I think I'm onto something big here...

A chord sounds just like its root note. the 3rd and the 5th are inconsequential. They just add harmony to the root note.

I have an app I use on my phone called Cleartune. But you can use any app that has a tuner.. It just tells you what frequency or sound is being heard.

Let's take C-major. If I play this as a block chord on a piano. Then it's C-E-G. I can also play E-G-C (first inversion). I can also play G-C-E. (second inversion). Get this.. the app registers it as "C" regardless of inversion.

Let's take C-minor. If I play this as a block chord on a piano. Then it's C-Eb-G. I can also play Eb-G-C, or G-Eb-C as a block chord. miraculously, the app still registers these as "C" regardless of inversion.

Same thing with all other chords. F# chord will be registered as F# in the app regardless of inversions or if I play major or minor. G chord will be registered as G, and so on.

So this means that all chords, the sound of their 3 notes superimposed on one another is just the root of the chord. Am I right? (I'm almost certain I am but pls correct me if I'm wrong).

closed as unclear what you're asking by Richard, Dave, Doktor Mayhem Jul 29 '17 at 20:05

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • It's C-Eb-G for C minor. – Tim Jul 25 '17 at 17:55
  • 4
    Stop looking at the screen of the app, and start listening. Then you will answer your own question! If you really can't hear any difference between a single note and a chord, with respect I don't see how you can function as a musician at all until you learn that basic skill. – user19146 Jul 25 '17 at 19:56
  • Am I right? If you're right, why use chords? As @alephzero remarked, let your ears be your guide, not an app - they should tell you that they're not the same. ( And if they don't, maybe you should consider taking up something else instead of music. ) – Stinkfoot Jul 26 '17 at 1:49
  • @alephzero - you misunderstood. OP knows differences, but wants to find out why the app doesn't seem to know the same. – Tim Jul 26 '17 at 7:23
  • I knew the sound of the chord "C Major" sounds essentially like the note "C" (with added harmonics) and the app confirmed it. I wanted to see if others also agree with this sentiment. guess not judging from the downvotes. – foreyez Jul 26 '17 at 18:14

The root is a prominent part of the sound of any chord, yes. You are, indeed, onto something big!

However, be careful with word choice. As the other answerers have pointed out, the other notes are not at all inconsequential, and the chords cannot be reduced to merely their roots. Otherwise we wouldn't even have the need for names such as "C Major", "C minor", "C diminished 7", and so forth. All of that should be clear from the other answers here as well.

However, I suspect that you are actually after something slightly different than this, and that your central insight is correct: the rest of the notes do, in fact, provide color (for lack of a better word) to the foundational note of the chord.1.

And there is so much more in store for you, my friend! In light of your comment that harmony has appeared tedious to you thus far, I would say that you were not really ready to delve into the deeper mysteries. But with this discovery, you are one big step closer to them. And I promise, they are things of beauty! The next step is to examine is why certain chords always seem to go together. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. What is the special magic that binds C G Am F together in so many songs, while Cm Gm A F seem to contradict each other so totally?

  2. Why is it that the very beginning of John Williams' Imperial March has no harmony, only uses the notes E-C-G (the notes in a C Major triad), but nevertheless is unmistakably minor?

  3. If C Major and D Dorian have all of the same notes in their scales (truly! No exceptions!), why do they sound so incredibly different?

There is so much more, and so very much to explore in this incredible field. Enjoy it!

1 - To be honest, even this is not always strictly true, but within the bounds of western harmony, I would encourage you to consider the other situations as mere edge cases for now, and to come back around to them only when they start to excite you.

  • 1
    I'm being picky, but the Imperial March does use harmony. The opening accompaniment goes from a unison on the tonic to a leading tone diminished seventh chord (assuming the score I'm looking at online is correct.) That clearly sets the tonality at the opening, not the main melody which comes in a few bars later. – Michael Curtis Jul 25 '17 at 20:26
  • 1
    @Beni., by calling the third a color do you mean that the third is not a defining part of the chord? Can they be colors and a defining part of the chord? – jdjazz Jul 25 '17 at 20:29
  • @michaelcurtis It is true. I suppose I meant for the example to be played on the piano. But it works even without. You can skip the first two measures, and the long tonicization still establishes the root very satisfactorily. – Ben I. Jul 25 '17 at 20:29
  • 1
    @jdjazz Typically it is a defining part of the chord (as I hinted at in example 1) but it does not have to be. There are clearly contexts (such as a Picardy Third) where a modification creates a definitively non-functional change. (i.e. We have still reached our final tonic). This leaves us in a bit of a pickle when describe the purpose of the third to someone just discovering the central importance of the root. – Ben I. Jul 25 '17 at 20:36
  • 1
    @BenI, tonicization is about establishing a temporary tonic which isn't happening in this case. Anyhow, I don't think the example helps answer the question. – Michael Curtis Jul 25 '17 at 20:50

Could it not be as simple as the app you use has been programmed so that when it hears a cluster of notes, it comes up with what it thinks is the root note? There are no triads that are the same, so that could easily have been sorted. There are some four note chords which may confuse it - C6 and Am7 use the same notes, but the roots are different.


I think the simplest way to explain "no, the chord doesn't just sound like the root" is to compare C major and C minor. The roots are the same, but clearly they don't sound the same. Perhaps the app only identifies the root, but trust your own ears. Do you really think a major and minor chord sound the same? The same could be said about chord inversions. I6 and I6/4 have the same root, but they sound different. The difference may be subtle, but there is a difference.


The issue here is that you're using the word "chord" to mean something different from its standard definition. There are two ways to answer this question. The first way is: no, the chord is not the same as the root because Cmaj is different from Cmin. (Michael Curtis, ttw, and Ben I. have all given a version of this answer.) The second way is: no, the chord is not the same as the root according to the definition of the word 'chord'.

To elaborate on the first answer, here's the issue you face:

First Answer

  1. A chord is the same as its root.
  2. According to 1, a Cmaj chord is the same as C.
  3. According to 1, a Cmin chord is the same as C.
  4. According to the transitive property, a Cmaj chord is the same as a Cmin chord (because they're both the same as a C).

Obviously, statement 4 is false: we all agree that a Cmaj chord is not the same as a Cmin chord. Hence, the original proposition 1--upon which the entire logical chain is based--must also be false. I grant that you might be picking up on something relevant in noticing that the app registers the same chord despite the inversions--there is an insight here. But it's incorrect to articulate your insight as 'chord = root'.

Second Answer

We can answer the question "isn't a chord the same as its root?" by looking at the definition of a common chord/triadic chord. A common chord is defined in such a way that the third and fifth are part of the chord identity. By its very definition, the root is insufficient to define a chord. That is, the definition of the word 'chord' excludes a single note from being a chord. Instead, it is the three notes together (first, third, and fifth) that make a common/triad chord, by definition. So the statement "a chord is the same as its root" contradicts the definition of the word "chord."

How Does the Software Work?

There are many ways that this software could operate. If you can identify G-C-E as a Cmaj chord (second inversion), then so can software. Software does what humans tell it to do. If other apps can only identify root position chords, it's because that's all that the software was coded to do. Software that can look for both root position and inverted chords is more advanced than software that only looks for root position chords. But the principles for identifying chords can be the same: for example, match detected frequencies to a database of possible chords. If the database contains both root position and inverted chords, then the app will be able to identify both.

(Caveat: I'm not a programmer, so I've simplified and probably implied something incorrect about the actual code. Feel free to correct this in the comments and I'll incorporate the remarks into the answer.)

  • 1
    I'm a programmer, and you are correct. However, it's a lot more work - often exponentially more - to write something that will break down a chord sound into its various tones, subtones and harmonics and then figure out exactly which chord it is. In most cases (certain types of inversions or heavily altered chords might be different) the primary sound of any chord will be its root, and a superficial analysis of a chord's waveform will give you that, without too much legwork. That's what the OP's app is doing. I'd venture that you could also fool that app with certain chords. – Stinkfoot Jul 26 '17 at 1:47
  • 1
    That's really interesting--why is the primary sound the root? Each note would have its own associated harmonics, but I suppose, in root position, the root's harmonics are closer to the chord tones. Is that why root position chords are easier? Or is there a different sense in which the root most dominant? Does the software just match against a database of waveforms rather than doing an FFT? – jdjazz Jul 26 '17 at 1:51
  • 1
    Take a look at @mcdtracy 's answer down below. I've never done that sort of programming - have done some work with analysis of colors. It works the same as your eyes or ears - the more complex the color or sound, the more difficult it will be to give an exact analysis of its components and characteristics. Consider: Red is Red. Say Purple 50% Red + Blue% easy enough. But what about mauve or chartreuse - a lot harder. You'll see a lot of red or green but also several other components interacting to create that particular color. You're going to have to dig deep to get it right. – Stinkfoot Jul 26 '17 at 2:25
  • 1
    Does the software just match.. - probably all it's doing. Google major triad waveform -lots of hits-analyses of waveforms you'll appreciate. IDK the algorithm for determining the root from the waveform, but since our ears can identify the root fairly easily, it's going to be relatively simple compared to breaking down all the components and coming up with the right answer for a complex chord. Here's a few hits I looked up: donskiff.com/the_language.htm | mhf4u1.pbworks.com/w/page/62133840/P4_8-5_Main | ethanhein.com/wp/2011/visualizing-music – Stinkfoot Jul 26 '17 at 2:33
  • 1
    I think it would not be too difficult to write an application that could give quite an accurate answer for almost any chord by doing a fingerprint analysis of images, without getting involved in mathematical analyses of the waveforms. It would use more resources and be less efficient than doing the math, but it would be easier to program. Maybe libraries available for such mathematical analysis, so you wouldn't have to start from scratch: A function that takes the characteristics of a waveform as an array or matrix as an argument and gives you back the root, chord colors, etc. – Stinkfoot Jul 26 '17 at 4:05

Not really. The root does contribute but so do the other notes. Try these examples.

C-E-G: a C-major chord and C-Eb-G: a C-minor chord. They sound different even though they do both contain the note C and thus sound related.

C-E-G-Bb: C-seventh and C-Eb-G-Bb: C-minor seventh. The addition of the Bb increases the difference.

G-Bb-C-Eb: either a Eb chord with an added sixth or an C-minor seventh. The root cannot be determined without looking at the surrounding chords.

G-C-E-G followed by G-B-D-F makes the first chord a C-six-four sound like the root is G and is so used in composition.

G-B-D-F-Ab sounds like G is the root. B-D-F-Ab (if there are G's played close in time) also sounds like G is the root and is often used this way in composition.

C-E-G followed by C-E-A makes the second chord sound a bit like C is the root and is often treated this way (with A being a non-chord passing tone.)

C-E-G# and C-Eb-Gb-Bbb are symmetrical and the root isn't obvious (if it exists at all)

Ab-C-D-F# doesn't have an obvious root (although Ab seems to me to be the most logical choice.)

Ab-C-Eb-F# (when written this way and followed by either some sort of G major chord or a C-six-four) seems to have a different root (maybe D?) than Ab-C-Eb-Gb when followed by some type of Db chord.

The most important note (in classical harmony) in a chord is the third. One can (in context, not as an isolated sonority) drop the fifth or root but he third is necessary. ("Power Chords" are really just intervals, not chords. Doesn't make them useless though.) The third cannot generally be omitted or the chord cannot be determined (ignoring quartal harmony and the like). In major chords the third cannot be double (but see below) and in minor chords, the third generally can be doubled easily. Doubling the third in a major chord F-Ab-Db-F makes the chord sound like a Neapolitan Sixth which tends to resolve to a G chord rather than a Gb chord.

All the above examples are audible.

  • they can't be as important as the first. why would the app say its the first usually. to me it means the first is the dominant sound. the third just makes the chord sound happy or sad, but its the root that defines the sound of it! same as you as a person are the same if you smile or frown. and the seventh just sprinkles some pixie dust on it, but the app still registers the chord as the root note. – foreyez Jul 25 '17 at 18:26
  • One can have a chord without a sounding root though. Each note has its own influence within the chord. Things are just more complicated than is obvious at first. Note that in many contexts, C-E-G followed by C-E-A does sound like the C is the main part of each group (and is represented this way in figured bass notation: C53 and C63 rather than as C major root position and A minor first inversion.) – ttw Jul 25 '17 at 18:47
  • 2
    Just to extend the point about not omitting the third of a chord, the fifth of a chord can sometimes be omitted. It's probably best to describe this as 'optional' rather than 'inconsequential.' Also, in some cases the fifth is necessary, like in a I6/4 inversion. You need the fifth in the bass to define the inversion. Interestingly, you could omit the root in a I6/4 and have a convincing harmony with only the chord's third above the fifth in the bass. – Michael Curtis Jul 25 '17 at 20:03
  • 2
    @foreyez, the reason the app displays the root is because that's what it has been programmed to display. That doesn't mean it isn't detecting the other notes. It's possible to program an app to (1) identify the 3 notes being played, (2) compare the notes being played to a database of chords, and (3) display just the root + quality of the chord (e.g., Cmaj) without displaying the other notes that determine the quality. – jdjazz Jul 25 '17 at 20:35
  • @foreyez, I suppose adding the seventh to a Imaj7 could be thought of as adding pixie dust in a decorative sense as enriching the sound of a plaid triad, but the traditional seventh in a V7 resolves down a step and plays a functional role. You should try be be aware of those kinds of distinctions. From another angle there are rootless chords in jazz where chords and tonality are clear yet no root is played. So, yes, the chord root is central and the other tones can be called subordinate, but there are finer details to consider. – Michael Curtis Jul 25 '17 at 21:12

Using the physics of sound it makes sense to expect the tuner to seek the re-current frequency in the sound being analyzed.

The root tone carries overtone frequencies: the octave octave and 5th double octave + 3rd ...

So, a close voiced chord presents a complex waveform with overlapping frequencies much closer than the standard overtone mix. But the tuner seeks to select some common point in the repeating sound measure it's frequency.

You tuner selects a frequency that matches these roots. Mine (the Ultra Tuner iPhone app) does not. Unless there's a simple clear tone of a single note it won't display an assessment of the accuracy of the pitch being "heard".

I'm using a digital piano for my test. Are you using a piano or guitar for the sound source?

  • both piano and guitar – foreyez Jul 25 '17 at 19:21

You're not playing a chord if you're only playing the same note. If you're playing notes in a different octave then you're harmonizing. But on guitar in standard tuning, if you play the 5th fret on low E string and an open A string, well you're not doing much at all as you're playing the same exact note. Maj/min chords are based on the 3rd and have a 5th. So Maj = 1-3-5 and min is 1-♭3-5. If it doesn't have a 3rd like in sus chords it's neither. Dominant chords are based on the 7th, well ♭7. I won't even get into diminished chords because then you're talking about double flats and naturals. There's also a dom9th or just R9 which still had a ♭7 but adds the 2nd in the next octave. In sus chords, you can replace the 3rd and have a sus4 or sus2. But most chords are based on a 3-note set unless otherwise noted like a 1-3-5-7 or Rmaj7. On guitar, for example, a C major chord uses 5 strings but only 3 notes: 1-3-5 or C-E-G or Cmaj triad. It's all just terminology. Basically, learn your major scale and you'll be good. Most Western music is based off that. Then learn the major chord, because all you have to do next is learn terminology. Different chords are simply formed by adding or subtracting notes from the major chord. For example, consider a R5. That's your power chords on guitar--to form this chord, just remove the 3rd note from a major chord. But in short, no; you can't play a chord with the same notes.

  • Can you kindly explain how the 2nd sentence fits with the 1st? The 2nd sentence states that you harmonize (play a chord) when you play notes in different octaves. The 1st sentence states that you harmonize (play a chord) when you play different notes. Is playing C4-C3 a chord? The 1st sentence might say "no" & the 2nd might say "yes." I think you're making valid points but could improve the answer by clarifying these two statements. Maybe you don't mean to imply that harmonizing is the same as playing a chord, in which case the 2nd sentence about harmonizing might be irrelevant to your answer. – jdjazz Jul 26 '17 at 12:23

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.