Now that we've covered scales, it's time to look at chords, the basic building blocks of a song. How do we interpret all of those strange symbols on a chart? Remember that a chord chart is like a recipe, offering suggestions. Chord symbols may be very explicit like 'G7#5,#9' or more basic and open-ended like 'G'. You are free to embellish and 'season to taste'. A chord symbol comes to life as a voicing—what notes you choose to play and where you choose to play them on your instrument. The skill of translating a chord symbol into an appropriate voicing comes with much practice, listening, and experience.
In this section, I cover all of the most common chord types you'll encounter, explaining their structure and variations in notation. I give many examples of standard-practice voicings, but understand that you have lots of flexibility in choosing your own. Once you know the necessary tones to establish a chord's sound, you may embellish as you wish.
The goal is to think more holistically when interpretting a chord chart, considering how chords, scales, and progressions are all interrelated. Instead of viewing a chord symbol as a strict one-to-one correspondence with a particular hand position or sequence of notes, view it as a pool of notes that you can choose from based on its relation to the key and progression.
What's In A Name?
After encountering chord charts from various sources, chord symbol notation may seem like a jumbled, inconsistent mess. But there's actually some method to the madness. Before we jump into the particular chord types, let's get an overall view of how chord symbols are constructed.
A chord symbol, read left to right, can have up to four parts:
- A root note, the one essential part
- A symbol that dictates the triad structure (if different than major)
- A symbol that dictates the sixth or seventh
- Symbols for any other alterations or extensions
The diagram below shows the possibilities for the four parts. It maps the symbols you see with a name for the given chord (symbols in white boxes and names in gray boxes). For symbols with no attached name, the name is the symbol itself, e.g. 'sus4' or '#9'. Also, the names are links to the relevant examples further down the page.
Let's run through a few examples to see how this works:
|Here, the symbol is just the chord root by itself. Since there is no symbol from the second column, the triad type defaults to major. Therefore, the name is 'Bb major'|
|The chord root is 'Ab'. No symbol is used from the second column, so the triad type is major. 'Maj7' is a symbol from the third column where we find the name 'Major 7'. And finally there's a single alteration of '#11'. So the full name of this chord is 'A flat major 7 sharp 11'. Notice that any name found in the third column replaces any name found in the second column. In other words, we typically don't use a triad name and a sixth/seventh name together (like 'A flat major major 7 sharp 11'). The one exception is the name 'Minor Major 7' where both the triad and the seventh are named.|
|The chord root here is 'G'. The minus sign is found in the second column, so the triad type is minor. And finally, the '7' is found in the third column giving us the full name 'G minor 7'. Notice again that the third column name trumps the second column (so it's not 'G minor minor 7').|
Each chord explained in this section can be found in the above diagram, with a few exceptions which will be explained. I recommend returning to this diagram as you learn about the various types, examining how each one fits within the scheme.
The Nth Degree
Chord symbols will include many different numbers which, as explained in the Scales section, refer to degrees of the related scale and alterations of those degrees. Any key or scale divides the available notes into two groups: those within the scale (diatonic) and those outside of the scale (chromatic). Chords will draw from both groups, and various terms may be used to describe the groups such as 'chord tones', 'color tones', 'alterations', and 'extensions'.
Here again are the notes most commonly referred to in chord symbol notation:
Also, keep in mind the following points:
The root, third, and fifth are usually inferred from the chord type (major, minor, etc.) and are not explicitly named using degree numbers (1, b3, 3, 5, 8, 10, or 12).
An 'extension' generally refers to a degree beyond an octave such as a 9th, 11th, or 13th. When these are used in a chord symbol, a b7 is usually implied. For example, a 'C7,13' may be written as 'C13'.
You may see #4 and #11 used interchangeably, as well as 6 and 13.
Now we're ready to start exploring the various chord types.
The major triad (three-note chord) is the basic chord derived from the major scale, using the root, the 3rd, and the 5th. It may be notated with an 'M' or 'Maj', but typically no symbol is used. Think of it as the default tonality.
As with any chord, the notes can be placed in any order, yielding different inversions. With triads these are referred to as first inversion (the 3rd on the bottom) and second inversion (the 5th on the bottom).
Remember that chord symbols are suggestions. Seeing a 'C' on the chart does not necessarily dictate a strict voicing of only C, E, and G. You are free to add other sounds that fit within the tonality. Let's start with some common embellishments for a major chord.
Adding the 2nd
With almost any chord type, adding the 2nd is a nice way to thicken up the chord sound. With major chords, this can be specified in several ways:
NOTE: Even though 2 and 9 refer to the same note (in different octaves), C2 is not the same as C9. Using the higher extension number, a C9 implies a dominant 7th chord with an added 9th.
Adding the 6th degree of a major scale to a major triad produces a major 6 chord. This chord has a very bright, happy sound. Common notation includes:
|A 6th in the second octave is a 13th; this usually implies a major 7|
|'Major' is implied|
|Sometimes seen in jazz charts; the triangle may be used on both Maj6 and Maj7 chords|
|Not common; use of a single 'M' (especially when hand-written) can be hard to distinguish upper-case (major) from lower-case (minor)|
Here's a voicing with the 5th on the bottom:
Here's a common two-hand voicing with the root on top and adding both the 6 and 9:
Adding a major 7th to a major triad definitely changes the mood/feel. It's a strange phenomenon—adding the leading tone (the major 7th) causes that tension of wanting to resolve to the root, yet the chord sounds settled. The sound is positive, expectant, and often heard in jazz. It's quite common to add a major 7th to the 4 chord of a key—this sounds more subdued because the 7th that you add is actually the 3rd of the key.
Notation possibilities include:
|Triangle shorthand common in jazz charts|
|The 7 is implied|
|Not common; use of a single 'M' (especially when hand-written) can be hard to distinguish upper-case (major) from lower-case (minor)|
A common 'rootless' voicing with the 3rd on the bottom and the 9th added:
An alternate inversion with the 7th on the bottom:
The previous two examples are called rootless voicings, meaning simply that the root is omitted. These two are typical jazz voicings, one with the 3rd on the bottom, and one with the 7th on the bottom. They are used when the pianist wants to stay out of the way of the bass player. Getting used to seeing the root name in the chord symbol and then playing a voicing without that root takes a bit of a mind shift (it certainly did for me when I began learning and playing jazz), but it definitely widens your musical palette (and makes the bass player happy, too).
A common two-hand voicing with the root in the bass:
Adding the 4th
So far, we've discussed adding the 2nd, 6th, and 7th to embellish a major triad. That leaves the 4th degree.
The 4th is usually used as a 'suspension' to delay a resolution to the 3rd (see the section on Sus Chords below). However, the raised 4th is commonly added to major tonalities. It's denoted with a #4 or a #11. This is one of those sounds that has strong connotations for me—I call it the 'Disney chord' or the 'outer space' chord. See what you think:
Actually, this sonority is derived from the Lydian mode of the major scale. Since the Lydian mode is built off of the 4th degree, this chord is commonly used on the 4 chord of a key. For example, in the key of C, playing an F chord with a #11 (a B natural) sounds rather nice since it's staying within the diatonic notes of C.
A minor triad can be thought of as a major triad with a flat 3rd.
The notation possibilities are:
|A minus sign is also commonly used|
|Not as common; again, can be confused with a capital M for major|
Minor tonalities offer lots of possibilities for coloring—virtually any note of the corresponding scale can be added to a voicing. The 2nd (or 9th) and the 7th are the most common additions. Adding the 2nd produces a half-step tension with the b3 that darkens the tone. However, the symbols 'add2' and '2' are not generally used for minor chords. And contrary to the major tonality, adding a 7 (a b7 in this case) does not have a drastic effect on the sound/mood and is very common.
The voicings given below are similar to the ones suggested for major chords, only now the 3rd and 7th are flat.
Adding the 7th and/or 9th
A couple of common rootless voicings (again, one with the 3rd on the bottom and one with the 7th):
A common two-hand voicing:
Adding the 6th
Adding the sixth depends on the context. It is usually a major 6, but it could be minor (a b6) in some modes.
Adding a Major 7
This is one of the exceptions to the naming rules mentioned above. Here we have a minor triad with a major 7th added. The name needs to include both the triad and the 7th ('minMaj7') to prevent confusion with other chord names. The minor-major 7th chord is another sonority with strong connotations—I call it the 'secret agent' chord.
Here's a rootless voicing, adding the 9th on top:
Other Minor Voicings
I love minor chords because you can be so flexible with voicings. Be creative. Explore all of the tones of the scale. Here's a dark cluster including even the 4th:
A common voicing pattern from the jazz world is the 'So What' voicing. This comes from pianist Bill Evans' playing on the tune 'So What' on Miles Davis' seminal album Kind of Blue. 'So What' is a classic example of a modal tune—the harmony for the entire tune alternates between just two key centers, D Dorian and Eb Dorian. This allowed the players to improvise around a scale rather than a typical sequence of chords. This pair of voicings has become quite typical of modal playing. Notice that the two chords are a whole-step apart, consist mostly of perfect fourth intervals, and together use every degree of the Dorian scale in the given key.
First chord is built off of the 2
Move entire voicing down a whole-step to the root
Dominant Seventh Chords
So far, we've covered two types of seventh chords: the major seventh and the minor seventh. Now we come to the dominant seventh. Before we jump in, some clarification about naming and notation is needed.
First of all, a dominant seventh chord is a major triad (1, 3, and 5) plus a flat seventh.
However, the term 'dominant' can refer to a note as well as a chord. In classical theory, 'dominant' refers to the 5th degree of the key (see inset below) as well as to the diatonic chord built on that degree, which is a major triad plus a flat 7th. The term 'dominant seventh' has come to be applied to any chord with this structure.
Also, often the term 'dominant' is not used at all—for example, a 'Bb7' is just called 'B flat seven', not 'B flat dominant seven'.
Some Classical Terms
The term 'dominant' comes from a group of classical terms for the degrees of a key. The root is called 'tonic' and the other terms are derived from their position relative to tonic. Here are the terms related to the key of C:
A dominant seventh chord (or just 'seventh chord') is basically a major triad plus a flat seventh. Here it is in root position:
However, voicing a dominant seventh chord in standard root position (example above) is not optimal—a little too bright and forward in my opinion. Dominant 7ths offer lots of possibilities for more nuanced and interesting voicings.
The 3rd and 7th are the notes that give the dominant its characteristic sound and are called the guide tones. Often, playing only the guide tones provides a sufficient voicing:
Around the Cycle
The cycle of fifths is explained in the Progressions section. Basically any move around the cycle is a resolution down a fifth, e.g. C to F, F to Bb, etc. A curious property of guide tones is that, given the guide tones of a dominant seventh chord, if you move both of them down a half-step you are now playing the guide tones of the next chord in the cycle. For example, in the cycle C moves to F. The guide tones of C7 are E and Bb. Moving those down a half-step, we get Eb and A—the guide tones of F7.
So, a good exercise for practicing dominant chord voicings and resolutions is to play the guide tones (moving down by halfsteps) with the bass root notes moving around the cycle.
Curiouser and Curiouser
By playing through the above exercise, you may have noticed a couple of things. For one, a pair of guide tones makes a tritone interval. (In classical vernacular, a 'tone' is a whole-step and a 'semitone' is a half-step—therefore 'tritone' refers to an interval of three whole-steps.) The tritone is that infamous dissonance your mother warned you about, the diabolus in musica. It's not that dangerous though--it just produces a dissonance that really wants to resolve. (More about this in the next section.) Secondly, you may have noticed that any pair of guide tones can be used for 2 different roots, a tritone apart. For example, the guide tones for C7 are E and Bb (the 3rd and b7th) and the guide tones for Gb7 are also E and Bb (now the b7th and 3rd). This curious property is a concept commonly used in jazz called tritone substitution. This allows for the substitution of any dominant 7th chord with its tritone counterpart. (See this example at the end of the Progressions section.)
By adding the 9th and 13th to the guide tones, we get a thicker texture. This is a common jazz rootless voicing for a dominant 7th.
And the typical inversion with the seventh on the bottom:
Here's a nice two-hand voicing where the left hand provides the guide tones and the right hand fills in with the root on top:
The voicings above were termed 'vanilla' because they only used notes within the scale/key. However, dominant 7th chords can get very interesting with alterations. The Progressions section goes into more detail about the purpose of these alterations, but for now let's just say they add more tension to the chord. In all of the following voicings, the guide tones (3rd and b7th) are always present but other degrees may be raised or lowered:
Some Triad Tricks
Many of the alterations just mentioned can be voiced by using a particular major triad in the right hand while playing the guide tones of the dominant seventh in the left. Using triads in this way may add other color tones to the chord not explicitly named in the chord symbol.
Example 1 - If a #11 is needed, a major triad a whole step up from the root of the dominant seventh provides a nice voicing, also adding the 9 and 13:
Example 2 - An altered dominant (#5, #9) can be voiced by using a major triad built off of the b6 (relative to the dominant seventh's root):
Example 3 - For a b9 and #11, use a triad off of the tritone:
Example 4 - And finally, for a b9 dominant, a major triad built off of the 6 provides the voicing, also adding a 13:
A diminished triad has a flat 3rd and a flat 5th. It has a distinct, apprehensive sound—it really begs to be resolved.
There are generally two possibilities for notation:
|May be used if circle character is not available|
A diminished 7th chord (also called fully-diminished) adds a diminished 7th to a diminished triad. A diminished 7th is a half-step lower than a minor 7th, so it can be called a 'double-flat 7' (bb7) and it is actually the same note as the 6.
|May be used if circle character is not available|
The diminished 7th is another instance where chord symbol notation is inconsistent. Looking back at the chord graph at the beginning of this section, you'll notice that a single '7' is used in the third column for three different chords: a dominant 7, a minor 7, and a diminished 7. In the first two cases, the dominant 7 and minor 7, the '7' denotes a flat 7. However, for the diminished 7, the single '7' actually means a diminished 7. This is a case similar to the minor-major 7th symbol—where it's necessary to specify both the triad and the seventh. But writing 'Bb dim dim 7' is obviously impractical, so 'Bb dim7' is used.
An interesting property of the diminished 7th is that it's actually four chords in one. To see this, change the key in the example below to any note of the chord besides the root. You'll discover that the resulting chord is just another diminished 7th chord with the same notes as the chord you started with. This type of chord is called a symmetrical chord. And since each chord can go by four different roots, that leaves only three distinct diminished 7th patterns.
Symmetry in Motion
Because there are 12 steps in an octave, there are several ways to divide it into equal portions:
- Two intervals of six half-steps each = two tritones
- Three intervals of 4 half-steps each = three major 3rds, forming an augmented triad
- Four intervals of 3 half-steps each = four minor 3rds, forming a diminished 7th chord
- Six intervals of 2 half-steps each = six whole-steps, forming a whole-tone scale
The augmented triad and the diminished 7th chord are known as symmetrical chords. Any inversion of them forms another chord of the same type.
One more interesting thing about the diminished 7th chord—it can serve as a rootless voicing for a dominant 7 flat 9 chord. Compare the diminished 7th voicing above with the dominant b9 given earlier to see how they relate. More will be said about this equivalence in the Progressions section.
Now instead of adding a diminished 7th to a diminished triad, you may add a minor 7th. This is called a half-diminished chord. You can also view it as a minor 7th chord with a flat 5—hence the more common notation of 'm7b5'.
|Shorthand for 'half-diminished', commonly used in jazz charts|
|Sometimes just the symbol without a 7|
Another way to think of the half-diminshed chord is as a minor 6 chord with the 6 in the bass. Notice in the above example that the top three notes form a minor triad and the root note is a 6 relative to that triad. So an alternate way to notate this chord—one that players may comprehend more easily—is as a slash chord:
'Sus' is short for 'suspended' and generally refers to playing the 4th degree instead of the 3rd, thereby 'suspending' the sound of the third. Suspensions are usually resolved (the 4th moving to the 3rd) but don't necessarily have to.
|Most common; play 4th of major chord instead of 3rd; usually followed by a resolution to the 3rd|
|Sometimes the 4 is implied|
|Sometimes used to imply playing the 2nd instead of the 3rd—but this is technically not a suspension|
Dominant 7 Sus
A suspended 4th can also be applied to a dominant 7th chord. The 9th is commonly added to this type of chord, which leads to several different ways to notate it:
In some of the above examples, I snuck in a type of chord known as a slash chord. Slash chords are used when you want some note other than the root to be in the bass. The alternate bass note is written after the chord symbol and separated by a slash, for example C/E. It may seem odd to have the chord on the left and bass note on the right when they are, in fact, the mirror image of that on the keyboard, but I'm afraid that's the way it is—another odd quirk of chord notation. It may help to think of it as a fraction with the chord being the numerator (on 'top') and the alternate bass note being the denominator (on 'bottom').
The most common slash chords are major chords with either the 3rd or the 5th as the alternate bass note.
Slash chords can be used in lieu of other chord types. Consider the following:
Example 1: A minor 7th chord disguised as a slash chord:
Example 2: We saw this one earlier: a half-diminished notated as a slash chord:
Example 3: A dominant 7 sus as a slash chord:
Example 4: A major 7 sonority as a slash chord:
There are a few more chord types worth mentioning to round out our discussion.
An augmented chord is a major triad with a raised 5th. Notation includes:
|A single plus-sign always denotes a #5|
|Not as common|
The augmented triad, like the fully-diminished 7th, is a symmetrical chord. As we saw with the diminished 7th, any inversion just forms a different augmented triad. Use of the augmented chord will be discussed in the Progressions section.
A quartal voicing is composed of perfect 4th intervals. We've seen some earlier examples that used 4th intervals and could be considered quartal voicings:
Using a quartal voicing with just two 4th intervals makes for a very open-ended, ambiguous sound and can be used with many different chord types:
The name of this chord comes from its use as a guitar voicing in rock music. It is constructed from only the root and the fifth. The absence of a third gives it a stark sound that is neither major or minor. It is usually notated one of two ways:
|Explicit; play triad without 3rd|
|Implies leaving out the 3rd|