The Secret Life of Triads Four Ways to Make Triads Work for You

One of the biggest breakthroughs I had when learning to play music came during a painfully frustrating time. I was trying to work out a lot of Bill Evans material in college and I just couldn’t make it sound good. I spent a lot of hours that didn’t equate to improvement. I was studying with an amazing teacher who could rip through the stuff with ease. He also sensed something wasn’t clicking and said, “You know, everything comes down to triads.”


We continued to work on Bill Evans through that summer, but we shifted most of our attention to triads.

When he first said that about triads, it was easy for me to dismiss it. I was able to play all the triads in inversions in all the major and minor keys easily by this time. I felt I had them under my fingers for a long time.

In retrospect, he was talking about relearning the triads in ways that could help more advanced applications. The way I had learned my cadences using the I-IV-V or V7 chords in blocks as a kid was actually holding me back at this juncture. If he wouldn’t have led me down this path I would probably still be really frustrated.

Thinking of the triads as blocks of notes and even as inversions starts to become a hurdle in development. The more I got into advanced harmonic concepts I realized that it was all about the resolution and motion of notes within the triad – whether functional, modal, 12-tone, etc. So I relearned triads focusing on their motion rather than their static qualities.

With the help of this teacher and later expanding upon it myself, here are some things that help get our head around triads and the potential that lies within them:

  • Random Resolutions: This is the first thing this teacher did with me. He asked me to play a triad – for example G Major. Then he would call out random triads. I would be expected to resolve to the one he called out without moving the top note or bottom note of my current triad more than a whole step. He would do diminished, augmented, major and minor. I realized through this that anything can resolve to anything. For more advanced versions, he then expanded this into 7th and 9th chords… And eventually full jazz voicings.
  • Singing Voices: With the exercise above (or the ones below) he would have me sing a note of the triad – for example the 3rd of the G-major triad. And sing to the nearest note in the following chords he called out. So I had to eventually sing each note of the triad and voice lead a line through anything he called out.
  • One-note Chords: If we play a melody like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, instead of playing three-note triads as accompaniment – just play one of the notes. Then string it through the entire piece by resolving it to the nearest note in the next chord. For example, if we start on the 3rd then we will go to the 4th when the harmony changes to the IV or V7 chord. This teaches how to write  and improvise counter-lines for our own arranging, performing and composing projects.
  • Two-note chords: Same as the one-note chords above except do every combination of two notes until you or your students can sing, hear and feel each resolution and how to anticipate the harmony of the piece.

There are many activities and variations on these. However, the methods mentioned above can be a lifetime of work. These methods work on any piece – functional or not. Be creative and experiment with new variation. It’s a fun and rewarding way to teach and learn triads.