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Understanding Chord Symbols

and a call for standardization


By Chris Sharp

If you have ever been mystified by the cryptic shorthand we know as commercial and
jazz chord symbols, this article is for you. As we enter the 21st century, jazz, our own
indigenous American art form remains an enigma to many otherwise accomplished music
educators. Our college music education curricula often dont allow the opportunity to
become versed in this area, and as a result many music teachers are uncomfortable trying
to function within this idiom. Perhaps one of the reasons is that even after 100 years, we
have yet to definitively decide on a standard practice for expressing chord symbols.
Among other factors, this anomaly has led to a state of fear (and even loathing) of jazz
and commercial music among a significant number of educators. This article will attempt
to shed some light on the situation.

First of all, it is important to know that chord symbols are not key signature-specific.
Though there are common patterns (such as the ubiquitous ii-V7-I), chord symbols exist
independent of the home key of the composition, and as such can appear in any particular
order. Be aware that the first letter, or root note of any chord symbol refers to the major
scale built upon that note. All the signage following that first letter describes how the
major scale is altered to produce different chord qualities. The common practice for
voicing these chords on the piano or guitar is to omit the root note in the voicing, as it
will be covered by the bass player. For simplicity, all chords referred to in this article
will be built on the base tonality of C. For other keys, simply transpose to the appropriate
major scale.

Chord symbols used in this article conform to the system advocated by the late, great jazz
composer Frank Mantooth. His system is ideal in that, with a little background
knowledge the symbols cannot be misinterpreted. The popularity of Rich Siglers
JazzFont (which has no lower case letters), especially among publishers has influenced to
some degree chord symbols using only upper-case letters, so using the standard upper
case-lower case tradition for denoting major and minor chords will be avoided. Instead,
major will be abbreviated ma and minor mi. As we are dealing with music, not
geometry, there are no circles, triangles or other such symbols, and no plusses or
minuses. Raised or lowered pitches will be indicated with the appropriate musical
symbols sharps and flats. A chart indicating other commonly used symbols for chords
is provided along with this text.

A single letter (e.g. C) denotes the major triad (C-E-G) built on that note. The proper
scale for improvising is simply the C major scale. There are other chord symbols based
on the C major scale, namely the C major seventh chord (Cma7) and the C triad with
added sixth and/or ninth scale degrees (C6 and C6/9). The symbol Cma9 denotes a Cma7
chord with the note D added (the ninth is just the second scale degree transposed up an
octave). A chord often found in popular music is the C major with an added ninth,
indicated C(add9), which omits the natural seventh. Occasionally, a raised fourth will be
added to major scale-based chords (e.g. Cma7#4). You will notice that all extensions of
the major chord are ninths and below.
Minor chords, with the exception of the minor seventh chord (Cmi7) function essentially
the same way as major chords. The extensions indicated are derived from the ascending
melodic minor form of the scale, in essence just a major scale with a flatted third. Hence,
the symbol Cmi6/9 represents the notes C, Eb, G, A and D. Note that the A is the natural
version, not the Ab found in the natural or harmonic minor forms. The minor chord with
an unaltered natural seventh is distinguished from the minor seventh chord (which has a
flatted seventh) by the symbol Cmi(ma7). The minor seventh chord, functioning as ii of
a ii-V7-I progression has (as stated above) both a lowered third and a lowered seventh.
The symbols Cmi9 and Cmi11 assume the inclusion of the flatted seventh.

Chord symbols consisting of a letter followed simply by a number (C7) represent


dominant seventh chords in which the seventh is lowered (in this case, Bb), but the third
remains unaltered. Other variants of this chord are the C9 and C13 chords. These can be
confusing because they both also assume the inclusion of the flatted seventh! There is a
great variety of dominant seventh chords, and accordingly, potential pitfalls in the
ambiguity with how they are expressed. This is where plus and minus signs can create
interpretation errors that the use of sharps and flats will solve. Some chord systems use
the minus sign to denote minor quality (e.g. C-9). The problem here is that the player
may assume (understandably) that the minus sign affects the ninth instead of the third.
The preferred way to express the dominant seventh chord with a lowered ninth is C7b9.
Raised extensions of the dominant seventh chord should be handled similarly (e.g.
C7#11). Be aware that for dominant seventh chords, the extensions #11, 13 and b13
function as substitutions for the unaltered fifth scale degree, which should not be included
in the voicing.

A symbol that often causes confusion is C7alt. This actually represents the altered scale:
C, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab and Bb (equivalent to the melodic minor scale beginning on Db).
The chord voicing could include the major third and minor seventh, plus any combination
of the upper extensions, b9, #9, #11 and/or b13. Once again, realize that the alterations
indicated apply to the major scale of the chords root note.

Suspended seventh chords are very common, expressed as Csus7 or with other added
extensions. The only difference is that the third scale degree is replaced by the fourth.
Remember, the sus refers to the third, not the seventh. Augmented and diminished
chords can also be puzzling in that the augmented refers to the fifth scale degree, but
the diminished affects both the fifth and seventh scale degrees. Caug7 means C, E, G#
and Bb; Cdim7 means C, Eb, Gb and A (actually Bbb). The double-flatted seventh scale
degree is what distinguishes the fully-diminished seventh chord (Cdim7) from the half-
diminished chord, Cmi7b5 (also expressed as C7). The only other potentially confusing
practice is the chord over a displaced root (e.g. Cmi7/F). This is simply the chord
voicing indicated including the root over a different bass note (in this case, C, Eb, G and
Bb over an F bass note).

You will find that these few guidelines, once learned will solve most of the mysteries
associated with reading chord symbols. If we, the members of the community of jazz
educators can come to an agreement on the expression of these symbols, we can open up
this world to greater acceptance within the ranks of all teachers of music. Adopting of
the system proposed here can go a long way toward realizing that lofty goal.
Symbol Scale Alternate symbols

C@, Cma, Cmaj


C, D, E, F, G, A, B
C

CM7, CJ, Cmaj7


C, D, E, F, G, A, B
Cma7

Cma6/9, Cmaj6/9, C@6/9


C, D, E, F, G, A, B
C6, C6/9

C, D, E, F, G, A, B
C(add9) C2, Cma(add9)

CJ#11, Cmaj7#11
C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
Cma7#11

C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B
Cmi Cm, C-, Cmin

C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B
Cmi6, Cmi6/9 Cm6/9, C-6/9 Cmin6/9

C-J, CmJ,,CmiJ,,C-(maj7)
C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B
Cmi(ma7)

C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb
Cmi7 Cm7, C-7, Cmin7

C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb
Cmi9, Cmi11 Cm9, C-9, Cmin9

C, D, Eb, F, Gb, A, Bb
C7, Cm7b5, C-7b5, Cmin7b5
Cmi7b5

C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb
C7 Cdom7

C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb
C9, C13 C7(9), C7(13), Cdom9, Cdom13

C, D, E, F#, G, A, Bb
C7#11 C7+11, C lydian dominant
C7b9 C, Db, E, F, G, A, Bb C7-9

C7b9, b13 C, Db, E, F, G, Ab, Bb


C7-9,-13

C, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bb


C7#9 C7+9
C7#9, b13 C, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bb
C7+9,-13, Calt

C, D, E, F#, G#, A, B
C7#5 Caug7, C+7

C, D, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, A, B


Cdim7 Co7

C, D, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, A, B


Cdim9 Co9