Concise Guide to Chord Symbols

by Steve Eulberg



These questions get asked frequently so here is a guide to help you decode the chord symbols that you may often see above the musical notation:







A Chord (by definition a triad) is made up of 3 specific pitches (1-3-5 steps of the scale.)



A Chord Symbol is short hand for which steps are intended.



1. When a Single Capital letter is used, it indicates a Major chord (no alterations in the 1-3-5 plan)



e.g. C = C-E-G



2. If there is a lower case “m” next to the Capital letter, that indicates a minor chord (1-b3-5) with the 3rdstep of the scale lowered a half step.



e.g. Cm = C-Eb-G



Any combination of these notes, grouped as close together as possible (close voicing) or as far apart as possible (dispersed voicing) still produce these chords.



3. If there is a number added to the chord symbol it indicates an additional note added to the triad:



The most common is the dominant 7(b7 step of the scale) which is so dominant we don't even call it dominant. The next most common is 6.



e.g. C7 = C-E-G-Bb (1-3-5-b7)



e.g. C6 = C-E-G-A (1-3-5-6)



Amajor 7 chord has the regular 7thstep of the scale (also called a “leading tone”) added to the triad:



e.g. CMaj7 or CM7 or C∆7 = C-E-G-B (1-3-5-7)



4. These numbers can also be added to the minor chords as well to indicate minor 7chords:



e.g. Cm7= C-Eb-G-Bb (1-b3-5-b7)





e.g. Cm6= C-Eb-G-A (1-b3-5-6)



e.g. Cm∆7 or CmMaj7= C-Eb-G-B (1-b3-5-7)



5. Sometimes a 2 is added:



e.g. C2 = C-D-E-G (1-2-3-5)



6. Sometimes a 9 is added:



e.g. Cadd9 = C-E-G-D (1-3-5-9)



7. A ninth chord builds on the Dominant 7thChord:



e.g. C9 = C-E-G-Bb-D (1-3-5-b7-9)



8. Suspended Chords means that the 3rd step has been replaced either by a 4 or a 2:



e.g. Csus4 = C-F-G (1-4-5)



e.g. Csus2 = C-D-G (1-2-5)



9. Diminished Chords means that the 5th step of a minor chord has been lowered a half step:



e.g. C° or Cdim= C-Eb-Gb (1-b3-b5)



10. Augmented Chords mean that the 5th step has been raised a half step:



e.g. C+ or Caug= C-E-G# (1-3-#5)



11. Slash Chords indicate a different bass note than expected. This is particularly important for Bass Players (instrument) or players of Bass parts in an ensemble:



e.g. C/D = C Chord with a D in the Bass (non-chord tone)



e.g. C/E = C Chord with an E in the Bass (chord tone, but not the tonic)





e.g. C/G= C Chord with a G in the Bass (chord tone, but not the tonic)







(This is also available on the Free Page at dulcimercrossing.com if you misplace this one.)



Questions? Write me at steve@dulcimercrossing.com

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4 comments

Steve Eulberg

Yes...the flexibility of Arabic numerals makes them attractive to all kinds of systems!
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Steve Eulberg

You are welcome! I'm glad you find it helpful.
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Kendra Bartley

Now I have downloaded and printed out the "printable" version of the Chord Symbols guide. Thanks for indeed making something complicated so concise, with examples to explain. As always, the mark of a good teacher! --Kendra
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Kendra Bartley

Thanks, Steve. This is very helpful. But goodness, the use of numbers for so many different things in music is confusing - wish there were a better system, accepted by all. --Kendra
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