iBreatheMusic.com - Music Vision in Site

Article Print Version - Non print version - More Articles - Back to iBreatheMusic.com

Harmony - Chords and Their Symbols Pt.1

Disclaimer - Chord symbols and music theory in general is a subject that can bring us mild mannered guitarist to fits of rage. For that exact reason, before we start, I feel I must explain a few certain points.

The notation of chord symbols varies slightly from player to player depending on what circles he runs in and where he studied. My opinions are the direct result of my experiences as a studio and session player in LA and also based on my educational experience.

Music theory is not written in stone and your ear is the final judge of what is right and wrong, there is nothing musically illegal.

Music theory is simply a guideline for what the ear generally accepts in respect to certain genres, and as these genres evolve so will chord symbols and music theory in general.

I personally believe that harmonic theory should be studied and understood so that the very same guidelines can be questioned and manipulated to ones liking. I don't think any two musicians can 100% agree on this subject so it is important to do some more research on your own and keep an open mind.

Chord Symbols

The goal of the chord symbol - The goal of the chord symbol is to simply tell the guy playing the chords exactly what you want him to play, what he is allowed to include in the chord and what he is not.

When dealing with certain genres such as Jazz, a lot of liberties can be taken with the voicings. Not so with other genres such as Pop and Rock, a C chord written in a rock chart generally means play a C chord, while the same C chord written in a Jazz tune can be enhanced with a 9th, #11th, 13th or various other extensions or combinations of extensions without much second thought.

A good working knowledge of music theory plus some experience is essential in making these decisions. The melody line will also give you clues on what to include or exclude in chord voicings.

Writing chord symbols - You don't want to confuse the guy comping either. You'll realize this the first time you have to read a chart in a dark, smoky bar or on some stage where the lighting is less than adequate (which is the majority of the time).

Chord symbols should be direct and to the point. The last chord symbol I want to read is one that I have to think about for more than a millisecond, they should be easy to read.

I'll give you one example of a chord symbol that comes up from time to time and makes me crazy: CM7. The reason I dislike it is because I have to look twice at it to make sure whether it is major or minor. Especially when written by hand, CM7 and Cm7 can look a lot alike.

The other chord symbols that get used a lot are the simple minus mark to denote a minor chord and triangle meaning major. These are widely accepted and they don't bother me but I prefer the simple, easy to read symbols: Cmaj7 and Cmin7 (or C-7).

Sometimes the symbols maj7 and min7, get replaced with the shorter versions: ma7 and mi7. These are okay too but maj7 and min7 seem the best choices to me, It's hard to confuse them on a gig.

The Real Book - The "Real Book" is the Jazz fake book that I and most musicians my age (guys in their 30s) learned Jazz standards from. Being the learning guide for so many musicians, the chord symbols used in the "Real Book" have become the standard in a way.

The one I learned most of the Jazz standards from is the 5th edition. I took a look through the other editions and noticed that they all use slightly different notation standards, for example the 2nd edition notates Cmaj7 as Cmaj7 but notates Cmin7 as Cmi7. The 5th edition of the "Real Book" generally uses the following standards to notate chord symbols:

The"Real Book" is a great source for learning all the standards. I wouldn't be here today without having discovered it 20 years ago. There are new "Real Books" available these days. The "New Real Book" is one example of a great one. It may even be better than the old "Real Book" because while the original one was an underground bootleg which paid no publishing rights to the composers, the "New Real Book" does.

A Brief History of Chord Symbols

How long have they been around? - Chord symbols have a image of being relatively new and are mostly associated with Jazz and other forms of popular music but they have probably been around for as long as chords themselves.

They certainly aren't associated with classical music. Chord symbols leave a lot up to the player playing the chords. A symbol like Cmaj7 means you play a Cmaj7 chord but the voicing is left up to the guy who plays it, a form of harmonic improvisation.

Classical music doesn't have the image of allowing much improvisation so chord symbols wouldn't seem to have a place in the genre but my college theory teacher taught me something very interesting about Bach and his peers. He said that back in those days sometimes composers would sometimes write charts similar to the one below. What chords would you play?

The Roman numerals are simple enough to understand, they just refer to the diatonic chords, "I" being the first chord in the key of C: C major. The next chord, the "IV"chord is referring to the fourth chord in C major, an F major chord. "V" the fifth chord in the key of, a G major chord. The numerals 6 and 4 following the Roman numeral IV refer to the inversion of the chord.

Look at the example below, our second chord in the above progression. If we take the 5th of the F chord, a C note in this example, and place it in the bass, and check the intervals from the bass, we will find that the root F is located a 4th above the bass and the 3rd, the A note, is located a 6th above the bass.

Therefore the chord symbol simply implies a F chord with the 5th, a C, in the bass. The numerals 6 and 4 simply refer to the intervals from the bass note.

We would notate it as a F/C slash chord these days, an F chord in second inversion (5th in the bass):

Let's take a look at the next chord in the progression, the V6 chord. That's right, a G chord in first inversion (3rd in the bass):

I won't go into this system of notation any farther. It's a lost art and you'll never use it unless you enroll yourself in a University that caters to classical music.

I just wanted to demonstrate that there have been plenty of ways to notate chords throughout history. Let's get into modern day harmony and chord symbols, starting with triads.


Three note chords - These chord symbols are the easiest to read and write. Nothing too confusing here. To notate a C major triad, a simple C will work fine. For a C minor chord: min as in Cmin. A diminished chord generally gets written as dim while an augmented triad gets notated as aug. Check the triads and their intervals below:

Learning triad forms - Learning all the triad shapes is important no matter what style of music you play. Don't settle for only the standard voicings, learn every shape. When you get done with the major shapes, figure out the minor, diminished and augmented ones too:

Points to remember about triads:
Triads, especially the major triad, are used often in slash chords. A slash chord is simply a chord over a specific bass note. For example, a C/E slash chord would mean a C triad played over an E bass note. Some common slash chords: C/E, C/G, C/Bb, C/D.

Sometimes the diminished triad gets notated with a small circle as in Co and the augmented triad with a plus mark as in C+.

Sus Chords

Sus chords - When the 3rd is omitted and replaced by a 4th the triad gets called a sus or sus4 chord as in Csus or Csus4. Sometimes rather than the 4th replacing the 3rd, the 2nd replaces it. This chord gets called a sus2 chord. Sus refers to either a suspension of the 4th above the 3rd or of the 2nd below the 3rd of the chord.

These are the most common 5th string root voicings for the sus4 and sus2 chords used in a fairly common chord progression:

Points to remember about sus chords:
Sus indicates that something has happened to the 3rd. It has either been replaced by the 4th or the 2nd (although these days the 3rd sometimes gets included in the voicing).

The chord symbol sus without a 4 or 2 after it is referring to the 4th and not the 2nd. You don't need to write sus4 at all, just plain sus will do. If you mean sus2, you have to write it that way. Remember: sus by itself means sus4.

The sus2 chord is a great replacement for a plain old major chord. While the suspended 4th in the sus4 chord tends to beg for resolution, the suspended 2nd in the sus2 chord, being a whole step below the 3rd, does not. The lack of the 3rd kind of neuters the chord giving it an interesting, ambiguous, slightly modern quality.

Since the symbol sus is indicating that one of the 3rds neighbors has replaced it, there can be no other suspensions other than the 4th and 2nd. There is no such chord as a sus5, sus6 or sus7 chord.

7th Chords

Four note chords - 7th chords are also easy read and write, especially if they have no alterations. Cmaj7, Cmin7, C7, Cdim7, Cmin(maj7) and C7sus are all standard 7th chords. If the 5th is altered in the chord, you have to write it that way in the chord symbol: Cmaj7#5, Cmin7b5, C7#5 or C7b5. Below are the theoretical voicings, you can place the chord tones in any order or octave that you want:

Don't be deceived - 7th chords seem simple by nature, after all, there are only four notes, but if you use your head a little and rearrange the four notes you'll be surprised with what you can come up with. Both the chords below are simple Cmaj7 chords but the voicings are exquisite:

Voicing: 3,5,7,1 Voicing: 5,7,1,3

Coming up with your own voicings - As there are four notes in a 7th chord, you can technically make twenty-four different voicings (at least according to my mathematical skills). Use the chart below to come up with your own voicings.

I tried every one myself and I'm pleased to inform you that they can technically all be played although some sound better than others. You can skip strings, use open strings, play the notes in any octave, and double notes if you want.

When you get done with the maj7 voicings, go on to all the other 7th chords. Try playing the following voicings left to right, Ex: 1357 - 3571 - 5713 - 7135. Now why do you think I would want you to do that?


What You Can Leave Out

Decisions - Unlike the piano, the guitar is limited by the amount of notes you can include in a chord. In every chord there are important notes as well as notes that can be left out without anyone missing them.

If you are playing solo guitar, or as a duet with a vocalist, the root is important to leave in the chord but if you are playing with a bassist, especially in a jazz setting, it can be left out.

Sometimes bassists will actually get angry with you if you include the bass notes in the voicings. He is likely to say; "leave the bass notes to me, buddy." I personally make a habit of not playing roots.

The next note of least importance is the natural 5th. Since the natural 5th is present in major, minor and dominant chords, it does not determine the harmonic quality of the chord. If the 5th is lowered or raised, its best to include it in the chord voicing but otherwise it doesn't count for much.

The two most important notes are the 3rd and 7th. These two notes determine everything. That's right, roots are roots and 5ths are 5ths but 3rds and 7ths are what make a chord what it is, minor, major or dominant.

Check out the ii - V - i chord progression below, I voiced the chords using only 3rds and 7ths. It is important to play these voicings with someone playing the bass notes. If you can't find a bass player, just include the roots yourself:

My first experience in a Jazz ensemble:
When I first started playing Jazz, I thought you had to include everything in the chord voicing. The guys in the ensemble told me to quit playing such big, bulky, square chords and play some light airy voicings. The bassist told me; "for starters, leave out the notes on your 6th and 5th strings, I'll take care of those." He then added; "Play from the 3rds up." I learned from that experience that a few strategically placed chord tones work better than six note voicings especially in a large jazz ensemble like a big band. When it comes to voicing your chords, it may help if you just think: 3rd, 7th and the upper extension that is designated in the chord symbol (such as the 9th, 11th or 13th).

6th chords

6th chords - Back when Jazz first got its start, 6th chords used to be more popular than 7th chords. Both the 6 and min6 chord contain the major 6th in the chord.

You can just think of a 6th chord as a triad (minor or major) with the major 6th added into the chord. Compared to the min6 chord the major version is definitely easy on the ears. Since 6th chords don't contain 7ths, the major 6th chord can replace either a major or dominant chord. The chord symbols are pretty much strait ahead, C6 and Cmin6:

Although the 6 and min6 chords can generally replace their maj7 and min7chord counterparts, the min6 chord sometimes gets used this way:

Points to remember about 6th chords:
Although the major 6th chord can easily replace any major chord, it is important to remember that the min6 chord, containing a major 6th interval can only replace a ii chord. You may want to think of the min6 chord as a "dorian" family chord.

6th chords can also be thought of as inverted 7th chords: C6 (C E G A) = Amin7 (A C E G) , Cmin6 (C Eb G A) = Amin7b5 (A C Eb G).

9th chords

5 note chords - 9th chords are quite common for all major, minor and dominant chords. The major and minor 9th chords are usually notated as maj9 and min9, while the dominant 9th chord, when the 9th is unaltered, is notated as with just a 9 as in C9. The 9sus chord is also quite common, it can also be thought of and played as a slash chord: Bb/C or Gmin7/C:

Some standard 5th string voicings:

Points to remember about 9th chords:
To be called a 9th chord, the voicing must contain a 7th.

Some other 9th chords that you may want to think about are the min9(maj7) chord from the melodic minor scale and the min9b5 chord from the locrian #2 mode of the melodic minor scale. See if you can construct them yourself.

There have been some adventurous musicians from time to time who lower the 9ths in major and minor chords. Although not standard practice, if you chose to do so, notate these chords the same way you would when notating altered dominant chords: Cmaj7b9, Cmin7b9.

Altered dominant chords

Altered dominant chords - Besides the natural 9th, the dominant 9th chord often contains an altered (raised or lowered) 9th.

When the 9th is altered in the chord, it is notated as a 7th chord plus the altered extension: C7#9, C7b9. When both the 9ths and 5ths are altered, the alterations must be included in the chord symbol, often in parentheses: C7(#5, #9), C7(b9,b5), C7(#9,b5), C7(b9,#5).

It is quite common to notate the altered dominant chord with just the word alt. This is done when you want the guy playing the chords to simply make his own decisions on how to alter the 5ths and 9ths, Ex: C alt. Here are a few of altered dominant chords (the first chord contains a natural 5th so it could be argued that technically it is not an altered dominant chord):

A few standard 5th string root altered chord voicings:

Points to remember about altered dominant chords:
Altered dominant chords are derived from the altered mode of the melodic minor scale.

It is not unusual for (altered) dominant chords to contain both the #9 and b9 as in C7(b9,#9).

It is not uncommon for the raised 5th to be notated as a b13th as in C7(b13).

add9 chords

Add9 chords - Just like 9th chords, but the 7th is excluded from the voicing. Having no 7th, the major version of the add9 chord works for both major and dominant chords. The minor add9 chord is characteristically dark sounding. They are notated: add9 and min add9:

These are the common sixth string root voicings, you'll have to stretch a little:

Points to remember about add9 chords:
To be called an add9 chord, the voicing can not contain a 7th.

You are not likely to run across any other "add" chords besides the add9 chord. The reason is because the "add" means that there is no 7th in the chord and without a 7th a 13th chord would simply become a 6 or min6 chord.

The min add11 chord is questionable I guess but I personally have never run across it myself in a chart, probably because the absence of the min7th doesn't make much harmonic difference and for that reason, not important enough to notate it as such. It's safe to assume that the only "add" chord you are going to run into is the add9.

The "Real Book" sometimes notates the add9 chord with just a 9 in parenthesis: (9). Don't get confused between a dominant 9th chord as in C9 and an add9 chord as in C(9). I personally don't like the (9) chord symbol, it causes a second of unneeded contemplation.

69 chords

69 chords: Like the add9 chords, these chords also contain no 7th. Along with the 9th, the major 6th is also included in the voicing. They are notated: 69 and min69:

These are the common sixth string root voicings for both minor and major 69 chords:


When I was fourteen, I went down to the local music store and bought myself one of those chord dictionaries, you know, "One Thousand and One Chords" kind of thing. It did nothing but confuse me.

The best way to learn chords is to learn how to construct them yourself. By simply learning chord shapes, you are limiting yourself to only those shapes but by learning the guidelines of chord construction, you have limitless possibilities.

I'll stop here and give you some time to catch your breath. Pt. 2 will deal with the upper extensions. Check the chord formula guide anytime for easy reference. Until next time..

Have a question or a suggestion for a lesson, feel free to post in the forums.

2002-2004 Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/157
Native New Yorker, long time studio musician and session guitarist Chris Juergensen is in constant demand as a sideman, front man and clinician. He currently divides his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles where he continues to write, record, play and teach at Musicians Institute. He has released three solo CDs to date plus two published instructional books. Visit his website

Article Print Version - Non print version - More Articles - Back to iBreatheMusic.com