Wikipedia says about chords:

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously.

The Glossary of musical terms by naxos.com defines a chord like this:

A chord is the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes. The adjective is chordal. The study of harmony involves the correct placing of chords with relation to each other.

Assume there is a trio consisting of a piano, a guitar and a saxophone. The note c is played on the piano, the note e on the guitar, and the note g on the saxophone, simultaneously.

Could this be called a C major chord? If so, would it actually be called that way?

If not, what would it instead be called?

  • I'm not sure if two simultaneous notes constitutes a chord. This is the definition of intervals. Naxos's glossary as a contemporary source, probably makes this definition regarding 'power chords' which are simply a P5 interval. But their use especially in popular music denotes the character of a chord. This definition is controversial anyway. But regarding your question, yes different instruments playing different notes can perfectly form a chord as stated in the answers below. Great question.
    – user88063
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 23:42

4 Answers 4


Yes, that is exactly a chord. This is really common in choral songs. For instance, here is a chorale by Bach:

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The chorales were sung by 4 groups of voices. Notice the first 4 vertical notes: G,B,D and G. This forms a G major chord. The second group of vertical notes is: F#,A,D and A which forms the D major chord and so on.

This is also used by orchestras. For instance, a violin might play the root of the chord, the second violin the 3rd, the cello the 5th and so on.

  • 1
    Wow, that was fast. And a good answer, too, thank you! I just recently started learning music theory, and I had so far only come across chords played by a single instrument. But obviously it is quite difficult to sing a chord alone. In the example given in the question, would you also say that “the trio played a C chord”? It sounds unfamiliar to me, but then again, I’m not used to musical language.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 13:42
  • 1
    Yes, you could say that the trio played a C chord. Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 13:44
  • "4 groups of voices": or perhaps four individual singers.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 20:19

Yes. A chord can also be considered as a pitch class. For example, the C major chord is made of the notes C E and G. But these notes don't have to be played "contiguously", bunched up close together under one hand on a piano. As long as the notes are played simultaneously (or overlap), any combination of any number of instruments playing all three of the notes in the pitch class C E and G, in any order, spread out across any number of octaves, constitutes a C major chord. If you have an entire orchestra with twenty different instruments or sections, each of them playing one of the pitches C E and G across six octaves, from the lowest bass instruments to the highest treble instruments, it's still a C major chord. When notes in a chord are spread out across wide intervals, or arranged in a different order (for example with the C major chord, it's possible to put the E or the G as the lowest note rather than the C) then we refer to the many different voicings and inversions that can be used to make the C major chord.

  • Pitch class refers to the same distinct similarity of notes; not a random or desired group of notes. For instance, pitch class c means c notes in different octaves.
    – user88063
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 23:32
Assume there is a trio consisting of a piano, a guitar and a saxophone. The note c is played on the piano, the note e on the guitar, and the note g on the saxophone, simultaneously.

That does not really work well as a "chord" because piano and guitar are percussive instruments and the saxophone has a continuous tone. So while the onset of that combination can be used in a somewhat chorded manner, the surviving note after guitar and piano (in that order if we are talking about an acoustic guitar) have died down will be g. So the eventual impression will be that of c/g even when g starts out as the highest note.

The chord character will be lost almost completely when the saxophone does not play a straight note but uses vibrato.

For short notes or instrument groups with better-matching characteristics and execution, chording works out better.

Regarding the music theoretic treatment rather the acoustic one, however, a diversity of instruments does not cause a difference in theory.

  • 2
    So, while it works on paper and, theoretically, with all instruments that can play notes, some instruments are better suited than others regarding my example. Thanks for the clarification.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 15:46
  • 3
    An electric guitar can sustain a note longer than either a piano or a sax - unless the sax player can do circular breathing, in which case the "Guinness book of records" longest note is more than 45 minutes. But whether or not it is "a chord" depends on the musical context, not an arbitrary distinction between sustaining and non-sustaining instruments.
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 18:46
  • @Philipp and user23420 It is NOT the duration of the notes that determines whether it is a chord. It is the fact that they play the 3 notes simultaneously that makes it a chord. So the c on the piano, the e on the guitar and the g on the sax makes a full C major chord. If the sax holds the g and a little later the piano now plays b and the guitar again plays an e it is a full E minor chord, because the notes e, g and b played simultaneously is an E minor chord. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 22:31

This is an interesting question that has been addressed in the philosophy of aesthetics and how it links to the philosophical treatment of knowledge.

The example of an orchestra can serve as an example of how the knowledge of the individual can translate in the to cumulative knowledge of a group of individuals.

An orchestra is scheduled to perform Beethoven's 9th. Each player in the orchestra knows their individual part but no player knows every part - i.e., no player knows the entire symphony. Yet it is correct to say that the collection of individual players (the orchestra) knows the entire symphony as a whole.

The same holds true for individual notes. No individual note knows the harmonies that result in a chord when played simultaneously with other notes. But the result of those individual notes being played simultaneously, in this case across different instruments, does result in the knowledge of a chord being played as experienced by the listener.

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