Exploring Chords with Bill McGlaughlin

In this series, we focus on Exploring Music moments where Bill McGlaughlin, sitting at his piano, demonstrates chord structures in a composer’s work.  Since 2003, Bill has eloquently crafted insights for us to discover music in new ways, and here we have chosen our favorites to include in this series. Bill’s knowledge of small solo pieces, orchestral symphonies, and jazz standards will open you to new understanding and appreciation of this music.

Bill McGlaughlin

Bill McGlaughlin (Photo: Charles Osgood)

The chords Bill describes are a combination of sounds that help characterize a composer’s individual voice. They organize the music vertically — interval by interval. And when composers add them together in time, the sounds start bending, moving, and talking to each other, creating storylines with a layer of complexity much like characters in a book.

The way a composer structures chords and how performers play them can bring either harmony — an agreement between sounds — or discord — sounds that clash or have friction.

A chord can be a complete idea by itself, like one word that says it all. “Ta-dah!” and you have a Mendelssohn fanfare. “Boom!” and you have started a Beethoven symphony!

C Major Chord

A C major chord in root position, first inversion, and second inversion | Illustration: Abbey Edmonds)

Some create a new sound, and some chords stop you dead in your tracks, and this is in the music even before it’s set in motion. Chords can connect us to other cultures, create feelings of longing, start riots, or even bring calm. The heart and power of music can lie within its chords.

When Bill McGlaughlin steps on the podium as a conductor, he can make old compositions new, just by balancing the volume, pitch, voice movement, and sound quality of these rich chords. In Exploring Chords, Bill will show us how chords can conjure up ghosts, cast spells, catch fire, and carry us into fantasy worlds. Hear Bill conduct the the world premiere of Lux Aeterna by Michael McLean in Salt Lake City, Utah on YouTube.


  • Exploring Chords: “Appalachian Spring”

    From the moment of its creation, this music and its ballet continue to speak to the American soul. Dive into the score of "Appalachian Spring" with Bill McGlaughlin.
  • Exploring Chords: “Tristan and Isolde”

    In Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner expresses tragic love and desire, using what has been named the Tristan chord. To truly experience Wagner’s Tristan chord takes four and a half hours of intense listening – all the way to the last notes of the opera. These are sounds of prolonged tonal ambiguity that bring about feelings of emotional depths to the listener.
  • Exploring Chords: The Andalusian Cadence

    Bill McGlaughlin spells out the structure of the Andalusian cadence in such a way that you can pull out your instrument, and by following his simple rules you can sound as if you are sitting on one of the terraces of the Alhambra looking out over the rolling mountains.
  • Exploring Chords: “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”

    French composer Claude Debussy’s mode of expression in this symphonic tone poem, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is a whole-tone scale, which gives the piece a feeling of floating in a sea of tonalities, and Debussy must have had the sound of his favorite French flute player in his ear while he wrote this work.
  • Exploring Chords: “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”

    The moment Strauss puts his pen to the musical staff, his chord progression and melodies set our old-as-the-hills merry prankster on escapades—wriggling out of tight spots and dancing his way through misadventures.
  • Exploring Chords: Fairy Chord from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

    Inspired by the warm engaging humor of Shakespeare’s comedy, the young Mendelssohn composed an Overture to "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," a classical work with a hint of the romantic era to come. Hear why Bill McGlaughlin describes the chord progression that starts the Overture as the casting of a spell.
  • Exploring Chords: The Petrushka Chords

    Composers can use chords to create a variety of effects, and Igor Stravinsky is famous for his use of chords to conjure up entire worlds of magic and mystery, including works he composed for the Ballets Russes: The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, and Petrushka. In Petrushka, a tragic love story of three puppets, Stravinsky’s chords bring the puppets and ...