Chord Symbols

Overview about chords notation and symbols

Continuing our learning about chords and chord notations, we will see below the most widely used nomenclatures in chord dictionaries and song books.

  • Chords with the minor seventh: they only receive the number 7. Examples: G7, Bm7, etc.
  • Chords with the major seventh: they receive the number 7 followed by the word “maj” or the letter M. Examples: Cmaj7, CM7, Amaj7, AM7, Bm(7M), etc. On popular chord notation websites, people use the 7+ notation a lot, like this: C7+, but this is not the most suitable notation, since it is used for augmented chords.
  • Added ninth chords: receive the number 9 followed by the word add. Example: Cadd9. These are the chords formed by a triad plus a ninth. When the chord also has the seventh, the American notation usually places only the number 9. We will see this shortly.
  • Ninth chords with the minor seventh: they can only receive the number 9, or the number 7 followed by the number 9. Example: C9 or C7(9). This is due to the fact that chords with ninth usually have the seventh too, so it is understood that the symbol “9” already informs that there is a seventh with it. When there is no minor seventh in the chord, it is made clear by the “add” symbol, as we have already seen. To make it clear, it would be like saying: “This chord has an added ninth, that is, it is the ninth added to a triad. There is not a seventh!“. However, in practice, not everyone makes this distinction, so caution is needed.

Note: when we say “ninth”, understand it as “major ninth”. The same occurs with the “sixth”. The nomenclature of both does not use the symbol “M” or “maj” to represent the major degree, just C9 or C6 is used, for example. In the case of the perfect fourth, we can also just say “fourth” and write “4”, without any additional symbols.

  • Suspended chords: are the chords that don’t have the third. They receive the acronym “sus”. These chords are usually accompanied by a perfect fourth. Example: Asus4. We will explain the reason for this fourth when we go into the subject “tension notes”.
  • Augmented chords: can receive the symbol “#” or “+” next to the altered degree in question. Example: G7(#5) or G7(+5). Note: when the altered note is the fifth, the chord can also receive only the “+”, for example: C+.

Another important detail to consider is the use of the parentheses. Generally, we use parentheses when the chord has more than 4 degrees. The representation order follows the logic of showing the seventh first (if any) and then the additional degree in parentheses. Ex: A7(b5), Fmaj7(9), etc. When there are many additional degrees, forward slashes are used instead of parentheses. For example: Bm7/9/11/13. Many prefer to write only with forward slashes instead of parentheses, this varies according to the composer’s taste.

  • Diminished chords: receive the “°” symbol. Example: C° (or Cdim). The diminished chord is one formed by degrees 1, 3b, 5b and 7bb. When only one note is diminished (lowered), you can use the “b” or “-” symbol. Example: G7(b5) or G7(-5). The “-” symbol is also used in American notation to say that the chord is minor (instead of the letter “m”), for example: A- (is the same as Am). So don’t get confused when you see something like the C-7 (in this case, it’s the Cm7 chord, not the C chord with diminished seventh).

Note: we will study diminished chords in depth in another topic. Here we are looking at just the nomenclature.

  • Half-diminished chords: are the chords with the extension m7(b5). Example: Dm7(b5). It is read “Half-diminished D”. This nickname is widely used, as the m7(b5) chord is almost a diminished chord; the only difference is in the seventh (which in the diminished chord, is the diminished seventh instead of the minor seventh). In fact, it is much easier to say “half-diminished D” than “D minor seventh with flat fifth”, don’t you think?!
  • Altered chords: are the chords with extension #9#5. Example: G#9#5. This type of chord usually contains the minor seventh as well (G7#9#5). We will go into more detail on this subject in the topic of altered scales. For now, just know that this extension #9#5 is represented by the acronym “alt”. For example, the previous chord could be written as G7alt instead of G7#9#5 (G with minor seventh, augmented ninth and augmented fifth).

Phew! We’re done. It is important that you read this topic a few times to memorize these nomenclatures. So you will be able to read and interpret any chord that appears anywhere.

Summing up everything we saw, we can conclude that there are things that the chord notation tells us and there are also things that it does not.

Chord notations establish the following:

  • Whether the chord is major, minor or suspended.
  • If the chord has a seventh or other degrees added (4th, 6th, 9th, etc.).
  • If the chord has any tension note (#5, b9, etc.)
  • If the chord is inverted (3rd, 5th or 7th on the bass). Note: we will study this in another topic.

Chord notations do not establish the following:

  • The position of the chord on the instrument (can be in different sections).
  • Doubled or suppressed notes in the chord (you can double, triple or suppress the perfect fifth, double the third, etc.)

Great, now you are already an expert on this subject! Just exercise the concepts learned here and you will have total autonomy in the formation of chords, without ever needing to depend on a dictionary. Now you are the dictionary!

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