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I struggle with chords on the staff because I'm not sure which note is the root note. Is it the top note with the rest of the notes falling below it? E.g., if the top note is C, and bundled below it are an F and a G, is it a C Major triad? Also, what about the situation where the stem of the note, if it's a quarter note for instance, is facing downward?

I'm quite new to reading piano notation as I'm from a drumming background so I'm a little intimidated, because in drum notation you don't have to so quickly determine the fine placement of the note between the staff lines.

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Related: – American Luke Oct 3 '12 at 21:55
Not sure what you meant by the positioning of the stem. What matters is the position of the head. – American Luke Oct 3 '12 at 21:57
The point is that often you can't identify the root note of a chord if all you are looking at is the chord in isolation. You have to consider the chord in the context of the music you are reading, and identify the key center. Then you can figure out how the chord functions in that context. – user1044 Oct 3 '12 at 22:59
Listen to some old U2, the Bass is always playing the root. – luser droog Oct 4 '12 at 4:28
Which note is root doesn't matter. The notation is what it is. You read the notes and play the notes. You do not have to understand the harmonic theory in detail in order to read the music, or even to emotionally connect with what you're playing. – Kaz Jun 24 '13 at 23:55
up vote 29 down vote accepted

The root note is always the note that is the basis for the chord, regardless of its inversion. In root position the lowest note is the root (hence the name), but other notes are the lowest in other inversions of the chord.

For example, take a C Major chord. In every position, the root note is C. Whether it is voiced as C-E-G (root position), E-G-C (first inversion), or G-C-E (second inversion) is irrelevant. (The voicing is always given from the lowest note to the highest.)

There are multiple ways to interpret chords as well. For example, C-E-A could be considered a C Major 6th in root position or an A minor chord in first inversion. How you interpret it depends upon its function in the song as well as the song's key. In the key of A minor you would definitely consider it to be an A minor chord.

C-E-A could also be considered a rootless F Major 7th chord (normally F-A-C-E) in second inversion. You might interpret it this way in certain F Major pieces, for example. In this case you might say it has no root, or that the root is an "implied" F.

As for reading the notation and playing it, a couple points:

  • The directions of the note beams (the "neck of the note") are irrelevant, they're mostly aesthetic.
  • In most cases, it doesn't matter which note is technically the root. You'd be playing the same notes regardless.
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It might also help if you figure out the FUNCTION of the chords. I can't easily tell what chord is what without realizing its function.

For example, the most common cadence is V-I. If you're in the key of F major, V is C and I is F. If you have a chord that looks C-ish going to a chord that looks F-ish, that might be your answer! Also, use your ear -- does it sound like a cadence? Does it sound like the piece keeps moving? Is there tension in the chord (aurally)?

Also, stack your chords in thirds. That is what everyone above just did, and I don't think it was necessarily explained well. A C triad is C E G (with whatever accidentals you want to change the quality of the chord, e.g., Eb for minor chord) -- it doesn't matter if you have the E in the bass or the G in the bass, it'll still be a C chord. (There are reasons for why a composer might write one versus the other, but that's a different story.)

As a basic piano student, it will also be useful to know this: in a cadence (like V-I) there are often V7 chords. This has a root, third, fifth and seventh. In our C chord example, that'd be C E G Bb (because we're in F major). In order to make this easily playable by a pianist, it is notated a specific way -- E Bb C. This is missing the fifth, or G. It is a) common to drop the fifth of seventh chords and b) recognizable by its shape to be a V7 chord. Knowing that it's a V7 chord will tell you where the root is, because it will always be in the same place when notated like that.

Did that help or hinder?

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Oh and the direction of the stem is easy! It has nothing to do with harmony, and everything to do with the center line. Is your note below the third line in your staff (any clef)? Then the stem goes up! Is your note above the third line in your staff? Then the stem goes down! The reason for this is to keep all of your notation IN the staff lines to make it easier to read. – user3169 Nov 7 '12 at 3:41
Welcome to the site! Good stuff. Keep it coming! :) – luser droog Nov 7 '12 at 5:45

One way to think of chords is you're playing a few selected notes from a chord that stretches from sub-bass to ultra-sonic. So the full C major chord contains all the Cs, all the Es and all the Gs. With enough pairs of hands, you could play 8 octaves' worth of this chord on a piano.

This is a C major chord, and C is the root note. All of the Cs are root notes -- there isn't one particular C that's "more root" than the others, although a particularly loud C in the bass register might help anchor it for the listener.

Now, no matter how many notes you take away from this "full" chord, it will remain consistent with being a C major chord.

  • If you take away all but three neighbouring notes, you'll have a triad. There are three inversions you can get this way. Regardless of which you get, C is still the root note.
  • If you take away all the Es, you've removed the note which distinguishes C major from C minor.
  • If you take away all the Cs, it's still consistent with being a C major, but the "C major-ness" is weakened (and the "E minor-ness" is strengthened)
  • The more note letters you remove, the more ambiguous the chord is.

In general a triad is the most unambiguous chord. The root is present. The fifth reinforces the root. The third tells you whether it's minor or major.

Adding notes makes things more ambiguous, taking away notes makes things more ambiguous, and this is where context helps.

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I wish I could understand you better. I'm still new to piano. But thanks for trying anyway. – Warren van Rooyen Nov 1 '12 at 12:26
What's the first bit you don't understand? I'll try to explain better. – slim Nov 1 '12 at 12:43
Sub-bass to ultra-sonic was hard for me to comprehend. I'm not seeing how you could contain all the C's in one chord. Thank you. – Warren van Rooyen Nov 1 '12 at 14:04
Sub-bass = "deeper than a human can hear"; ultra-sonic = "higher than a human can hear". To play a chord containing all the Cs, just hold down every C on the keyboard (you may need help, as two hands is not enough). – slim Nov 1 '12 at 14:45

A note about stems and beams: pianists often work with both hands in one register or area of the keyboard, and music notation tells the pianist which hand to use when, such as when hands are crossed over one another in playing a riff or string of notes. When that is the case, stems up tell the pianist to use the right hand, and stems down, the left hand.

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As indicated above, function is important, but then again so is spelling. For example, take the notes A, C, E, and G. First blush would be an Amin7, but they could also spell a Cmaj6 equally well. Context matters.

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One handwaving characteristic of the "root note" is that its frequency is the greatest common divisor of the chord notes. It takes a lot of handwaving since for one thing, with an equal-tempered tuning there is at best an approximate gcd (you have to use some scale with just intontation, and of course the choice of scale influences the result), for another, many jazz chords are ambiguous and consist of at least two partly overlapping triads with different root note/function.

All being said and done, a pretty god bet is the presence of a perfect fifth of some kind: that points to the lower note of the fifth (or equivalently the upper note of a fourth) to point to the root note.

Except, of course, when it doesn't like in suspended chords. Suspended chords, however, are usually readily recognized by their following resolution.

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Here's an idea. A scale is every possible note for the melody. So for C major it's:


A chord on the other hand is every other note. So a C chord is:


A D minor chord is:


And all those fancy jazz chords are every other note as well. A C11 is:


only we throw out most of the notes that aren't C E or F.

So all you have to do is play anagrams with the notes.

EGC? Hmm, CEG. C major. It could also functionally be a Em6 but I've seen this notated as C/E (C chord with an E in the bass).

AF with a C way up in the upper octaves? FAC. F major.

Don't worry about the exact names of chords. Thelonious Monk, the harmonic inventor of traditional jazz, couldn't tell you the music school versions of the chords he was playing either. (Source: "To Be or Not to Bop" by Dizzy Gillespie) It's all about what sounds good. I couldn't tell you how many amazing musicians I've heard who couldn't identify the chord they were playing if you held a gun to their heads. But they sure sounded good.

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