Picardy third

Picardy third
Picardy third ending a i-v-i-iv-i-v-I progression About this sound play
Picardy third, in blue, in Bach: "Jesu, meine Freude" (Jesus, My Joy), BWV 81.7, mm. 12-13.[1] About this sound Play

A Picardy third (also known as Tierce de Picardie) is a harmonic device used in European classical music.

It refers to the use of a major chord of the tonic at the end of a musical section which is either modal or in a minor key. This is achieved by raising the third of the expected minor triad by a semitone to create a major triad, as a form of resolution.[2]

For example, instead of a cadence ending on an A minor chord containing the notes A, C, and E, a tierce de Picardie ending would consist of an A major chord containing the notes A, C#, and E. Note that the minor third between the A and C of the A minor chord has become a major third in the tierce de Picardie chord.

Even in instrumental music, the picardy third retains its expressive quality: it is the “happy third.”…Since at least the beginning of the seventeenth century, it is no longer enough to describe it as a resolution to the more consonant triad; it is a resolution to the happier triad as well.…The picardy third is absolute music's happy ending. Furthermore, I hypothesize that in gaining this expressive property of happiness or contentment, the picardy third augmented its power as the perfect, most stable cadential chord, being both the most emotionally consonant chord, so to speak, as well as the most musically consonant.[3]

The Picardy third does not necessarily occur at the end of a section: it can be found at any perfect cadence or plagal cadence where the prevailing key is minor.



Here is an example from Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82 in G Minor at a cadence in the right-hand of a realised continuo part.[citation needed] About this sound Play

Tierce de Picardie in ich habe genug.jpg

What makes this cadence a tierce de Picardie is shown by the red natural sign – instead of the expected B flat (which would make the chord minor) the accidental gives us a B natural, making the chord major.

Listen to the final four measures of "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" with About this sound Play and without About this sound Play Picardy third (harmony by R. Vaughan Williams).[4]

Other examples include the last chord in the first movement of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor,[citation needed] the final chord of Bach's 'Little' Fugue in G minor for organ,[citation needed] and the final chord in Gregorio Allegri's Miserere Mei, Deus.[citation needed] The Bach examples are good illustrations of the "stable" character of a Picardy third, while the Miserere Mei can easily be interpreted as "bittersweet".

Listen here:

Thomas Bateson's 15th century madrigal 'Your Shining Eyes' features use of the Picardy third in bar 16.[citation needed] A more modern example is found in The Beatles' "And I Love Her", which closes on a D major chord from a final passage in the key of F major/D minor.[citation needed] Other modern examples include "Roundabout" by the band Yes,[citation needed] "Sweet Child o' Mine[citation needed] by Guns N' Roses,[citation needed] and the Black Sabbath classic "N.I.B." where the final guitar riff over an E power chord ultimately slides down to and sustains G.[citation needed]


The origins of the term are obscure. An idea that was repeated as fact for some time, but which turns out to have no provable basis, was that expounded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de Musique (1767): that this form of ending survived longest in church music, and due to the great number of cathedrals in the historical French province of Picardy. More plausible is the idea that the North of France, and Flanders, were influential in the development of contrapuntal music in the fifteenth century.

Robert Hall hypothesizes that, instead of deriving from the Picardy region of France, it comes from the Old French word "picart," meaning "pointed" or "sharp" in northern dialects, and thus refers to the musical sharp that transforms the minor third of the chord into a major third.[5] In medieval music, such as that of Machaut, neither major nor minor thirds were considered stable intervals, and so cadences were typically on open fifths. Examples of the Picardy third can be found throughout the works of J.S. Bach and his contemporaries, as well as earlier composers such as Thoinot Arbeau and John Blow.

This practice began to decline in the late sixteenth century and by the Classical era had been more or less discarded, although examples can be found in works by Haydn and Mozart. In the Romantic era, those of Chopin's nocturnes that are in a minor key almost always end with a Picardy third. A notable structural employment of this device occurs with the Finale of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, where the motto theme makes its first appearance in the major mode.

It is notable that in the first book of J. S. Bach's The well-tempered clavier composed in 1722, only one of the twenty-four minor movements fails to end in a Picardy third, whereas in the second book, composed in 1744, fourteen end without it. (Manuscripts vary in some of these cases. This is the case with the single exception in the first book, the G-minor fugue, which, according to the present Bach Gesellschaft edition, is thought to have been originally composed in G minor, accounting for the natural sign rather than sharp on the third of the final chord.)

Scientific explanation

It may be possible for the aural effect of the Picardy third to be described scientifically - a major triad can be found in the 4th, 5th, and 6th harmonics of a major chord, while the minor triad can be found higher in the 10th, 12th, and 15th harmonics of its respective chord. (In the language of the harmonic series, this is equivalent to saying the major chord occupies a lower location in the harmonic series relative to the minor chord.) However, psychoacousticians cannot explain why this difference is perceived by the ear as being more or less "stable".

In addition, the harmonics of the minor chord have a dissonance closer to the fundamental harmonic compared to a major chord, which creates more beats. Thus a major chord is more consonant than a minor one, and is therefore interpreted by the human ear as being more "stable".


When a composer has not directly indicated a major or minor chord to be played it is occasionally acceptable to add Picardy thirds to a work in the interests of variety, especially in earlier music. This would usually be a decision made by the continuo players in a chamber work. For example, in performances of the "Rosary" Violin Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Biber, many continuo players add variety to the frequent repetitions in movements consisting of variations by adding the occasional Picardy third. However, over-indulgence of this liberty could weaken the work's structure.

Related chords

A similar effect, often used, is created with a deceptive cadence leading to the flattened sixth (for example, in C major, replacing the expected tonic chord with A flat major); this effect utilizes the lowered third but without affirming the tonic key.

Popular music / Notable examples

See also

  • Major/minor (tonal structure)


  1. ^ Bruce Benward and Marilyn Nadine Saker (2009). Music in Theory and Practice: Volume II, eighth edition (Boston: McGraw-Hill), p. 74. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  2. ^ Percy Scholes (ed.) (1955). The Oxford Companion to Music: Self-indexed and with a Pronouncing Glossary and Over 1,100 Portraits and Pictures, ninth edition, completely revised and reset and with many additions to text and illustrations (London and New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 1027–28.
  3. ^ Peter Kivy (1999). Osmin's Rage: Philosophical Reflections on Opera, Drama, and Text, with a New Final Chapter (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press), p. 289. ISBN 9780801485893.
  4. ^ Denise LaGiglia and Anna Belle O'Shea (2005). The Liturgical Flutist: A Method Book and More (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications), p. 166. ISBN 9781579995294.
  5. ^ Robert A. Hall, Jr. (1975), "How Picard was the Picardy Third?", Current Musicology 19: pp. 78-80.
  6. ^ Robert S. Hatten (1994). Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p.39. ISBN 0253327423. First paperback reprint edition 2004. ISBN 9780253217110.

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