notes in the F Major chord?
- What are the notes in the F minor chord?
- What are the notes in the A Major scale?
- What are the notes in the A Major chord?
- What are the notes in the A minor chord?
- What are the notes in the E Major scale?
- What are the notes in the E Major chord?
- What are the notes in the E minor chord?
OTHER TYPES OF CHORDS
There are plenty of other types of chords that use slightly different formulas. The great thing is that once you get used to working out the Major Scale, you can work out any chord formula. Even if the formula looks complicated, you simply take it one note at a time following the formula. For an example on a different type of chord, let’s look at Gsus2 which uses the formula 1 2 5. Picking those notes out of the G Major Scale we end up with G (1) A (2) & D (5).
In the formulas on some cards you will notice numbers such as 9 or 11. For these chords we continue the scale over above 8 as shown below (the C Major Scale):
C (1) D (2) E (3) F (4) G (5) A (6) B (7) C (8) D (9) E (10) F (11) G (12) etc.
This may sound complicated but as long as you can remember that ‘9’ is actually the same note as ‘2’, you will be able to figure out the notes needed. So if we needed to work out the notes to Cadd9, which uses the formula 1 3 5 9, simply pick out the right notes and you will end up with:
C (1) E (3) G (5) D (9)
So Cadd9 uses the notes C, E, G & D. The reasons why we use the number 9 instead of 2 is outside the scope of this lesson and can be found in other music theory lessons.
HOW CAN ALL THIS HELP ME?
The problem many people have with all this music theory is they don’t see how it can be used. The basic chord and scale understanding you will gain from this lesson can be used in so many useful ways. Here’s a short list of things you can do with this knowledge:
- Figure out chords you have never seen or played before (eg: do you know how to play C#m?)
- Work out which chords you can play in a certain key
- Jam with other players and play the right chords in the right key
- Figure out the name of a chord off of a guitar TAB
- Write basic songs that work together
There are plenty of other things you can do with this knowledge that will become obvious over time.
The theory in this lesson will do more to your musical abilities then you can imagine. It’s one thing to be able to play 50+ chords and it’s a completely different thing to understand how those chords work and be able to figure out any chord with only a formula. Take your time to understand these points and if they don’t make sense now, bookmark this page and come back another time to read through it again. Every time you read this it will make more and more sense.
- F G A Bb C D E F
- F A C
- F Ab C
- A B C# D E F# G# A
- A C# E
- A C E
- E F# G# A B C# D# E
- E G# B
- E G B
Check out more lessons here.