Chord names and symbols (popular music)

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CΔ7, or major seventh chord on C About this sound Play .

Musicians use various kinds of chord names and symbols in different contexts, to represent musical chords. In most genres of popular music, including jazz, pop, and rock, a chord name and the corresponding symbol are typically composed of one or more of the following parts:

  1. The root note (e.g., C).
  2. The chord quality (e.g., minor or lowercase m, or the symbols ° or + for diminished and augmented chords; quality is usually omitted for major chords).
  3. The number of an interval (e.g., seventh, or 7), or less often its full name or symbol (e.g., major seventh, maj7, or M7).
  4. The altered fifth (e.g., sharp five, or 5).
  5. An additional interval number (e.g., add 2 or add2), in added tone chords. For instance, the name C augmented seventh[disambiguation needed], and the corresponding symbol Caug7, or C+7, are both composed of parts 1, 2, and 3.
  6. More rarely, a bass note other than the root (e.g., in the key of C major, "G/B bass"—which means a G major chord with a "B" as the bass note)

Except for the root, these parts do not refer to the notes that form the chord, but to the intervals they form with respect to the root note. For instance, Caug7 indicates a chord formed by the notes C–E–G–B. The three parts of the symbol (C, aug, and 7) refer to the root C, the augmented (fifth) interval from C to G, and the (minor) seventh interval from C to B. A set of decoding rules is applied to deduce the missing information.

Although they are used occasionally in classical music, typically in an educational setting for harmonic analysis, these names and symbols are "universally used in jazz and popular music",[1] in lead sheets, fake books, and chord charts, to specify the chords that make up the chord progression of a song or other piece of music. A typical sequence of a jazz or rock song in the key of C major might indicate a chord progression such as "C – Am – Dm – G7". This chord progression instructs the performer to play, in sequence, a "C Major" chord, an "a minor" chord, a "d minor" chord, and a "G dominant seventh" chord. In a jazz context, players have the freedom to add sevenths, ninths and higher extensions to the chord. In some pop, rock and folk genres, triads are generally performed unless specified in the chord chart (e.g., C Major 7).

Roles[edit]

These chord symbols are used by musicians for a number of purposes. Chord-playing instrumentalists in the rhythm section of a jazz quartet, rock or pop band or big band, such as a piano player, Hammond organist or electric guitarist use these symbols to guide their improvised performance of chord "voicings" and "fills". A rock or pop guitarist or keyboardist might literally play the chords just as indicated (e.g., the C major chord would be played by playing the notes C, E and G at the same time. In jazz, particularly for bands playing music from the 1940s Bebop era or later, a guitarist or keyboardist typically has the latitude to add in the sixth, seventh, and/or ninth, according to her "ear" and judgement. As well, part of the "jazz sound" with chord voicings is to omit the root (a task left to the bass player) and fifth. As such, a jazz guitarist might "voice" the C major chord with the notes E, A and D, which are the third, sixth, and ninth of the chord. The bassist (electric bass or double bass) uses the chord symbols to help improvise a bass line that outlines the chords, often by emphasizing the root and other key scale tones (third, fifth, and in a jazz context, the seventh).

The "lead instruments" in a jazz band or rock group, such as a saxophone player or lead guitarist use the chord chart to guide their improvised solo lines (or for the guitarist, her guitar solo). The instrumentalist improvising a solo may use scales that she knows work well with certain chords or chord progressions. For example, in rock and blues soloing, the pentatonic scale built on the root note is widely used to solo over straightforward chord progressions that use I, IV and V chords (in the key of C major, these would be the chords C, F and G7).

Other notation systems for chords include:[2] plain staff notation, used in classical music, Roman numerals, commonly used in harmonic analysis,[3] figured bass, much used in the Baroque era, and macro symbols, sometimes used in modern musicology.

Advantages and limitations[edit]

Any chord can be denoted using staff notation, showing not only its harmonic characteristics but also its exact voicing. However, this notation, frequently used in classical music, may provide too much information, making improvisation difficult. In fact, although voicings can and do have a significant effect on the subjective musical qualities of a composition, generally these interpretations retain the central characteristics of the chord. This provides an opportunity for improvisation within a defined structure and is important to improvised music such as jazz. Other problems are that voicings for one instrument are not necessarily physically playable on another (for example, the thirteenth chord, played on piano with up to seven notes, is usually played on guitar as a 4- or 5-note voicing that is impossible to play on piano with one hand).

As a result of these limitations, popular music and jazz use a shorthand that describes the harmonic characteristics of chords. This notation is more easily expressed in plain text and in handwriting than the relatively complicated process of writing chords on a staff. It is also faster to read.

The first part of a symbol for a chord defines the root of the chord. The root of the chord is always played by one of the instruments in the ensemble (usually by a bass instrument). Failure to include the root means that the indicated chord may be hard to hear for some listeners. By convention, the root alone indicates a simple major triad, i.e., the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth above the root. After this, various additional symbols are added to modify this chord. There is unfortunately no universal standard for these symbols. The most common ones are below.

This notation does not easily provide for ways of describing all chords. Some chords can be very difficult to notate, and others that exist theoretically are rarely encountered. For example, there are six possible permutations of triads (chords with three notes) involving minor or major thirds and perfect, augmented, or diminished fifths. However, conventionally only four are used (major, minor, augmented and diminished). There is nothing to stop a composer using the other two, but the question of what to call them is interesting. A minor third with an augmented fifth might be denoted, for example, by Am+, which would strike most musicians as odd. In fact, this turns out to be the same as F/A bass (see slash chords below). A major third with a diminished fifth might be shown as A5.

Usually, when composers require a chord that is not easily described using this notation, they indicate the required chord in a footnote or in the header of the music. Alternatively, chords can be specified with more detailed numbers. For example, if the composer wants a C9 chord with no seventh, she can write C9 (no 7th), because the normal rule in jazz is that if a ninth chord is requested, the seventh is assumed.

Chord quality[edit]

Chord qualities are related with the qualities of the component intervals that define the chord (see below). The main chord qualities are:

Some of the symbols used for chord quality are similar to those used for interval quality:

  • No symbol, or sometimes M or Maj (see rule 2 below) for major,
  • m, or min for minor,
  • aug for augmented,
  • dim for diminished.

In addition, however,

  • Δ is sometimes used for major,[a] instead of the standard M, or maj,
  • is sometimes used for minor, instead of the standard m or min,
  • +, or aug, is used for augmented (A is not used),
  • o, °, dim, is used for diminished (d is not used),
  • ø, or Ø is used for half diminished,
  • dom may occasionally be used for dominant.

Chord qualities are sometimes omitted (see below). When specified, they appear immediately after the root note or, if the root is omitted, at the beginning of the chord name or symbol. For instance, in the symbol Cm7 (C minor seventh chord) C is the root and m is the chord quality. When the terms minor, major, augmented, diminished, or the corresponding symbols do not appear immediately after the root note, or at the beginning of the name or symbol, they should be considered interval qualities, rather than chord qualities. For instance, in CmM7 (minor major seventh chord), m is the chord quality and M refers to the M7 interval.

Major, minor, augmented, and diminished chords[edit]

3-note chords are called triads. There are four basic triads (major, minor, augmented, diminished). They are all tertian, which means defined by the root, a third interval, and a fifth interval. Since most other chords are obtained by adding one or more notes to these triads, the name and symbol of a chord is often built by just adding an interval number to the name and symbol of a triad. For instance, a C augmented seventh chord[disambiguation needed] is a C augmented triad with an extra note defined by a minor seventh interval:

C+7 = C+ + m7
augmented
chord
augmented
triad
minor
interval

In this case, the quality of the additional interval is omitted. Less often, the full name or symbol of the additional interval (minor, in the example) is provided. For instance, a C augmented major seventh chord is a C augmented triad with an extra note defined by a major seventh interval:

C+M7 = C+ + M7
augmented
chord
augmented
triad
major
interval

In both cases, the quality of the chord is the same as the quality of the basic triad it contains. This is not true for all chord qualities, as the chord qualities "half-diminished", and "dominant" refer not only to the quality of the basic triad, but also to the quality of the additional intervals.

Altered fifths[edit]

A more complex approach is sometimes used to name and denote augmented and diminished chords. An augmented triad can be viewed as a major triad in which the perfect fifth interval (spanning 7 semitones) has been substituted with an augmented fifth (8 semitones), and a diminished triad as a minor triad in which the perfect fifth has been substituted with a diminished fifth (6 semitones). In this case, the augmented triad can be named major triad sharp five, or major triad augmented fifth (M5, M+5, majaug5). Similarly, the diminished triad can be named minor triad flat five, or minor triad diminished fifth (m5, m°5, mindim5).

Again, the terminology and notation used for triads affects the terminology and notation used for larger chords, formed by four or more notes. For instance, the above-mentioned C augmented major seventh chord, is sometimes called C major seventh sharp five, or C major seventh augmented fifth. The corresponding symbol is CM7+5, CM75, or Cmaj7aug5:

CM7+5 = C + M3 + A5 + M7
augmented
chord
chord
root
major
interval
augmented
interval
major
interval
(In chord symbols, the symbol A, used for augmented intervals, is typically replaced by + or )

In this case, the chord is viewed as a C major seventh chord (CM7) in which the third note is an augmented fifth from root (G), rather than a perfect fifth from root (G). All chord names and symbols including altered fifths, i.e., augmented (5, +5, aug5) or diminished (5, °5, dim5) fifths can be interpreted in a similar way.

Rules to decode chord names and symbols[edit]

The amount of information provided in a chord name or symbol lean toward the minimum, to increase efficiency. However, it is often necessary to deduce from a chord name or symbol the component intervals that define the chord. The missing information is implied and must be deduced according to some conventional rules:

  1. General rule to interpret existing information about chord quality
    For triads, major or minor always refer to the third interval, while augmented and diminished always refer to the fifth (an augmented fifth above the root and a diminished fifth above the root, respectively). The same is true for the corresponding symbols (e.g., Cm means Cm3, and C+ means C+5). Thus, the terms third and fifth and the corresponding symbols 3 and 5 are typically omitted. It is assumed that the chord-playing musician will play the 3rd and 5th above the root, so this is not explicitly stated.
    This rule can be generalized to all kinds of chords,[b] provided the above-mentioned qualities appear immediately after the root note, or at the beginning of the chord name or symbol. For instance, in the chord symbols Cm and Cm7, m refers to the interval m3, and 3 is omitted. When these qualities do not appear immediately after the root note, or at the beginning of the name or symbol, they should be considered interval qualities, rather than chord qualities. For instance, in Cm/M7 (minor-major seventh chord), m is the chord quality and refers to the m3 interval, while M refers to the M7 interval. When the number of an extra interval is specified immediately after chord quality, the quality of that interval may coincide with chord quality (e.g., CM7 = CMM7). However, this is not always true (e.g., Cm6 = CmM6, C+7 = C+m7, CM11 = CMP11).[b] See specific rules below for further details.
  2. General rule to deduce missing information about chord quality
    Without contrary information, a major third interval and a perfect fifth interval (major triad) are implied. For instance, a C chord is a C major triad, and the name C minor seventh (Cm7) implies a minor 3rd by rule 1, a perfect 5th by this rule, and a minor 7th by definition (see below). This rule has one exception (see the first specific rule below). The chord built on the fifth scale degree, the dominant chord, is often interpreted as a dominant seventh chord, even if the chord chart does not specifically indicate this. For example, for a song in the key of C Major, if a G chord is indicated, many chord-playing musicians will instinctively play a G7 chord. In blues, if a song indicates "C, F, and G" as the chords, many blues guitarists and blues pianists will play "C7, F7 and G7", as using dominant seventh chords in place of major chords is an idiomatic part of the blues sound.
  3. Specific rules
    When the fifth interval is diminished, the third must be minor.[c] This rule overrides rule 2. For instance, Cdim7 implies a diminished 5th by rule 1, a minor 3rd by this rule, and a diminished 7th by definition (see below).
    Names and symbols with only a plain interval number (e.g., “Seventh chord”) or the chord root and a number (e.g., “C seventh”, or C7) are interpreted as follows:
    • If the number is 2, 4, 6, etc., the chord is a major added tone chord (e.g., C6 = CM6 = Cadd6) and contains, together with the implied major triad, an extra major 2nd, perfect 4th, or major 6th (see below). Note that 2 and 4 are sometimes also used to abbreviate suspended chords (e.g., C2 = Csus2).
    • If the number is 7, 9, 11, 13, etc., the chord is dominant (e.g., C7 = Cdom7) and contains, together with the implied major triad, one or more of the following extra intervals: minor 7th, major 9th, perfect 11th, and major 13th (see Seventh chords and Extended chords below).
    • If the number is 5, the chord (technically not a chord in the traditional sense, but a dyad) is a power chord. Only the root, a perfect fifth and usually an octave are played.
    For sixth chord names or symbols composed only of root, quality and number (such as "C major sixth", or "CM6"):
    • M, maj, or major stands for major-major (e.g., CM6 means CMM6),
    • m, min, or minor stands for minor-major (e.g., Cm6 means CmM6).
    For seventh chord names or symbols composed only of root, quality and number (such as "C major seventh", or "CM7"):
    • dom, or dominant stands for major-minor (e.g., Cdom7 means CMm7),
    • M, maj, or major stands for major-major (e.g., CM7 means CMM7),
    • m, min, or minor stands for minor-minor (e.g., Cm7 means Cmm7),
    • +, aug, or augmented stands for augmented-minor (e.g., C+7 means C+m7),
    • o, dim, or diminished stands for diminished-diminished (e.g., Co7 means Coo7),
    • ø, or half-diminished stands for diminished-minor (e.g., Cø7 means Com7).
    Other specific rules for extended and added tone chords are given below.
  1. Bandleader, conductor or record producer can overrule the above interpretation rules:
  2. The bandleader and/or conductor (or for a recording session, a record producer) can overrule these rules by issuing instructions to the chord-playing musicians. For example, a bandleader can instruct the chord-playing musicians to play all chords with extensions and or alterations as simple seventh chords. Thus C 13(#11) would be played as C7 (the notes C, E, G, Bb). The bandleader or conductor may do this for reasons of her taste, artistic approach, style, or preferences or to suit the wishes of a certain audience. Alternatively, a bandleader or conductor may instruct chord-playing musicians to add extra colouration using extensions and altered dominants. Thus a jazz guitarist may play the chord C7 as C 13 (#9/#11).

Examples[edit]

The table shows the application of these generic and specific rules to interpret some of the main chord symbols. The same rules apply for the analysis of chord names. A limited amount of information is explicitly provided in the chord symbol (boldface font in the column labeled "Component intervals"), and can be interpreted with rule 1. The rest is implied (plain font), and can be deduced by applying the other rules. The "Analysis of symbol parts" is performed by applying rule 1.

Chord Symbol Analysis of symbol parts Component intervals Notes Chord name
Short Long Root Third Fifth Added Third Fifth Added
C C maj3 perf5 C–E–G Major triad
CM [d] Cmaj [d] C maj maj3 perf5 C–E-G
Cm Cmin C min min3 perf5 C–E–G Minor triad
C+ Caug C aug maj3 aug5 C–E–G Augmented triad
Co Cdim C dim min3 dim5 C–E–G Diminished triad
C6 C 6 maj3 perf5 maj6 C–E–G–A Major sixth chord
CM6 [d] Cmaj6 [d] C maj 6 maj3 perf5 maj6
Cm6 Cmin6 C min 6 min3 perf5 maj6 C–E–G–A Minor sixth chord
C7 Cdom7 C 7 maj3 perf5 min7 C–E–G–B Dominant seventh chord
CM7 Cmaj7 C maj 7 maj3 perf5 maj7 C–E–G–B Major seventh chord
Cm7 Cmin7 C min 7 min3 perf5 min7 C–E–G–B Minor seventh chord
C+7 Caug7 C aug 7 maj3 aug5 min7 C–E–G–B Augmented seventh chord[disambiguation needed]
Co7 Cdim7 C dim 7 min3 dim5 dim7 C–E–G–Bdouble flat Diminished seventh chord
Cø C dim min3 dim5 min7 C–E–G–B Half-diminished seventh chord
Cø7 C dim 7 min3 dim5 min7
CmM7
Cm/M7
Cm(M7)
Cminmaj7
Cmin/maj7
Cmin(maj7)
C min maj7 min3 perf5 maj7 C–E–G–B Minor-major seventh chord

For each symbol, several formatting options are available. Except for the root, all the other parts of the symbols may be either superscripted or subscripted. Sometimes, parts of the symbol may be separated by a slash, or written within parentheses. For instance:

  • CM7 may be written CM7, CM7, CM7, or CM7.
  • CmM7 may be written as CmM7, Cm/M7, Cm(M7), or simply CmM7.

Short and long symbols for chord quality (such as m for minor and maj for major, respectively) are sometimes both used in the same chord symbol. For instance:

  • CmM7 may be also written Cmmaj7.

Intervals[edit]

A chord consists of two or more notes played simultaneously that are certain intervals apart with respect to the chord root. The following table shows the labels given to these intervals and the respective notes for each of the twelve keys. As explained above, chord notation provides a shorthand for intervals, not actual notes. This table provides a mapping of intervals to actual notes to play.

Chord root Unison Minor second Major second Minor third Major third Perfect fourth Tritone Perfect fifth Minor sixth Major sixth Minor seventh Major seventh
C C D D E E F F / G G A A B B
C C D D E E F Fdouble sharp / G G A A B B
D D Edouble flat E F F G G / Adouble flat A Bdouble flat B C C
D D E E F F G G / A A B B C C
D D E E F Fdouble sharp G Gdouble sharp / A A B B C Cdouble sharp
E E F F G G A A / Bdouble flat B C C D D
E E F F G G A A / B B C C D D
F F G G A A B B / C C D D E E
F F G G A A B B / C C D D E E
G G Adouble flat A Bdouble flat B C C / Ddouble flat D Edouble flat E F F
G G A A B B C C / D D E E F F
G G A A B B C Cdouble sharp / D D E E F Fdouble sharp
A A Bdouble flat B C C D D / Edouble flat E F F G G
A A B B C C D D / E E F F G G
A A B B C Cdouble sharp D Ddouble sharp / E E F Fdouble sharp G Gdouble sharp
B B C C D D E E / F F G G A A
B B C C D D E E / F F G G A A

Triads[edit]

As earlier suggested, the root written alone indicates a simple major triad. It consists of the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth above the root. Minor triads are the same as major triads, but with the third lowered by a half step. Augmented triads are the same as a major triad, but with an augmented fifth instead of a perfect fifth. Diminished triads are similar to minor triads, but with a diminished fifth instead of a perfect fifth (the minor third is retained).

The table below shows names, symbols and definition for the four kinds of triads (using C as root).

Name Symbols Definitions
Short Long Altered
fifth
Component intervals Integers Notes
Third Fifth
Major triad C
CM [d]
CΔ [a]
Cmaj [d] major perfect {0, 4, 7} C–E-G
Minor triad Cm
C−
Cmin minor perfect {0, 3, 7} C–E–G
Augmented triad
(major triad sharp five)
C+ Caug CM5
CM+5
major augmented {0, 4, 8} C–E–G
Diminished triad
(minor triad flat five)
Cdim Cm5
Cm°5
minor diminished {0, 3, 6} C–E–G

Seventh chords[edit]

A seventh chord is a triad with an added note, which is either a major seventh above the root, a minor seventh above the root (flatted 7th), or a diminished seventh above the root (double flatted 7th). Note that the diminished seventh note is enharmonically equivalent to the major sixth above the root of the chord. When not otherwise specified, the name "seventh chord" may more specifically refer to a major triad with an added minor seventh (a dominant seventh chord).

The table below shows names, symbols, and definitions for the various kinds of seventh chords (using C as root).

Name Symbols Definitions
Short Long Altered
fifth
Component intervals Integers Notes
Third Fifth Seventh
Seventh
(dominant seventh)
C7 Cdom7 major perfect minor {0, 4, 7, 10} C–E–G–B
Major seventh CM7 CMa7
C j7
CΔ7
CΔ [a]
Cmaj7 major perfect major {0, 4, 7, 11} C–E–G–B
Minor-major seventh CmM7 Cm7
C−M7
C−Δ7
C−Δ
Cminmaj7 minor perfect major {0, 3, 7, 11} C–E–G–B
Minor seventh Cm7
C-7
Cmin7 minor perfect minor {0, 3, 7, 10} C–E–G–B
Augmented-major seventh
(major seventh sharp five)
C+M7
C+Δ
Caugmaj7 CM75 / CM7+5
CΔ5 / CΔ+5
major augmented major {0, 4, 8, 11} C–E–G–B
Augmented seventh[disambiguation needed]
(dominant seventh sharp five)
C+7 Caug7 C75 / C7+5 major augmented minor {0, 4, 8, 10} C–E–G–B
Half-diminished seventh
(minor seventh flat five)
CØ / CØ7
Cø / Cø7
Cmin7dim5 Cm75 / Cm7°5
C−75 / C−7°5
minor diminished minor {0, 3, 6, 10} C–E–G–B
Diminished seventh Co7
7
Cdim7 minor diminished diminished {0, 3, 6, 9} C–E–G–Bdouble flat
Seventh flat five
(dominant seventh flat five)
C75 Cdom7dim5 major diminished minor {0, 4, 6, 10} C–E–G–B

For each symbol, several formatting options are available. See Examples above for further details.

Some 7th chords can be considered as triad chords with alternate bass. For instance,

  • Cm7 = C–E–G–B = E/C
  • Cmaj7 = C–E–G–B = Em/C

Extended chords[edit]

Extended chords add further notes onto 7th chords. Of the 7 notes in the major scale, a seventh chord uses only four (root, a third above the root, a fifth above the root and a seventh above the root). The other three notes (the second above the root, the fourth above the root and the sixth above the root) can be added in any combination; however, just as with the triads and seventh chords, notes are most commonly stacked – a seventh implies that there is a fifth and a third and a root. In practice, especially in jazz, certain notes can be omitted without changing the quality of the chord. In a jazz ensemble with a bass player, the chord-playing instrumentalists (guitar, organ, piano, etc.) can omit the root, as the bass player will typically incorporate this into her bassline.

The 9th, 11th and 13th chords are known as extended tertian chords. As the scale repeats for every seven notes in the scale, these notes are enharmonically equivalent to the 2nd, 4th, and 6th – except they are more than an octave above the root. However, this does not mean that they must be played in the higher octave. Although changing the octave of certain notes in a chord (within reason) does change the way the chord sounds, it does not change the essential characteristics or tendency of it. Accordingly, using 9th, 11th and 13th in chord notation implies that the chord is an extended tertian chord rather than an added chord (see Added Chords below).

9ths[edit]

9th chords are built by adding a 9th from the root to a seventh chord. A 9th chord includes the 7th. Without the 7th, the chord is not an extended chord, but becomes an added tone chord—in this case, an add 9. 9ths can be added to any chord, but are most commonly seen with major, dominant, and minor sevenths. The most commonly omitted note for a voicing is the perfect 5th.

The table below shows names, symbols, and definitions for the various kinds of ninth chords (using C as root)

Name Symbol Quality of
added 9th
Notes
Short Long
(Major) 9th CM9 / CΔ9 Cmaj9 Major C–E–G–B–D
Dominant 9th C9 Cdom9 Major C–E–G–B–D
Minor major 9th CmM9 / C−M9 Cminmaj9 Major C–E–G–B–D
Minor dominant 9th Cm9 / C−9 Cmin9 Major C–E–G–B–D
Augmented major 9th C+M9 Caugmaj9 Major C–E–G–B–D
Augmented dominant 9th C+9 / C95 Caug9 Major C–E–G–B–D
Half-diminished 9th Cø9 Major C–E–G–B–D
Half-diminished minor 9th Cø9 Minor C–E–G–B–D
Diminished 9th 9 Cdim9 Major C–E–G–Bdouble flat–D
Diminished minor 9th 9 Cdim9 Minor C–E–G–Bdouble flat–D

11ths[edit]

These are theoretically 9th chords with the 11th (4th) note in the scale added. However, it is common to leave certain notes out. The major 3rd is often omitted because of a strong dissonance with the 11th (4th), therefore called an avoid note. Omission of the 3rd reduces an 11th chord to the corresponding 9sus4 (suspended 9th chord; Aiken 2004, p. 104). Similarly, omission of the 3rd as well as 5th in C11 results in a major chord with alternate base B/C, which is characteristic in soul and gospel music. For instance:

  • C11 without 3rd = C–(E)–G–B–D–F ≈ C–F–G–B–D = C9sus4
  • C11 without 3rd and 5th = C–(E)–(G)-B–D–F ≈ C–F–B–D = B/C

If the 9th is omitted, the chord is no longer an extended chord, but an added tone chord (see below). Without the 3rd, this added tone chord becomes a 7sus4 (suspended 7th chord). For instance:

  • C11 without 9th = C7add11 = C–E–G–B–(D)–F
  • C7add11 without 3rd = C–(E)–G–B–(D)-F ≈ C–F–G–B = C7sus4

The table below shows names, symbols, and definitions for the various kinds of eleventh chords (using C as root)

Name Symbol Quality of
added 11th
Notes
Short Long
11th
(dominant 11th)
C11 Cdom11 Perfect C–E–G–B–D–F
Major 11th CM11 Cmaj11 Perfect C–E–G–B–D–F
Minor major 11th CmM11 / C−M11 Cminmaj11 Perfect C–E–G–B–D–F
Minor 11th Cm11 / C−11 Cmin11 Perfect C–E–G–B–D–F
Augmented major 11th C+M11 Caugmaj11 Perfect C–E–G–B–D–F
Augmented 11th C+11 / C115 Caug11 Perfect C–E–G–B–D–F
Half-diminished 11th CØ11 Perfect C–E–G–B–D–F
Diminished 11th 11 Cdim11 Diminished C–E–G–Bdouble flat–D–F

Alterations from the natural diatonic chords can be specified as C911 ... etc. Omission of the 5th in a sharpened 11th chord reduces its sound to a flat-fifth chord. (Aiken 2004, p. 94):

C911 = C–E–(G)–B–D–F ≈ C–E–G–B–D = C95

13ths[edit]

These are theoretically 11th chords with the 13th (or 6th) note in the scale added. In other words, theoretically they are formed by all the seven notes of a diatonic scale at once. Again, it is common to leave certain notes out. After the 5th, the most commonly omitted note is the troublesome 11th (4th). The 9th (2nd) can also be omitted. A very common voicing on guitar for a 13th chord is just the root, 3rd, 7th and 13th (or 6th). For example: C–E–(G)-B–(D)–(F)-A, or C–E–(G)–A–B–(D)–(F). On the piano, this is usually voiced C–B–E–A.

The table below shows names, symbols, and definitions for some thirteenth chords (using C as root)

Name Symbol Quality of
added 13th
Notes
Short Long
Major 13th CM13 / CΔ13 Cmaj13 Major C–E–G–B–D–F–A
Dominant 13th C13 Cdom13 Major C–E–G–B–D–F–A
Minor major 13th CmM13 / C−M13 Cminmaj13 Major C–E–G–B–D–F–A
Minor dominant 13th Cm13 / C−13 Cmin13 Major C–E–G–B–D–F–A
Augmented major 13th C+M13 Caugmaj13 Major C–E–G–B–D–F–A
Augmented dominant 13th C+13 / C135 Caug13 Major C–E–G–B–D–F–A
Half-diminished 13th CØ13 Major C–E–G–B–D–F–A

Alterations from the natural diatonic chords can be specified as C1113 ... etc.

Added tone chords[edit]

An important characteristic of jazz and blues is the extensive use of Seventh chords. In jazz, any chord indicated in a chord chart or fakebook may be interpreted with an added seventh, according to the discretion and musical instincts of the chord-playing musicians. For example, for a jazz song in the key of C, if the opening chord indicates "C" or "C Major", a jazz guitarist accompanying the singer may add the major seventh. For jazz-style blues progressions, any major chords may be played as dominant seventh chords. For example, if a jazz musician sees the turnaround I VI/ii V written as C A/d min G in a fakebook, she will typically interpret this as C7 A7/d min7 G7. This typical interpretation means that if a composer wishes a jazz comping musician to play a simple triad (for artistic reasons or effect), this usually must be explicit in the lead sheet or part. For example, if a song in the key of C has a chord labelled "G", if the composer wishes that a simple triad be played (the notes G, B, and D), she may write G (triad only) or G (no 7).

The combination of 9th (2nd), 11th (4th) and 13th (6th) notes with 7ths in a chord give jazz chord voicings their distinctive sound. However the use of these notes is not exclusive to the jazz genre; in fact they are very commonly used in folk, classical and popular music generally. Without the 7th, these chords lose their jazzy feel, but can still be very complex. These chords are called added tone chords because they are basic triads with notes added. They can be described as having a more open sound than extended chords.

In blues, when chords are written without additional notation requesting sevenths, the chords are often played as dominant seventh chords. For example, in the progression C/F/C/C/F/F/C/C/G/F/C/G, a simple version of the 12 bar blues, chord-playing musicians will often play all of these chords as dominant seventh chords (e.g., using the chords C7, F7 and G7).

Notation must provide some way of showing that a chord is an added tone chord as opposed to extended. There are two ways this is shown generally, and it is very common to see both methods on the same score. One way is to simply use the word 'add', for example:

  • Cadd9

The second way is to use 2 instead of 9, implying that it is not a 7th chord for instance:

  • C2

Note that in this way we potentially get other ways of showing a 9th chord:

  • C7add9
  • C7add2
  • C7/9

Generally however the above is shown as simply C9, which implies a 7th in the chord. Added tone chord notation is useful with 7th chords to indicate partial extended chords. For example:

  • C7add13

This would indicate that the 13th is added to the 7th, but without the 9th and 11th.

The use of 2, 4 and 6 as opposed to 9, 11 and 13 indicates that the chord does not include a 7th unless specifically specified. However, it does not mean that these notes must be played within an octave of the root, nor the extended notes in 7th chords should be played outside of the octave, although it is commonly the case. 6 is particularly common in a minor sixth chord (also known as minor/major sixth chord, as the 6 refers to a major sixth interval).

It is possible to have added tone chords with more than one added note. The most commonly encountered of these are 6/9 chords, which are basic triads with the 6th and 2nd notes of the scale added. These can be confusing because of the use of 9, yet the chord does not include the 7th. A good rule of thumb is that if any added note is less than 7, then no 7th is implied, even if there are some notes shown as greater than 7.

Similarly, even numbers such as 8, 10 and 12 can be added. However, these double the main triad, and as such are fairly rare. 10 tends to be the most common; it can be used both in suspended chords and (with an accidental) in major or minor chords to produce a major–minor clash (e.g., C710 indicating the Hendrix chord of C–E–G–B–E). However, because of enharmonics, such chords can more easily, and perhaps more intuitively, be represented by 2 (or 9) for a minor over a major or 4 for a major over a minor. In any other case, an 8, 10 or 12 simply indicates the respective note from the triad doubled up one octave.

Suspended chords[edit]

A suspended chord is a triad where the 3rd is replaced by another note. In practice the 3rd is replaced either by the 4th or the 2nd. These chords "desire" to resolve into a normal triad. Suspended chords are notated with the symbols "sus4" or "sus2". Where "sus" is found on its own, the suspended fourth chord is implied. The resolution to a regular triad may not be indicated in the chord notation, but the chord-playing instrumentalists may do the resolution even if it is not notated.

The resolution is especially appropriate if the written melody resolves from a fourth to a third above the root (e.g., if the chord G sus 4, in the key of C Major, lasts a bar in 4/4, and the melody note resolves from the note "C" for two beats and then the note "B" for two beats, this 4-3 resolution in the melody will often be mirrored by chord-playing musicians shifting from G sus 4 to G Major. If the intent of the composer/songwriter is to leave the tension unresolved in the backing band, she may write "N.C" (no chord) after the G sus 4 chord is sounded for the first two beats. This instructs the chord-playing musicians not to play any chord.

The "sus" indication can be combined with any other notation. So for example:

  • C9sus4

This chord is an extended 9th chord with the 3rd replaced by the 4th (C-F–G–B–D). However, the major third can be added as a tension above the 4th to "colorize" the chord (C-F–G–B–D–E). A sus4 chord with the added major third (sometimes called a major 10th) can also be quartally voiced as C–F–B–E.

Sus chords are used extensively in jazz, where entire song sections may be based on sus chords. Sus chords of short duration (half a bar) are common in rock, pop and folk.

Power "chords"[edit]

Though power chords are not true chords per se, as the term "chord" is generally defined as three or more different notes (pitch classes) sounded simultaneously, and a power chord contains only two pitch classes (the root, the fifth, and often a doubling of the root at the octave), power chords are still expressed using a version of chord notation. Most commonly, power chords (e.g., C–G–C) are expressed using a "5" (e.g., C5). Power chords are also referred to as fifth chords, indeterminate chords or neutral chords (though the term "neutral chord," when expressed with an n (e.g., Cn), is also used to describe a pair of stacked neutral thirds, e.g., C–Ehalf flat–G, which requires a quarter tone or similarly sized microtone; or the mixed third chord), since they are inherently neither major nor minor; generally, a power chord refers to a specific doubled-root, three-note voicing of a fifth chord.

Power chords played on a heavily distorted and loudly amplified electric guitar are a foundational part of the sound and impact of heavy metal music and hardcore punk. Power chords are also used, though less commonly, on other instruments, such as Hammond organ in a traditional heavy metal genre (e.g., Deep Purple) or electric bass in heavy metal or grunge. In hard rock and heavy metal, in some cases where there are rapid chord changes in a lead sheet, these will be interpreted as power chords, even if they are not notated in "C5"-style notation. For example, in the following chord progression, "C ///|F///|G///|C B B A", if a fast tempo was played, many hard rock or heavy metal guitarists would play the "C B Bb A" measure as power chords. In other cases, a rock guitarist may decide to interpret a several bar reiteration of what appears notated on the lead sheet as a major or minor chord (e.g., C Maj or C min) as C5, for the raw, stark effect that a power chord provides.

To represent an extended neutral chord, e.g., a seventh (C–G–B), the chord is expressed as its corresponding extended chord notation with the addition of the words "no3rd," "no3" or the like. The aforementioned chord, for instance, would be indicated C7no3.

Chords containing quarter tones[edit]

While not a common practice, the methods for naming chord names and symbols can be adapted to naming chords that contain quarter tones.

Neutral chords[edit]

Neutral chords are chords built entirely by stacking neutral thirds (the interval between a major and minor third). While the neutral triad can sound like major or minor depending on context, it can also be thought of as a chord quality in its own right. An example of the neutral triad would be C–Ehalf flat–G where the Ehalf flat exists halfway between E and E. The neutral triad is quite rare and is more commonly seen as the neutral seventh chord such as C–Ehalf flat–G–Bhalf flat. These chords are composed of two fifths being a neutral third apart. The chord symbol can be written with a lowercase "n" or "neut" following the root such as Cn7. Neutral chords can also be extended to higher degrees such as ninths and elevenths. While there is no universally accepted series of notes for larger neutral chords, it makes sense to consider that higher extensions to the chord would be built in the same manner that the seventh chord is, by a series of neutral thirds.

Supermajor and subminor[edit]

Supermajor chords are major triads that have the third raised a quarter tone higher than normal. Such a triad is arguably either an altered version of a suspended chord or a unique triad in its own right. Subminor chords are minor triads that have the third lowered by a quarter tone. An example of a supermajor triad would be C–Ehalf sharp–G, in which Ehalf sharp exists halfway between E and F. An example of a subminor triad would be C–Ethree quarter flat–G in which Ethree quarter flat exists halfway between D and E. Supermajor triads can be written with "sup" or a capital "S" following the root while subminor can be written with "sub", "s" or (by extrapolating and adapting metric prefixes) the micro symbol (µ, not to be confused with the Mu major chord). The previous examples would therefore be Csup/CS, and Csub/Cs/Cµ. Because triads such as these rarely appear in musical context, they are considered theoretical.

In addition, sevenths can be theoretically created as well based on keeping the relationship of a chord having two perfect fifths the same. While a C major seventh chord would have a major third and major seventh, Csup7 would contain a supermajor third (Ehalf sharp) and a supermajor seventh (Bhalf sharp). Csub7 would contain a subminor third (Ethree quarter flat) and a subminor seventh (Bthree quarter flat). Arguably, higher extensions could be used as well, producing chord names such as Csup11 or Csub139.

Half-diminished chords without seventh[edit]

By extension, standard chord notation allows for the expression of a chord built upon an interval of a minor third and a neutral third; i.e. C–E–Ghalf flat. Whereas a half-diminished seventh chord is achieved by diminishing only one of the two intervals needed to transform a minor seventh chord into a diminished seventh chord, a half-diminished chord without a seventh is thus achieved by only diminishing the fifth note halfway between a minor chord and a diminished chord. It would thus be noted as Cø, or more explicitly Cøno7 to avoid confusion with a half-diminished seventh chord.

Inversions[edit]

In addition to all of the ways of building chords (listed above), a chord may be inverted. Inverting a chord refers to playing a chord, but with a note other than the root as the lowest note of the chord. Take, for example, the C major and the C dominant seventh chords. Refer to the tables below for a list of inversions.

C major chord
Root position First inversion Second inversion
Notes C–E–G E–G–C (or E-C-G) G–C–E (or G-E-C)
Short notation C C/E bass C/G bass
C dominant seventh chord
Root position Third inversion
Notes C–E–G–B B–C–E–G (or B–E–G-C or other order with B as the lowest pitch)
Short notation C7 C7/B

The notation C/E bass indicates a C major chord, but with an E in the bass. Likewise the notation C/G bass indicates that a C major chord is played with a G in the bass. In a jazz quartet with a bass player, the bass player will play the indicated bass note.

See figured bass for alternate method of notating specific notes in the bass.

Hybrid chords[edit]

Upper structures[edit]

Those are notated in a similar manner to inversions, except that the bass note is not necessarily a chord tone. Examples:

  • C/A bass (A–C–E–G), equivalent to AM75;
  • C/E bass (E–G–C–E);
  • Am/D bass (D–A–C–E).

Chord notation in jazz usually leaves a certain amount of freedom to the player as for voicing chords, also adding tensions (e.g., 9th, 11th, 13th, etc.) at the player's discretion. Therefore, upper structures are most useful when the composer wants musicians to play a specific tension array. Example:

If a composer was starting with the following, simpler chord progression:

4
4
E7 | Am7 A7 | Em7 A7 | D G7 | C ||

and she wished to add "colour" to, chord substitution and reharmonization could be done using slash chords. By using tritone substitution and tonic substitute chords (e.g., substituting iii or VI of a tonic chord), the following chord progression could be created:

4
4
C/E bass | C/A bass E/A bass | D/E bass GM75/A bass | Eadd2/D bass D79/G bass| Am7/C bass ||

These are also commonly referred as "slash chords". A slash chord is simply a chord placed on top of a different bass note; for example:

  • D/F bass is a D chord with F in the bass;
  • A/C bass is an A chord with C in the bass.

Slash chords generally do not indicate a simple inversion (which is usually left to the chord player's discretion anyway), especially considering that the specified bass note may not be part of the chord to play on top. The bass note may be played instead of or in addition to the chord's usual root note, though the root note, when played, is likely to be played only in a higher octave to avoid "colliding" with the new bass note.

Polychords[edit]

Polychords, as the name suggests, are combinations of two or more chords. The most commonly found form of a polychord is a bichord (two chords played simultaneously) and is written as follows: upper chord/lower chord, for example: B/C (C–E–G—B–D–F). In case a very specific voicing is needed, the individual chords can be written in their desired inversions, for example: Em/G/Cdrop2 (C–G–E—G–B–E).[citation needed]

Other symbols[edit]

The right slash / or diagonal line written above the staff where chord symbols occur is used to indicate a beat during which the most recent chord symbol is understood to continue. It is used to help make uneven harmonic rhythms more readable. For example, if written above a measure of standard time, "C / F G" would mean that the C chord symbol lasts two beats while F and G last one beat each. The slash is separated from the surrounding chord symbols so as not to be confused with the chord-over-a-bass-note notation that also uses a slash. Another example is "C///|F///|G///||A G F G"; in this example, the C Major chord is played for one measure, the F Major chord for one measure, the G Major chord for one measure, and then in the last bar, there is one chord per beat "A G F G". Some fake books extend this slash rhythm notation further by indicating chords that are held as a whole note with a diamond, and indicating unison rhythm section rhythmic figures with the appropriate note heads and stems.

For chord abbreviations, the right slash indicates the bass note if other than the root. It is usually written with the complete chord name, and, after the slash symbol, the desired bass note. For example, the symbol C/G would mean that the chord to play is a C major triad with a G as the bass note, leading to the following notes: G–C–E (commonly known as the 2nd inversion C major triad). Some arrangers use C/G bass, adding the word bass to make the intention clear. With just C/G, a musician might misinterpret this as a polychord (two chords played simultaneously). In this example, if C/G was intended to be read as a polychord, a pianist would play a C Major chord (the notes C, E and G) and a G Major chord (the notes G, B and D) simultaneously.

A right slash surrounded by two dots reminiscent of a percent sign % [illustration needed] in an otherwise empty measure tells the musician to repeat the chord or chords of the previous measure. It can be reused over many consecutive measures. It simplifies the job of both the music reader (who can quickly scan ahead to the next chord change) and the copyist (who doesn't need to repeat every chord symbol).

The chord notation N.C. indicates the musician should play no chord. The duration of this symbol follows the same rules as a regular chord symbol. This is used by composers and songwriters to indicate that the chord playing musicians (guitar, keyboard, etc.) and the bass player should stop accompanying for the length covered by the "No Chord" symbol. Often the "No Chord" symbol is used to enable a solo singer or solo instrumentalist to play a pickup to a new section or an interlude without accompaniment.

The stopping of the accompaniment creates a contrast for the listener. It can also enable the songwriter to do a modulation to a new key during the "No Chord" period, as the lack of chords and bassline can free the composer to shift to a different key. If the composer did not write "No Chord", the chord-playing instrumentalists and the bassist might think that the last indicated chord should be continued, as one of the conventions of lead sheet writing is that if the same chord (often the tonic or "I" chord) is repeated for a number of measures, the arranger does not have to keep writing "C Major" in every bar.

An even more stringent indication for the band to tacet (stop playing) is the marking "solo break". In jazz and popular music, this indicates that the entire band, including the drummer and percussionist, should stop playing to allow a solo instrumentalist to play a short cadenza, often one or two bars long. This rhythm section tacet creates a change of texture and gives the soloist great rhythmic freedom, enabling her to speed up, slow down, or play with a varied tempo.

Summary[edit]

Since the rules to decode chord notation are complex, a short article would not be sufficient to describe them clearly and exhaustively. As a consequence, this article is relatively long and not easy to decipher at a glance. This section is included as a brief summary of one of the notations described, aimed more at the performer's perspective, rather than that of the composer or theorist.

As shown above, the symbol CmM13 indicates a chord whose root is C, with each of the odd-numbered intervals, up to the one indicated (13th in this case) placed above it. Namely, the chord is defined by the following odd-numbered intervals:

Notice that all the intervals are major or perfect, except for the third, which is minor, as specified by m in the symbol. By comparing other chord symbols to CmM13, with the following set of rules it is possible to decode several other chord symbols:

  • When the interval name (M13) is omitted, it is understood as a 5th, which implies that the chord is a triad.
  • When the interval quality (M) is omitted, it flattens the 7th (if present) (from major to minor)
  • When the chord quality (m) is omitted, the 3rd is assumed to be major
  • When the chord quality is m (as in the example above), the 3rd is flattened (from major to minor)
  • When the chord quality is aug, the 5th is sharpened (from perfect to augmented)
  • When the chord quality is dim, each of the intervals is flattened
  • When the chord quality is sus or sus4, the 3rd is sharpened (from major to augmented, equivalent to a perfect 4th)
  • When the chord quality is sus2 the 3rd is double-flattened (from major to diminished, equivalent to a major 2nd)

For instance, Cdim9 indicates a chord whose root is C, with a flattened 3rd, a flattened 5th, a double-flattened 7th (flattened once by the presence of dim, and flattened again by the omission of the M) and a flattened 9th.

When a small even number is used as the main interval: 2 is equivalent to 9, 4 is equivalent to 11, and 6 is equivalent to 13; but with the omission of the 7th, possibly implied in each case; and when the number is explicitly stated as a 5, it implies the omission of the 3rd.

In the vast majority of cases, though, none of this complexity is involved. A typical piece of music might stipulate chords like C, F, Am, and G7, giving (according to the summary above) two major triads, a minor triad, and an extended chord of four notes.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c The symbol Δ is ambiguous, as it is used by some as a synonym for M (e.g., CΔ = CM and CΔ7 = CM7), and by others as a synonym of M7 (e.g., CΔ = CM7).
  2. ^ a b General rule 1 achieves consistency in the interpretation of symbols such as CM7, Cm6, and C+7. Some musicians legitimately prefer to think that, in CM7, M refers to the seventh, rather than to the third. This alternative approach is legitimate, as both the third and seventh are major, yet it is inconsistent, as a similar interpretation is impossible for Cm6 and C+7 (in Cm6, m cannot possibly refer to the sixth, which is major by definition, and in C+7, + cannot refer to the seventh, which is minor). Both approaches reveal only one of the intervals (M3 or M7), and require other rules to complete the task. Whatever is the decoding method, the result is the same (e.g., CM7 is always conventionally decoded as C–E–G–B, implying M3, P5, M7). The advantage of rule 1 is that it has no exceptions, which makes it the simplest possible approach to decode chord quality.
    According to the two approaches, some may format the minor seventh as CM7 (general rule 1: M refers to M3), and others as CM7 (alternative approach: M refers to M7). Fortunately, even CM7 becomes compatible with rule 1 if it is considered an abbreviation of CMM7, in which the first M is omitted. The omitted M is the quality of the third, and is deduced according to rule 2 (see above), consistently with the interpretation of the plain symbol C, which by the same rule stands for CM and also in other variants.
  3. ^ All triads are tertian chords (chords defined by sequences of thirds), and a major third would produce in this case a non-tertian chord. Namely, the diminished fifth spans 6 semitones from root, thus it may be decomposed into a sequence of two minor thirds, each spanning 3 semitones (m3 + m3), compatible with the definition of tertian chord. If a major third were used (4 semitones), this would entail a sequence containing a major second (M3 + M2 = 4 + 2 semitones = 6 semitones), which would not meet the definition of tertian chord.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Rarely used symbol. A shorter symbol exists, and is used more frequently.

Sources[edit]

  1. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p. 78. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  2. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p. 77. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  3. ^ Schoenberg, Arnold (1983). Structural Functions of Harmony, p.1–2. Faber and Faber. 0393004783

Further reading[edit]

  • Aikin, Jim (2004). Chords & Harmony. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-798-6
  • Carl Brandt and Clinton Roemer (1976). Standardized Chord Symbol Notation. Roevick Music Co. ISBN 978-0961268428. Cited in Benward & Saker (2003), p. 76.