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The Birth of Chords

Watch Marina Frolova-Walker's lecture, which discusses the system that has dominated western music since the seventeenth century


The major triad is considered the foundation of tonal music, its privileged position owed to its presence in the harmonic series of acoustics. The minor triad lacks this acoustic foundation, which led to it being treated as less stable, and even pieces in a minor key usually ended on the major form of the same triad. From the late eighteenth century onwards, major was paired with joy and minor with sorrow, and composers could play with these associations.

In a fascinating lecture that discusses the 'musical system that has dominated Western Music since the seventeenth century', Marina Frolova-Walker, professor of music at Gresham College, talks of the history of tonality, and contrasts the emergence of scales – known to prehistoric man and to Neanderthals – with that of chords, 'a very modern concept, and their emergence seems to have occurred in just one region of the world, namely, Western Europe'. She will go on to ask how the major triad came to be associated with joy, and minor with sorrow.

Marina Frolova-Walker, giving her lecture on 13 October 2022 in London
Marina Frolova-Walker, giving her lecture on 13 October 2022 in London

Frolova-Walker will ask: 'How did chords emerge, then? The story is a complicated mixture of trial-and-error processes of musicians, the systematic thinking of music theorists, the mathematics and physics of strings and pipes used in musical instruments, the notation and printing of music, and even some theological and philosophical ideas ... Was there a particular year when a musician invented the chord, in the same way that we can assign a date to the invention of the steam engine or the aeroplane?'

Marina Frolova-Walker is a Russian-born British musicologist and music historian. She is Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge. A specialist in the Russian music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she has published extensively on Russian music and is a well-known lecturer and broadcaster for BBC Radio 3. Among her many awards and appointments, she is a Fellow of the British Academy and was awarded the Edward Dent Medal in 2015 by the Royal Musical Association for her achievements in musicology. She was appointed as Visiting Gresham Professor of Russian Music in 2018-19.

Frolova-Walker's lecture, Triads, Major and Minor, which took place on 13 October 2022 at LSO St Luke's, London UK, also includes a recital. Watch it here:

Another lecture by Frolova-Walker, The Dominant Seventh Chord, will take place on Thursday 24 November 2022 at 18:00 UCT/GMT at LSO St Luke's, London UK, and can also be watched online:

Posted 17 November 2022 by Lucia Graves




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