Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 6 – harmony and chord basics

Kpopalypse is back with the next part of the music theory series!  If you’ve always wanted to learn about harmony and chords, but were too lazy to pay attention in music theory class because there wasn’t enough of your favourite k-pop artists in it, then this post is for you!

In music, melody refers to one particular series of pitches being sung by one singer, or played by one instrument.  However in music there is also harmony, which is multiple pitches being sung or played at the same time.

The first type of harmonies that were created were vocal harmonies, where multiple vocalists would sing different pitches together.  Vocalists in a choir were divided into designations according to their vocal ranges, like soprano, alto, tenor and bass, so each vocalist or group of vocalists could take different notes within a piece and sing them at the same time, producing a chord. Since a singer can only sing one note at one time*, this means that the human voice is a monophonic musical instrument.  Most early musical instruments were also monophonic, like the flute – but later on, polyphonic instruments were invented – these are instruments that can produce more than one note at one time.  Piano and guitar are examples of polyphonic instruments.  Nowadays of course with modern recording technology anything is possible, and infinite amounts of vocals and instruments can be layered over each other to create as many harmonies as is needed.  Even your favourite k-pop group who can barely sing at all can be made to “harmonise” with technology.

So assuming we have some polyphonic instruments (or a collection of monophonic instruments, willing to harmonise) at our disposal – what exactly do we get them to play?  Won’t lots of notes being played at the same time sound like an ugly mess?  Actually, they well might, but there are ways to musically organise things so that they sound nice.

If you remember back to the previous episode of this series, we discussed scales.  We observed that all scales have a certain relative pattern of tones and semitones within them that is always adhered to regardless of which pitch is the starting pitch.  Let’s just go over the two most common scales again.

Major scale - T T S T T T S

Minor scale - T S T T S T T

The T and S refer to tones and semitones, these are the words for the distances in notes between each pitch, with a semitone being a jump of one note and a tone being a jump of two notes.  Note that the black keys (sharps/flats) also count as a note, and this is why we get the variance in the pattern.

Let’s now allocate numbers to all the different notes in the scale, starting with the major scale:

Note that when the pattern wraps around, we are going to (for now) reset the digit to 1, as both Cs are in fact the same note even though they’re different.  Don’t worry about why they’re technically the same note for now, I’ll discuss that another time.

Let’s now look at the minor scale:

There it is.  These digits which are assigned to each note are called the “scale degrees“.  Therefore, A is the “first degree” of the A minor scale pictured directly above, and A is also the “sixth degree” of the C major scale in the image of the major scale above that.  In this way, we can see that the degrees are relative to the key of the scale or piece that we’re working with (keys were discussed in the previous episode, so re-read that if you’re suddenly confused as shit).  Don’t worry too much however as nobody except asshole music teachers like Kpopalypse actually uses the word “degree” in practice.

So – some bright sparks who lived a long time ago worked out that certain degrees of a scale, when played with each other at the same time, sounded really quite nice.  Don’t worry about the why for now – I’ll go into that another time –  but just know that the first, third and fifth degrees in the major and minor scale were considered exceptionally pretty when played or sung together, and that because of this, it’s these three notes that make up the major chord and the minor chord.  There are other chords, which we’ll get to in a moment, but the major and minor “triads” (called so because they have three notes) are the most common chords in popular music.

In the video you can hear the C major chord, followed by the C minor chord.  The C major chord is made up of notes C, E and G – the first, third and fifth notes in the C major scale.  The C minor chord is made up of C, Eb and G, which are the first, third and fifth notes of the C minor scale.  If you’re wondering why they’re different in this way, it’s because the major pattern is T T S T T T S and the minor pattern is T S T T S T T, so that means that the gap between the first and third degrees is T T in the major scale, and T S in the minor scale.  This has the effect of “flattening the third”.  You don’t need to remember both TS patterns though, just that the minor chord has a lower third than a major chord.  Knowing this, you can build any minor chord anywhere using the pattern TS TT (a tone and a half between the first degree and the third, two tones between the third degree and the fifth), and any major chord using the pattern TT TS (two tones between the first degree and the third, a tone and a half between the third degree and the fifth).

The lower third of the minor chord gives it a “sadder” sound.  As a result, the minor chord is more stereotypically associated with ballads and sad songs.  However this is actually incorrect and it’s amazing how many upbeat songs have minor chords in them.  As we discovered last episode, BigBang’s “Fantastic Baby” and T-ara’s “Wae Iroeni” were both in minor keys (D minor and G minor), and both songs also start on the D minor and G minor chords, yet they’re both upbeat party-vibe songs with fast tempos.

The reason why a minor chord doesn’t always equal a sad song is one of context – while the minor harmony isn’t as “bright” sounding, the song may move to major chords later, or be surrounded by other elements that negate the in-built “sad” sound of the minor chord, such as a fast beat, sparkly sound effects, a bunch of girls randomly yelling “Twice!” in a cheery voice or any number of other elements.

Yes, that bubbly Twice song about social networking is also in a minor key (E minor), and starts with a minor chord, in this case, A minor.  While harmony is important for perceiving mood, the context of that harmony is always far more important.

When writing a song, it’s not common to just stay on one chord for the entire song.  The best songs often have multiple chords, in a chord progression, like the Twice song above.  If we look at the chord progressions in “Likey”, we can hear the song move through four different chords:

If we go back to the scale of E minor, which is the key that the Twice song is built around, we can build up a chord of the first, third and fifth degrees using each note in the E minor scale as a starting point.

That’s our pattern in A minor, but we have to shift it to this, so E is the starting note, this creates one “accidental” note which is the F#:

If we do this, keeping in mind that the sequence of seven notes wraps around, here’s what we get:

Starting point = scale degree 1 = E – E G B – pattern TS TT – E minor (chord i)

Starting point = scale degree 2 = F# – F# A C – pattern TS TS – F# diminished (chord ii°)

Starting point = scale degree 3 = G – G B D- pattern TT TS – G major (chord III)

Starting point = scale degree 4 = A – A C E – pattern TS TT – A minor (chord iv)

Starting point = scale degree 5 = B – B D F# – pattern TS TT – B minor (chord v)

Starting point = scale degree 6 = C – C E G- pattern TT TS – C major (chord VI)

Starting point = scale degree 7 = D – D F# A- pattern TT TS- D major (chord VII)

Using this, we can build both major and minor chords out of the key of a minor key song (and a “diminished” chord, not that you’ll hear those a lot in pop music).  Because all of the above chords are built from the scale which is the same key of the song, every chord will “fit” nicely if used together in a song, because they’re all using the same building blocks.  Looking at the Twice video, you’ll see that the four chords match the sequence perfectly.

Let’s take a look at another song, this time one in a major key.

Secret’s “Shy Boy” is in the key of F major, and much like Twice’s “Likey”, for the most part it just repeats four chords, however they’re four different chords:

This time we’re using the major sequence – but this time it’s not in C major, but in F major, as that’s our song’s key.  So let’s change the above to the below, because we have to shift the pattern so that F is now at the beginning:

As we can see, when applying the major scale T T S T T T S formula with F as a starting point, one “accidental” is generated, which is the B flat.

Now we can again build up chords using the first, third and fifth of each note in F major, to get a list of the “most pleasing chords” that we can use in this key:

Starting point = scale degree 1 = F – F A C – pattern TT TS – F major (chord I)

Starting point = scale degree 2 = G – G Bb D – pattern TS TT – G minor (chord ii)

Starting point = scale degree 3 = A – A C E – pattern TS TT – A minor (chord iii)

Starting point = scale degree 4 = Bb – Bb D F – pattern TT TS – Bb major (chord IV)

Starting point = scale degree 5 = C – C E G – pattern TT TS – C major (chord V)

Starting point = scale degree 6 = D – D F A – pattern TS TT – D minor (chord vi)

Starting point = scale degree 7 = E – E G Bb – pattern TS TS – E diminished (chord vii°)

You will notice in the above video, that the chord sequence is I-V-vi-IV, and this fits perfectly within the parameters of the chords that we have built in this key.

As you’ve noticed above with the diminished chord, there are other types of chords besides major and minor, and there are also extended chords like seventh and ninth chords.  Each type of chord has its own tone-semitone sequence, and can be deployed in any key.  A future post will talk about some of the more unusual chord types.  For now, that’s all for this episode of Kpopalypse music theory class – the series will return soon!

* Yes I’m aware of some exceptions to this and will cover later

5 thoughts on “Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 6 – harmony and chord basics

      • Well picked, caonimas! Actually to my ear there’s a solid argument that it’s in A Dorian mode, because A still sounds like the tonal center to me – but that’s not quite A minor, of course. Obviously this is a bit subjective. However I’m going to go with Luca’s E minor, purely because I didn’t want to discuss modes in this post. (The “relative major” of G major also makes sense but since the G major chord isn’t in the piece, I think E minor is a stronger argument.) The post has been edited to reflect this, and I’ll probably return to Likey at a future date to discuss modes and this kind of subjectivity!

        • It’s honestly really cool how differently we hear these songs. Trained off all the music I’ve heard before, my brain is screaming the chord numbers at me 2-4-6-5. As someone without perfect pitch, not looking at any score, or thinking about any theory at all (eg. omgz0r F# leading tone!!!1), I still can’t help but hear 2-4-6-5. Like you said in an earlier post / ask fm answer from ages ago responding to some question about atonality, our brains can’t help but search for this center, and all three of us came to a different conclusion about this center. This actually inspires me to try making more music because I always feel like what I write is cliched (ofc. I chose to use THIS chord sequence to help convey THIS feeling), but it’s looking more like it’s all so subjective… like this is a freaking pop song with 4 chords and us three still internalize the harmony completely differently. So it seems that what may seem cliched to me might not actually be apparently so to others, due to the particular wiring I’ve developed to interpret harmony/music, which may be completely different from the next person/musician.

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