title image with text "Music Theory Basics 3"
Music Theory

Music Theory Basics 3

Please note: In an effort to keep the content “clean” and simplified, this post contains modified footnotes, which are used for additional information, not for references. We’ve added these to areas where common questions may occur or where further learning may be useful or interesting. Click on each number when you see it. (A popup window will appear if you are on desktop; on mobile, the content will expand.) 1Like this!

This is Part 3 of a multi-part series. Check out Part 1 and Part 2. Additional links will appear when new information is added.

Chords Part 1

Chords are one of the most intimidating aspects of music theory, so we’re going to start with the basics for Part 3. We’ll continue with even more about chords in Part 4.

In Part 2, we talked about the the layout of the kalimba and how the keys on a piano translate to a standard kalimba layout. Now, we’re going to talk about chords.

What Are Chords?

Simply put, a chord is when you play more than one note at a time.2Most common chords contain three or four notes. There are a limited number of notes available on just about any Western instrument, and there are also a limited number of combinations available. So there are already names for all of them, based on qualifiers such as how many notes you play and where the “extra” notes are in relation to the “tonic” or root note. Having names for everything can be a lot to memorize, but they give musicians a common, professional language to work with and ultimately makes communication easier. 3The sheer number of chords and all the different names they have are one of those things that can really intimidate beginning musicians, so we’re going to stick with the ones that mostly pertain to the kalimba.

For this lesson, we are going to assume that you have a 17-key kalimba in what we call the ‘modern standard’ layout. 4Referring to this layout as “modern” is not intended to be derogatory in any way. The kalimba, as an independent instrument, evolved from African lamellophones, such as the mbira, which have a long, rich history and do not follow Western tuning conventions. Non-Western tunings are absolutely valid, and we believe its important to respect the kalimba’s origins. The contemporary kalimba itself is a newer instrument, and “modern” is used in that sense. It does not have hundreds or thousands of years of existence to draw upon, but is similar enough to its classic counterparts that we wanted to differentiate that, and “contemporary” is just a bit harder to say.

Side note: Terms like “C Major” and “A minor” could refer to the tuning of the instrument, the key that a piece of sheet music is in, or the name of a chord. It can get confusing, so we’ll do our best to specify which one when we feel clarity may be needed, even if it sounds redundant.

Super quick recap: Here are the diatonic keys of C Major on a piano.

a diagram showing the seven diatonic keys of C Major
The 7 diatonic keys of C Major (in one octave)

When most people think of chords, they are likely thinking of the most well-known chord, the triad (so named because it has three notes).

Here is the C Major triad on a piano.

a diagram that highlights the piano keys C, E, and G - otherwise known as the C Major triad
The C Major triad, which contains the first, third, and fifth note of the C Major scale.

On a standard kalimba, however, these notes appear right next to each other.

an animated gif showing the locations of tines C, E, and G on a standard kalimba
The C Major triads on a standard kalimba. (Note the final triad is incomplete and would technically be a dyad, not a triad.)

On a piano, you would need to spread out your fingers to reach each note, which you would play at the same time.

an animated gif showing the C Major chord being played on a piano
The C Major triad would be played at the same time on a piano
The C Major chord on a piano

However, most people would not be able to play all three of these notes at the same time on a kalimba. Instead, players commonly will swipe their thumbnail along all three tines in succession, a musical technique known as a glissando (which means “to glide”). 5Although not quite playing them at exactly the same time, as you would on a piano, this technique is different from arpeggios, which is the playing of “broken” chords as distinct notes in an ascending or descending order. The glissando should be played relatively quickly to give the illusion of the notes being played concurrently.

an animated gif showing the locations of tines C, E, and G on a standard kalimba
Chords on a kalimba are often played as a glissando
The C Major chord played as a glissando on a kalimba (machine generated – I’ll try to add a live version later)

The chords available in a C Major scale are:

  • C Major – C, E, G
  • D minor – D, F, A
  • E minor – E, G, B
  • F Major – F, A, C
  • G Major – G, B, D
  • A minor – A, C, E
  • B diminished – B, D, F

We’ll go over what these terms mean at another time.6Spoiler: It has to do with the number of steps between the notes. For now, just know that these are the names.

By convention, and to make it easier to read, major chords are written with a capital “M”, where as minor chords are written with a lowercase “m”. This makes it easy to differentiate at a glance the difference between C Major and C minor, for example, which could be abbreviated as CM and Cm, respectively.

Almost every classification in music follows a pattern, and chords are no exception. In fact, the chords in every Major key will follow the same pattern of:

  • Major
  • minor
  • minor
  • Major
  • Major
  • diminished

They could also be listed in Roman Numerals as:

  • I
  • ii
  • iii
  • IV
  • V
  • vi

For now, don’t worry about memorizing all of this, though you may find it useful. Feel free to refer back to this guide (or download this free quick-reference chart ).

The Emotion Behind the Sounds

C Major tuning is known for feeling upbeat, generally speaking, and that’s one reason why it’s so common to hear in pop music. Minor tuning, on the other hand, is considered to have a sadder feel.7This is not a “hard and fast” rule. Songs can be in a minor key but feel joyous (such as “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, which was actually written in F minor!) and vice versa (such as “Everybody Hurts” by REM, which was written in D Major). The tempo, melody, lyrics, and chord progressions/alterations can all play a part in how a song feels.

The same idea can be applied to chords. The belief is so pervasive, that the most common chord progressions (the order in which chords are played) in Western pop songs focus heavily on the Major chords, using some variation of I, IV, V, and vi.

Here are some common chord progressions to get started. It’s a good idea to practice these and also see if you can identify them in sheet music or tabs. (See below.)

  • I, V, vi, IV (most common contemporary pop)
  • I, IV, V (common in blues, reggae, and classic rock)
  • I, vi, IV, V (common in 50s pop)

When you see websites or YouTube videos that say things like “Learn to play 100s of songs in minutes!”, this is usually what they are talking about (imagine playing the guitar as an accompaniment while someone sings). But these are also really useful to add depth to the melodies that you learn. If you play around with these enough, you may find you start to recognize some of the background sounds in the songs you listen to.

Learning to recognize what they look like on paper (digital or otherwise) can also help demystify songs or tabs that you’re trying to learn, which might look overwhelming or confusing at first.

Recognizing Chords

We haven’t gone over sheet music or kalimba tabs yet, but chances are you’ve already ventured into trying to play some songs, and distinguishing the melody from the accompaniment can be challenging.

Sheet Music

Kalimba Tabs

a picture of a music staff with a treble clef and notes C4 E4 and G4 as whole notes to create the C Major chord
This is the C Major triad chord shown in staff notation (sheet music). The lowest note is C, the middle note is E, and the upper note is G. There are two notes “skipped” that are in the spaces in between: D and F. Image by Koobak, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Screenshot of kalimba tabs showing all the triad chords on a standard C Major kalimba
Here are some of the standard chords on a standard, C Major-tuned kalimba. The bottommost chord is C Major, the same that is shown in the staff notation picture. It doesn’t show “skipping” any notes because of the bilateral layout – the notes are on the other side of the kalimba. Can you identify chords I, IV, V, and vi?


The last thing we’d like to mention in this lesson are arpeggios, because they can really add a lot to your playing and are great to strum for relaxation.

Arpeggios are “broken chords”; you play the notes of the chord in order, ascending or descending, instead of playing them together.8Playing notes simultaneously = harmonic, whereas playing notes separately = melodic. (To help remember the difference, think of a solo artist singing your favorite melody versus a choir singing in harmony – at the same time.)

Arpeggios Example 1

Arpeggios Example 1

Try combining arpeggios with some of the chord progressions listed above or come up with some of your own.

Did you know that you can find these tabs and others on our Free Kalimba Exercises page?

That’s it for now! In the next post, we’ll continue talking about chords. 🙂


Sheet music photo by Michael Maasen on Unsplash

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