Understanding Chord Symbols

Chord SymbolsEver been baffled by a complex chord symbol? D♯m11♭5 got you scratching your head? Fear not; your problems are about to be history! In this article, you’ll learn how to interpret just about every chord symbol you’ll ever encounter.

There are two prerequisites to this knowledge: familiarity with intervals and scale degrees. No need to master either one. If you can play, for example, a major third or a perfect fifth in several different places on your instrument, you’re good to go.

The Root Note

The first element of every chord name is the root note. That’s always the first thing you see. The root may contain a sharp (♯) or flat (♭). If you see D♭7, it’s a 7 chord with a D♭ root. It is not a ♭7 chord with a D root.

Stacking Thirds

Chord naming relies on the concept of stacking thirds. That means adding notes from the root on up, using only major third (4 half steps) and minor third (3 half steps) intervals. For example, if your root is B, and you want to stack a bunch of minor thirds on top, you get B D F A♭, like so:

  • start at the root, B
  • up a minor third to D
  • up a minor third to F
  • up a minor third to A♭

By the end of this article, you should be able to come back and name that chord.

Triads

A triad is a three-note chord created by stacking two thirds on the root. There are only four ways you can do it.

For the rest of this article, major third = M3 and minor third = m3.

Thirds Scale
Degrees
Notes Chord
Symbols
Pronunciation
M3 M3 1 3 ♯5 C E G♯ C+
Caug
“C augmented”
M3 m3 1 3 5 C E G C “C”
“C major”
m3 M3 1 ♭3 5 C E♭ G Cm
C-
“C minor”
m3 m3 1 ♭3 ♭5 C E♭ G♭ Co
Cdim
“C diminished”

Seventh Chords

Stack three thirds on top of the root, and you get a seventh chord. There are seven ways to do it.

Thirds Scale
Degrees
Notes Chord
Symbols
Pronunciation
M3 M3 m3 1 3 ♯5 7 C E G♯ B Cmaj7♯5
CΔ♯5
“C major seven sharp five”
M3 m3 M3 1 3 5 7 C E G B Cmaj7
“C major seven”
M3 m3 m3 1 3 5 ♭7 C E G B♭ C7 “C seven”
“C dominant”
“C dominant seven”
m3 M3 M3 1 ♭3 5 7 C E♭ G B Cm/maj7
C-/Δ
“C minor major seven”
m3 M3 m3 1 ♭3 5 ♭7 C E♭ G B♭ Cm7
C-7
“C minor seven”
m3 m3 M3 1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭7 C E♭ G♭ B♭ Cm7♭5
C-7♭5
Cø
“C minor seven flat five”
“C half diminished”
m3 m3 m3 1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭♭7 C E♭ G♭ B♭♭ Co7
Cdim7
“C diminished seven”

Why no M3 M3 M3? You get an augmented triad with another root on top.

Extensions

Extensions are notes added to a chord from beyond the seventh scale degree. Possibilities include the 9 (an octave higher than the 2), the 11 (an octave higher than the 4), and the 13 (an octave higher than the 6). Why not just call them the 2, 4, and 6? Because the emphasis is still on stacking thirds. Add all three of them to a maj7 chord, for example, and you get 1 3 5 7 9 11 13. That’s every single note in the major scale, organized from the root on up in thirds.

Here are some of the most common extended chords you’ll see.

Thirds Scale
Degrees
Notes Chord
Symbols
Pronunciation
M3 m3 M3 m3 1 3 5 7 9 C E G B D Cmaj9 “C major nine”
M3 m3 M3 m3 m3 1 3 5 7 (9) 11 C E G B (D) F Cmaj11 “C major
eleven”
M3 m3 M3 m3 m3 M3 1 3 5 7 (9 11) 13 C E G B (D F) A Cmaj13 “C major
thirteen”
M3 m3 m3 M3 1 3 5 ♭7 9 C E G B♭ D C9 “C nine”
M3 m3 m3 M3 m3 1 3 5 ♭7 (9) 11 C E G B♭ (D) F C11 “C eleven”
M3 m3 m3 M3 m3 M3 1 3 5 ♭7 (9 11) 13 C E G B♭ (D F) A C13 “C thirteen”
m3 M3 m3 M3 1 ♭3 5 ♭7 9 C E♭ G B♭ D Cm9 “C minor nine”
m3 M3 m3 M3 m3 1 ♭3 5 ♭7 (9) 11 C E♭ G B♭ (D) F Cm11 “C minor
eleven”
m3 M3 m3 M3 m3 M3 1 ♭3 5 ♭7 (9 11) 13 C E♭ G B♭ (D F) A Cm13 “C minor
thirteen”

In an 11 chord, the 9 is optional. In a 13 chord, the 9 and 11 are optional. These optional notes may or may not be implied. Sometimes it’s OK to include them, and sometimes they really should be omitted. It all depends on the context. If you’re studying jazz, you’ll frequently come across these issues, which are beyond the scope of this article. (Let me know if you came here looking specifically for this answer, and I can help you out. Don’t shake your monitor.)

Alterations

Some of the notes in a chord can be altered individually. These show up at the end of a chord symbol, like adding a footnote. We’ve seen a couple from the core 7th chords already. Cmaj7♯5 starts with a Cmaj7 chord and raises the 5 by a half step. Cm7♭5 starts with a Cm7 chord and lowers the 5 by a half step.

When using alterations, it’s important not to change the fundamental quality of the chord. If you have C E♭ G A♭ in a chord, a poor way to label it would be C7♭3. When you flat the 3, you change the chord’s fundamental quality to minor. The simplest label for this one is Cm7.

Rule of thumb: never modify the root, the 3, or the 7 in an alteration. Such changes are accounted for in earlier parts of the chord symbol (the root note, major or minor, the type of 7th chord) before you get to the alterations. The rest of the notes, 5 9 11 13, are all fair game for sharping and flatting. That allows for many possible combinations, so I’ll limit the next table to a few common examples which will give you a good idea.

(We’ve exhausted our stacked thirds model, so the rest of the tables below won’t show them. We’re dealing only with tweaks to that system from now on.)

Scale
Degrees
Notes Chord
Symbols
Pronunciation
1 3 5 7 ♯11 C E G B F♯ Cmaj7♯11 “C major seven sharp eleven”
1 3 ♯5 7 9 C E G♯ B D Cmaj9♯5 “C major nine sharp five”
1 3 ♭5 7 13 C E G♭ B A Cmaj13♭5 “C major thirteen flat five”
1 3 ♭5 ♭7 C E G♭ B♭ C7♭5 “C seven flat five”
1 3 5 ♭7 ♯9 C E G B♭ D♯ C7♯9 “C seven sharp nine”
1 3 ♯5 ♭7 ♭9 C E G♯ B♭ D♭ C7♯5♭9 “C seven sharp five flat nine”
1 3 5 ♭7 9 ♯11 C E G B♭ D F♯ C9♯11 “C nine sharp eleven”
1 3 5 ♭7 ♭9 13 C E G B♭ D♭ A C13♭9 “C thirteen flat nine”
1 ♭3 ♯5 ♭7 9 C E♭ G♯ B♭ D Cm9♯5 “C minor nine sharp five”

Observe a few quirks about particular alterations. The ♯9 is the same as the ♭3, so you’ll never find it in any kind of minor chord. The ♯11 is the same as the ♭5; they are often used interchangeably, as a ♮5 is rarely included in a ♯11 chord voicing anyway. The ♭13 is the same as the ♯5; also often used interchangeably for the same reason.

Sixth Chords

Sixth chords contain a triad and a 6. A 9 can also be added on top. There’s no 7. If there’s a 7 in the chord, then it’s a 7th chord, and the 6 should be called a 13.

Scale
Degrees
Notes Chord
Symbols
Pronunciation
1 3 5 6 C E G A C6 “C six”
1 3 5 6 9 C E G A D C69 “C six nine”
1 ♭3 5 6 C E♭ G A Cm6 “C minor six”
1 ♭3 5 6 9 C E♭ G A D Cm69 “C minor six nine”

Add Chords

If you want to add a 9 or 11 to a triad, without a 6 or 7 in it, use “add” in the chord symbol.

Scale
Degrees
Notes Chord
Symbols
Pronunciation
1 3 5 9 C E G D Cadd9 “C add nine”
1 3 5 11 C E G F Cadd11 “C add eleven”
1 ♭3 5 9 C E♭ G D Cmadd9 “C minor add nine”
1 ♭3 5 11 C E♭ G F Cmadd11 “C minor add eleven”

Suspended Chords

Suspended chords modify the 3 in a chord, moving it either down to the 2 or up to the 4. If the 3 is still present along with the 2 or 4, then they should be treated as 9 or 11 instead.

Scale
Degrees
Notes Chord
Symbols
Pronunciation
1 2 5 C D G Csus2 “C sus two”
“C suspended two”
1 4 5 C F G Csus
Csus4
“C sus”
“C sus four”
“C suspended four”
1 2 5 ♭7 C D G B♭ C7sus2 “C seven sus two”
“C seven suspended two”
1 4 5 ♭7 C F G B♭ C7sus
C7sus4
“C seven sus”
“C seven sus four”
“C seven suspended four”

Slash Chords

Separate article! (Update coming.)

This entry was posted in Intermediate, Theory. Bookmark the permalink.