Harmony 101: Chord Color & Doubling

In this article, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into chords and how they sound, and how that impacts notes we can double or suppress in 4-part harmony writing. 
As we already know, in 4-part harmony, we are working with 4 voices: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  Though, to match the number of voices, we will have to either double notes from the chord or suppress them.
  Let’s first establish that in tonal music (the musical language we are studying here), chords are built in stacks of thirds.  We can have 3-notes chords (triads), but as we keep stacking more thirds we can achieve richer chords.  For the sake of basic theory, let’s first focus our attention on the 3-notes chords and see how every individual element contributes to how the chord sounds.

The Root

  • Sounds stable
  • Sounds like home

The root is the one note that gives the chord it’s very name.  The fundamental sounds very “stable” compared to the other notes that are part of it.  It’s not particular colorful, but it’s definitely an important one for our ears to even understand what chord we are on.
From a logical standpoint, we can’t name or identify a chord if the root note isn’t present. Because of that, it’s safe to assume we always need at least 1 fundamental, but also it’s going to be possible to double or even triple it if needed.
There are a couple of rare exceptions to this, but you’re not likely to get into them right now.

The Third

  • rich sounding
  • colorful
  • unstable

The third is the second note of the chord: it is the one that gives it it’s “color” by making it Major or minor.  Compared to the other notes from the chord, it sounds very colorful, and without it the chord will sound extremely empty -and incomplete-.
Because of how colorful the third sounds, we absolutely want at least one of it in our chord.  It’s part of the name of the chord for a reason.  Though, unless our chord is in the first inversion, we want to avoid doubling that note because it can create a sense of instability.

The Fifth
  • subtle, less important, weak
  • Redondant, sounds a lot like the root note

The fifth is the least important note in our chord, it completes it nicely, but it’s generally not very problematic if it’s not even there at all.  Playing a chord with or without it shouldn’t drastically alter how the chord is perceived by our ears.
The second inversion (with the fifth as the bass) always sounds a bit weak or unstable and will be calling for resolution.
When writing harmony, if you find yourself needing to omit a note from the chord, the 5th should always be your missing note of choice as it doesn’t impact the perception of quality of the chord as much as the other notes.

The Seventh & friends
  • very colorful
  • unstable as the bass note

The seventh can bring a lot of beautiful colors to your chord, and I absolutely love using them.  It’s probably one of the strongest, most colorful notes you can use.
This one should never be doubled because it’s so colorful, but also because doubling it would likely not be a very smart choice, probably forcing your chord into missing some important notes and creating parallel movements in your chords.
It goes without saying: you can’t have a 7th chord if the seventh isn’t played.  This note cannot be removed without changing the very structure of your chord.
The seventh used on the bass will always sound very unstable, but it does happen sometimes.


Strong degrees: I IV V  strong = stable but colorless

Weak Degrees: II III VI —– X  VII weak = colorful but unstable

Base principle: the most important thing to focus on is the clarity of the chord and of the key.

  • In fundamental position we double the fundamental or a good degree
    • I —> F  !3  5
    • II —> F  3  !5
  • In 1st inversion We only double good degrees.
    • I6 —> F  !3  5
    • II6 —> >!F 3 !5
  • In 2nd inversion, normally we double the 5th (bass line)  (derived rule?)
  • 7th degree is never to be doubled. EVER.
  • never double an altered note