Say we have on one hand the basic chords of triads (major/minor) and sevenths.

And then on the other hand we have less common chords like sus4,add9,augmented,diminished,six chords,extended chords, and so forth.

I'm wondering if the latter is a result of someone improvising random notes that sound good to them, meaning when you write a harmonic progression you're just randomly playing notes from the scale that sound good to you, and then eventually you figure out what those chords are called, using a reverse chord finder.

Or do composers explicitly know what chords to use ahead of time: "I'll throw an Cadd9 here, and a Csus4 there, a C11 over there".

  • Not sure why this was downvoted – Kevin H Sep 30 at 0:12
  • 2
    @KevinH I didn’t downvote but the question is a bit problematic because the chord names existed in music theory long before chord finders existed. And it’s sort of not possible to directly answer the question. In addition, ALL chords are just what sounds good. – Todd Wilcox Sep 30 at 0:53
  • 1
    @KevinH Furthermore, it seems like a question that's impossible to answer, or at the very least has multiple answers that are equally unhelpful. I'm sure some composers out there improvised and found these "weird" chords. I'm sure others thought "ooh, a ninth chord would sound nice here." If the answer is "some do, some don't," I wonder if it's the best kind of question to ask. – Richard Sep 30 at 16:11
  • 1
    Gotcha, that makes sense. Downvoting without explanation just doesn't help OP very much, so I think it's good to clarify. Not sure who originally downvoted, but thanks for expounding. – Kevin H Sep 30 at 21:09
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Very broadly speaking: the basic chord sets the structure of the music, additions and modifications arise when a melody is added.

But even as I write that, I'm flooded with exceptions. It's really just a matter of building a musical vocabulary. And the way to do that is to experience, read and play all kinds of music, particularly stuff that is beyond your current 'comfort zone'. Then you won't consider the chords 'weird' at all!

You learn that if you want to sound like 'country piano' it's good to throw in some sus2 chords like Floyd Cramer. That a Music Theatre ballad is very likely to end on an 'add9' chord. That a low-down blues will stick pretty much to E7, A7, B7 but if you want to come up the river to jazz-land some 9ths, 13ths and other additions/modifications are in order. Like a writer, you pick a vocabulary to suit the occasion.

Reverse chord finders are rarely useful I'm afraid. They MIGHT give you a plausible label for a 'found' chord, but that's little use in itself.

And note that, once we get beyond 'songs', the chord sequence isn't always that important an element of a piece.

Say we have on one hand the basic chords of triads (major/minor) and sevenths.

And then on the other hand we have less common chords like sus4,add9,augmented,diminished,six chords,extended chords, and so forth.

That seems like something of a false dichotomy to me. Why draw the line after sevenths? There's no quantum musical leap you are making by using a ninth rather than a seventh - or, for that matter, a seventh rather than a triad.

I'm wondering if the latter is a result of someone improvising random notes that sound good to them...

...Or do composers explicitly know what chords to use ahead of time:

I think the answer is 'both'. Inevitably, many pieces are written based on a certain chord progression to which complexity is added due to the articulation of the chords and the addition of melody an other ornamental notes. In this case, it may be helpful to see the 'found' chords that occur as separate passing chords, and name them accordingly.

On the other hand, composers do commonly use chords that are not basic triads (or seventh) as parts of the basic tonality of a piece. Sus2 or add9 chords are commonly used as stable tonalities in a lot of modern music. Jazz and modern r'n'b commonly use extended chords as part of the basic vocabulary of the piece, and not only as passing chords.

  • A triad just sits there. A (minor) 7th gives it a tension. That's a bigger difference than a 9th or 13th adds. – Laurence Payne Sep 30 at 9:57
  • @LaurencePayne a 7th doesn't necessarily give tension - e.g. in blues, the 7th 'feel' is typically seen as part of the basic, stable tonality of the piece. – topo morto Sep 30 at 11:25
  • 1
    In classical music, I'd say that 9ths and 13ths give even more tension, at least partially because of their increased rarity (and dissonance for minor 9ths). – Dekkadeci Sep 30 at 11:42
  • Yup, that's what I said. The 7th introduces tension. Quantum leap. 9ths etc. just add MORE tension. – Laurence Payne Sep 30 at 12:14

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

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