Chord Symbols Simplified
Learning how to read and write chord symbols can be confusing, overly complicated, and frustrating. But here’s a bit of truth – It doesn’t need to be any of those things.
At its core it is pretty simple. It can get complicated if you try to cover every corner case that might come up. So what I”m going to do here is give you the basics, the 20% you will use 80% of the time. This is a variant of the Pareto principle.
I plan to write another article that covers chord theory in depth but for this article I assume that you understand the basics of how chords are constructed. Example : That you understand the difference between a dominant 7 chord and a major 7th chord.
Look for the FREE gift at the end of this blog.
So let’s get started!
Notes (or pitches) are named from A – G and then the sequence repeats. So a C major scale goes:
C D E F G A B C
Notes that are an “octave” apart use the same note name. They are called octaves because there are 8 diatonic steps between them. From the Latin “octava” meaning eighth day.
Note Names are followed by “modifiers”. A modifier modifies or adds to the definition of the chord. There are many modifiers but we will only look at the ones that are used frequently in popular music. The Jazz idiom makes use of a much more complicated set of modifiers (example: C#m7b5b9 – no need to go there) but these chords are rarely used in popular music idioms such as folk, rock, pop, etc ….
Sharps and Flats
A Note Name can be modified raising or lowering by a minor second/half step by adding the following modifier after the Note Name:
# = raise a half step
b = lowe a half step
Examples: D# , Db
Major and Minor
Note Names are followed by the Major/Minor modifier. If there is no modifier listed the assumption is Major. If the Note Name is followed by the small letter “m” then the chord is interpreted as a minor chord. A second form is to use a “dash” as the modifier for minor.
Example: F = F major chord, Fm = F minor chord, F- = F minor chord (this works better in written form as the dash really needs to be like a superscript raised up a bit)
7th chords can be a little confusing because there is an assumption that you have to have a clear understanding of or it can be frustrating. The number “7” after a Note Name infers a Dominant 7 or flat 7 as opposed to a Major 7. To designate a major 7 chord you add an additional modifier between the Note Name and the number “7”..
Example: F7 = F dominant 7, FM7 or FMaj7 = F major 7
Minor 7th Chords use the small “m” indicating that the chord is minor and the number “7” indicating that the 7th has been added to the chord.
Example: Fm7 = F minor 7
The modifier of the number “9” indicates the addition of the 9th degree of the scale. It also has an assumption associated with it. It can cause some confusion. The chord “F9” infers that the dominant 7th is also added to the chord.
Example: F9 = F7 plus the 9th degree of the scale.
A chord with the major 7th and the additional chord tone of the 9 is notated:
Minor chords with the 9 added are notated also infer that the 7 is in the chord as well.
The concept of a suspended chord or “sus” chord implies that the 3rd of the chord is “replaced” by the 2nd or the 4th degree of the scale. That means that the chord does NOT contain the 3rd of the chord. The sus is indicated by “sus” in parentheses.
Example: F(sus2) or F(sus4) or F7(sus2) or F7(sus4)
Add 9 or Add 11 Chords
The concept of an “Add” Chord is that the scale degree indicated is added to the chord triad. Note that the 9 is the same note as the 2 and the 11 is the same note as the 4)
Example: F(add 9) , F(add 11)
There is an important difference between these chords and the F(sus2) and F(sus4). The easy way to remember this is “sus” chords don’t have the 3rd in them. The 3rd is substituted by the added note. And “add” chords do have the 3rd as well as the added note.
There are several other corner cases but this will get you 80% there with 20% of the information. Following are some examples of chord progressions.
Cmaj7 Dm Em7 Am7
Fmaj7 Dm G(sus4) G7
Cmaj7 Em7 E7 F G9
C Em(add 11) Am7
Fmaj7 Fm7 Cmaj 7
I hope you find this useful and it will serve as a good solid start to understanding chord symbols and their use in charting songs for your studio sessions. My next couple of articles will cover chord theory explaining how chords are constructed (what notes make up a given chord and why), and several different systems of charting (chord symbols over lyrics, chord symbols over slashes, the Nashville System, etc….)
As always let’s go out there and make some music!!!!
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