The major triad and the overtone series

The major chord is the most often used three tone combination in musical pieces. But why? The reason is, that nearly every natural tonal sound contains a major chord in its overtone series. If you listen to a human voice, a trumpet tone or a violin sound, you will indirectly listen to a major chord.

In the following video I have routed a Nave sound via Audiobus to Level 24. With the latter app I visualize the overtones and filter it in a way that it become audible. If you listen closely to the demo, you will recognize that the first six overtones build a major chord.

The sound shown in the video contains many overtones. But why do we hear only one coherent tone? The reason is, that our brain summarizes all overtones to one overal sound. The overtones are assigned to a root or fundamental tone. When we listen to music the same processes is done: If the tones of the chords are similar to a overton series, then our brain can easily assign the tones to a common root note. We perceive the sound as relaxed and consonant. If this is not possible, then we perceive a tension chord.


In this and the following episodes we are going to learn how to combine triads to powerful and emotional soundtracks. To this day only experienced musicians and composers can do that. But with the help of these blog posts you will learn understand these things without having note and instrumental skills.

What are triads?

Triads are combinations of three tones. They convey cheerful or sad emotions and can be full of tension and relaxation. There are natural sounding triads as well as highly strange sounding ones. Musicians who know how triads work possess a powerful compositional tool.

Music theory uses the term triad when the three tones of a chord are stacked in thirds. I.e. the first and and the second tone of the triad are a third and the second and the third tone too. There are different types of triads. But not only the triad itself influences the musical character of a piece. Furthermore it is the arrangement of triads which makes a composition special.

The good new is, that there is a clear system behind triads. In my opinion the best way to understand these system is SoundPrism together with the key related circle of thirds. While SoundPrism allows you to play triads – even if you are not able to play guitar or piano – the key related circle of thirds will help you to understand triads.

Triads at the piano

To play triads on the piano one needs to practice. The piano is optimised to play melodies. Therefore triads look complicated on it:


Triads in SoundPrism

Opposite to the piano in SoundPrism triads are quite simple. You simply need to activate the one tone mode and play tones in three neighbouring rows.


To ease the play of triads further, three tone mode can be activated:


Now you only need to touch the lowest of the three rows to play a triad. The other two tones are played automatically:


No matter which row you touch in SoundPrism, now you will always play a triad.

Triads in the key related circle of thirds

As in SoundPrism, tones of triads are neighbours in the key related circle of thirds:


The figure above shows three tones currently playing. Every tone is represented by two concentric circles. The inner circle simply tells you, that the tone is currently playing. The outer circle also tells you that you need to touch the corresponding row in SoundPrism.

If you are in three tone mode you only need touch the lowest row in SoundPrism. The other two tones are played automatically. This is shown in the next figure. The tones that are played automatically now have an outline around them.


Next episode

In the next episode we are going to talk about the two most important triads, i.e. the major triad and the minor triad.


  • Triads consist of two stacked thirds. Therefore triads are neighbors in the key related circle of thirds.
  • SoundPrism and the key related circle of thirds are relatives. Therefore the tones of triads are neighbors.
  • Tones that are played automatically in SoundPrism’s three tone mode are visualized without outer circle in the key related circle of thirds.’

Glossary introduced

For all who wonder why there was no blog post in the last week. We have worked on the infrastructure of this blog. From now on there is a glossary, that will more and more be filled with new terms. The glossary can be opened by clicking the menu entry “Glossary”.


Terms like key related circle of thirds or third etc will be linked to the glossary in future. Thus it is easy to get a list of past blog-post for a given term. This shall help people that did not read the blog from the beginning.

A visual model for harmony theory

After we have laid the foundation of note names and intervals, I will now start to introduce a new harmony theory model which I will use extensively in future episodes. Using this model and SoundPrism you will be able to understand and apply harmony theory without any previous note knowledge and instrument skills.

The key related circle of thirds

The model is called  key related circle of thirds. It is shown in the next figure:


I could start to explain the circle and the things hidden within. Instead I think it is more important to learn how to play the model’s tones with an instrument.

Making the circle sound

The most simplest way to make music with the key related circle of thirds is SoundPrism, since its tone layout is directly based on that circle. This is the way the circle and SoundPrism are connected:

  1. Each of the black points in the key related circle of thirds corresponds to one of the horizontal rows in SoundPrism. The circle consists of seven points. SoundPrism consists of seven rows.
  2. The lowest point in the circle corresponds the lowest row in SoundPrism.
  3. The order of the points in the circle and the stripes in SoundPrism are the same. But in the circle the tones are arranged clockwise, in SoundPrism from bottom to the top.

Example 1:

In the following key related circle of thirds the lowest point is highlighted:


To play this tone you need to activate one tone mode first:


After that touch the lowest row because this row corresponds to the lowest tone in the key related circle of thirds:


It makes no difference on which horizontal position you are touching the row. One point in the key related circle of thirds does not only represent a single tone but also all of its octaves.

Example 2:

In the next example the lowest point and the clockwise neighbor is highlighted:


This means that you have to touch two rows at the same time, meaning the lowest row and the one above:


Example 3:

In this example the lowest point and the counterclockwise neighbouring tone are highlighted:


This means, that you have to touch the lowest and the highest row in SoundPrism. Logically these two tones are next to each other. But opposite to the key related circle of thirds SoundPrism does not represent that relationship:


Example 4

In this example three tones are highlighted, meaning the third, fourth and fifth tone:


That means you need to touch the third, fourth and fifth row in SoundPrism:


Wy not use SoundPrism directly?

Maybe you will wonder why I don’t use SoundPrism directly to explain harmony theory. Why is this tedious usage of the key related circle of thirds necessary?

The answer is, that there are many musical relationships and phenomena which don’t become apparent in SoundPrism but in the circular model. A previous version of SoundPrism did have a circular tone arrangement. But usability tests showed that such an version is harder to play. SoundPrism is optimized for playing, the key related circle of thirds for thinking and understanding.


The following video summarizes this blog post and provides additional examples.

Next episode

In the next episode I am going to extend the visual vocabulary introduced today additionally. Beside sequences of tones I will show how chords are represented within the circle of thirds and how the three tone mode of SoundPrism supports this.


  • The key related circle of thirds is a harmony model we are going to use to explain many harmony theory things in coming blog posts.
  • To understand future episodes, one needs to be able to read the key related circle and to translate into music.
  • SoundPrism is made for this since horizontal rows in SoundPrism correspond to tone points in the circle. The order of the tones in both SoundPrism and the circle is the same.
  • The key related circle of thirds arranges tones clockwise, SoundPrism arranges them vertically from the bottom to the top. Therefore the lowest row in SoundPrism corresponds to the lowest point in the key related circle of thirds.

Composing with iPads in the Classroom

In this episode we are going to show an example of how the composing and music-making with iPads may look like in the classroom. The iPad offers excellent opportunities to inspire young people for music composition.

A student iPad composition

The following video is the result of a one week project, which was carried out by students at the State Vocational School of Weimar.

Compositional structure

The harmonic base of the whole composition consists of only four chords. From the point of the tone material all four chords are major and minor triads. But the two inner chords are constructed so, that it become tension chords. This makes the composition more emotional.

The musical composition shall show, that already a minimal harmonic base is sufficient, to compose well sounding music. Thus the piece starts with a classical string ensemble, followed by a rock guitar riff and then ends back in classical style.

Both parts are roofed by melodic motifs, one time in the form of a melodic soprano voice and another time in the form of a electric guitar sole. The latter consists of two parts again, namely a melodic phrase and a tapping part.


Due to its purely melodic structure the soprano was recorded using the melody app ThumbJam. Principally this would also be possible for the guitar solo. But the contained chordal tapping part can be played particularly well with SoundPrism. Here you can see that different composition tasks require different music apps.

Its rhythmic character receives the piece through the animated string sound and the rock guitar riff. Both first was created using the animator of Native Instruments Session Strings. The arpeggio of the guitar riff was programmed using Spectrasonics Omnisphere. The drum track of the piece was created using Spectrasonics Stylus RMX.


Work with students

For creating the composition and practicing the live performance showed in the video above we had only four days. Particularly as musician one easily underestimates the hurdles people without musical experience have to overcome. In our experience non-musicians often shy away from playing around and trying out. The fear of doing something wrong is often there. Therefore we decided  to reduce the musical piece only to the four chords mentioned above. This gave the students more time to for practicing and become familiar with the chords.

Furthermore we recommend to teach musical novices a simple but well sounding musical motif first. This creates an experience of success, self-confidence and encourages the student to leave predefined paths and to develop own musical ideas. Despite of this much encouragement is needed.

Another great help were large print-outs of app screenshots. The students could use these screenshots to mark and remember the playing points. This made it easier for them to play the same phrase again and again. Additionally we recorded the phrase and played it back as a loop. Thus the students could check if they were playing the phrase right.


Technical hurdles

The created composition lives of rhythmic sounds. Present it is quite hard to synchronize different music apps, iPads or VST-Plugins without having deeper technical knowledge. For example we had difficulties to synchronize the Omnisphere guitar riff with the Session Strings ensemble. We are going to solve this by a future AudioBus extension.

Another difficult thing is the connection of multiple iPads with the sound Laptop via MIDI WIFI. At first glance, this looks very tempting because it saves a lot of cabling. But in practice we lost the WIFI connection very often. A part of the used iPads worked quite well, while other iPads were very bad. This difference is hard to understand. We recommend to connect the iPads not over WIFY but via hardware like the  iConnectMIDI4plus.



  • There are many many apps for iPad, which can be used to solve specific compositorial tasks. Skillful use of musical knowledge helps to create well sounding compositions by utilizing simple means.
  • Musical unexperienced people often shy away from playing straight on. This difficulties can be reduced by giving them simple motives that can be easily replayed. After that students should be encouraged to create something own.
  • Technically iOS has not yet matured enough to connect and synchronize multiple iPads easily. Thus many teachers will have difficulties to run a setup like the one used in the composition presented here.
  • To open up the iPad for a broad application in classroom music composition several technical obstacles have to be reduced. We are going to work on this.

Tension and Relaxation

In the last Episode we showed that musical harmony is about relationships between notes. This relationships doesn’t always need to be relaxed and harmonious. Like good movies owe their existence to a permanent change of tension, conflict, dispute and their resolution, in the same way also a musical composition requires a steady alternation of tension and relaxation.


Tension and relaxation is one of the basic principles behind western music. There are composition techniques to create and resolute musical tension. In the following video David explains this by comparing musical tension and relaxation to interpersonal relationships. At the end he shows how tension and relaxation sounds using SoundPrism Pro.

Harmony is about relationships

On April, 12th I had the chance to attend my brother David’s class room. David is teacher at the State Vocational Training Center in Weimar, Germany. He trains aspiring educators in Guitar, Music Theory and Music Education. In this context David conducted a student project “Composition and Music Production with iPads”.

In this and the next two episodes I’m going to show some excerpts of the final presentation of this project. The expcerpts particularly show David’s talent for explaining complicated musical terms in easy to understand images.


In the following video David explains harmony as relations between tones which can be compared to human relationships: In the same way there are persons that get on brilliantly with each other and others which are quite difficult, in the same way there also tones that fit good together and others, that don’t.