What Is a Tetrachord? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Tetrachord
  • 0:54 Building a Tetrachord
  • 2:48 Kinds of Tetrachords
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways to build a chord. In this lesson, we're going to explore tetrachords by defining the term, talking about where they come from, and looking at some of the ways they can be built and used.

Tetrachord

Imagine that you wanted to build a skyscraper. You'd need to stack various floors on top of each other to create a full building, and the way you stacked those floors would greatly impact the finished structure. Music is a lot like that, too. When we're building up chords, we stack notes of various intervals. How many notes we use, what the intervals are, and how they relate to each other changes the final chord.

Well, sometimes you want to build a skyscraper, but sometimes you want to build something that's more grounded. Something shorter, but complex and strong. Like a castle with thick walls and a moat and dungeons and stuff. Well, to build this, you need smaller intervals. In music, one way to create this shorter but very complex structure is a tetrachord, or a chord made of four notes close together. It's like a little musical fortress.

Building a Tetrachord

A tetrachord contains four notes that are close together, very close. In Western music, we divide musical values into semitones, sometimes called half-steps. If we start at C, then a half-step up would be a C#, then D, then D#. Those are semitones. A whole tone would be two semitones, or jumping straight from C to D. A tetrachord is composed of four notes that are a total of five semitones apart. So, let's build a tetrachord, starting on C. Five semitones would include the notes C#, D, D#, E, and F (remember, there is no such thing as E#). So, my tetrachord could use any of the notes in that set.

The distance from C to F, or from the lowest to highest value in any tetrachord, is called a perfect fourth. This is one of the basic intervals that makes up the foundation of Western music. We use the perfect fourth very frequently to transition between notes in music. Hum the song 'Here Comes the Bride.' Those first two notes are a perfect fourth apart. So this interval is important, and binding our tetrachord within makes the chord grounded, strong, and complex.

The perfect fourth, and the tetrachord itself, are about as old as Western music itself. These ideas were developed by the ancient Greeks, who strongly emphasized the use of perfect ratios in all the arts. In fact, it was the Greek mathematician Pythagoras who defined the mathematical ratios between the notes that make up the major scale used throughout Western music to this day. The tetrachord was a way to compose songs built around the perfect fourth, often played on a four-string lyre. Today, tetrachords are very commonly used in jazz music where their complexity adds an exciting quality to improvisational pieces.

Kinds of Tetrachords

A tetrachord can technically use any four notes within that five-semitone range, but this doesn't mean that any combination of those notes will sound good. In Western music, there are four kinds of tetrachords most commonly used.

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