All Chords in One Octave?

Traditionally, a chord is 3 or more notes sounding at the same time. And composers often limited themselves to chords within a scale, while the daring found novel ways of expanding the common musical palette beyond traditional, elementary restrictions.

Functional harmony is the term used to describe this traditional harmonic and melodic structure, citing the examples of Bach, Handel, Mozart. And it forms the backbone of American and European Church music, Marching Bands, Jazz, Blues, Rock, Gospel, Folk, Country and Pop. Even in artistic musical rebellion, it’s Functional Harmony they are rebelling against.

While artists rise and fall on the crags of this monolith, a simple question leads the way to something new. A question asked in naive youth and forgotten through the years of musical training to discover just how to be a proper musician.

How many chords are there? As our brains look at a keyboard or guitar fretboard, we’re stunned by the permutations, overwhelmed by the combinations. Thousands upon thousands, maybe millions are possible on a keyboard.

 Are chords notes or intervals?

While learning music, we tend to think of chords as notes. Yet an A Major chord and a G Major are both Major chords and they tend to sound similar. It is because of the space between the notes, the interval formula that defines a chord, that they sound similar.

This is also why an Major chord in first inversion doesn’t really sound like a Major chord but a flavor of Minor: the interval formula. It’s the spaces between the notes that we hear most distinctively. We can tell a minor chord from a major chord because of the number of half steps between the notes, even if we have no idea what to call a half step.

It appears that people in general can hear these relationships more easily than they can absolute pitch. Even educated and trained musicians do not have so called “perfect pitch.” And the ones that do can hear the similarity between Major chords of different roots and Minor chords of different roots.

 Chords are intervals – not notes!

Here’s how it works: a Major chord, as it’s called in Functional Harmony, would simply be called a 43 chord and a minor chord and 34 chord. A Dominant Seventh would be called a 433 chord and a Major Seventh a 434 chord. Its pretty easy once you get the hang of it and its also really easy to figure out any new chords you want – IN YOUR HEAD. No complex, confusing labels that everyone disagrees on.  Just a pure number label. Know the number label and you can communicate with anyone about any chord you want.

New, Strange, Weird, Exotic, Interesting, Sensual Chords on a Whim

Let’s come up with a new chord right now. 428637. Okay, how about another one: 5354. Too easy. Another, you ask? 463. With pleasure. Using this method, you can construct chords bounded by the octave or free from the octave. For example, a 468973 is much larger than an octave and might require a piano or an instrumental ensemble to play. But a 3422 is within the octave and could easily be played by guitar.

This approach to chords plays nicely with and expands upon Set Theory and Spectral Music Composition. It also allows for an analysis of tuning systems that use more than 12 notes  per octave.


So, how many chords are in an octave?




2048 chords are possible within one octave, using 12-Tone Equal Temperament. And this includes 1 interval “chords” that only have 2 notes.


Want a list of all chords in one octave? Send me an e-mail and let me know.