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What are some ways to identify the root of a chord? I know Hindemith has a treatise on this, but are there any other convincing ones?

For instance, what would be the root of these chords?

  • FBC
  • CDE
  • BCD
  • CDG
  • CDbEbGbABb
  • BCEbF#G

How would you know?

2
  • 1
    Have you just made up some of these blends, or do you actually use them as chords?
    – Tim
    Oct 30 at 8:22
  • 1
    Just made them up to clarify my question Oct 30 at 15:45

3 Answers 3

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In every case, it depends on the context in which the chord appears and how it's used.

Any set of notes that appears in a non-tonal context can't be said to have a root in the first place, since having a root is a property of tonality.

In a tonal context, F-B-C could just be a passing chord between, say G7 and C. This is actually pretty common. Mozart uses a version of this a lot. For example, here's an excerpt from his first piano sonata, second movement:

Mozart KV279 cadence

On the other hand, the same F-B-C chord could be an F chord with the B delaying the arrival of A.

Or, any of the pitches might be a pedal tone while the other two form the outline of a chord: FM/B, Fm/B, CM7/F, G7/C, for example.

And all of this assumes none of the pitches are spelled enharmonically. C-E#-B could be interpreted quite differently from C-F-G.

The root of a chord cannot be determined out of context.


Caveat:

With chords that fit neatly into the "stack of thirds" theory that underlies Tonality, there is a default interpretation for major and minor chords and many seventh chords. C-E-G will be seen as C major, and F-A-Eb will be seen as F7, at least most of the time. And some "non-standard" chords — like C-F-G, which would be assumed as Csus4 — also have a "default" interpretation.

But even augmented and diminished chords already become "fuzzy", because their roots depend on context. And for chords that do not readily fit the "stack of thirds" theory, all bets are off.

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  • 1
    That's a wonderful answer! However, don't you think there's a "default" given no context answer? That is.. Yes F-A-D can be an F major chord with a hanging D waiting to resolve down, and yet, most people would say that the root of F-A-D is D. Would you say this is just a convention? Oct 30 at 15:43
  • 2
    @MichaelSeltenreich No, I don’t think there is a default at all. Actually all music and all analysis depends on context. Oct 30 at 16:48
  • 3
    @MichaelSeltenreich With chords that fit neatly into the "stack of thirds" theory that underlies Tonality, yes, there's a default interpretation for major and minor chords. But even augmented and diminished chords already become "fuzzy", because the root depends on context. For chords that do not readily fit the theory, all bets are off. The partial exceptions would be relatively common Tonal chords like C-F-G (Csus4) and C-E-B (CM7), which tend to be used in specific contexts.
    – Aaron
    Oct 30 at 16:51
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Hindemith deviced his own harmonic theory that was supposed to stand against the concept of atonality (Schönberg being his arch nemesis ...), so each chromatic note can be seen as tonally related to each other one, and each accumulation of at least 3 notes is a chord with one unique root. Hindemith’s theory rids itself from certain assumptions made in more conventional harmonic theory, such like for example that chords are stable against inversion.

The problem though with this theory is that while in theory in works it does not do a particularly good job in actually producing intuitive results.

There is a bunch of systems for determining roots, if you speak German there is a nice summary by Karl Traugott Goldbach: https://www.gmth.de/zeitschrift/artikel/446.aspx

But keep in mind that a root of a chord is always an arbitrary classification of a bunch of notes, and none of these systems will work unconditionally.

I’d say:

  1. F-B as tritone strongly a V7 chord, so either G7 or Db7, where the C would make more sense in the first reading.
  2. This is a C major third with an added 2nd and should work quite similarly to a C major third. Most canonical reading would of course be C major
  3. While much is possible I’d like to see this as C major 7 as 2-chord
  4. Either empty C chord with a second or G with suspension.
  5. Could be C half dim. 7, or Eb dom 7, or even a bitonal superposition
  6. My personal favorite would be a C major 7 with some suspension as a neapolitan style substitution for the subdominant in B minor, like this:

enter image description here

1

It depends on context.

Take a simple example, A, C, E, G.

Is that Am7 or C(add6)? There's no right answer. It's whichever you choose to use it as.

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