VI. Jazz

Chord symbols

Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • Chord symbols tell you the root of the triad, the quality of the triad, any extensions to the triad, and any non-  note.
  • Chord symbols don’t reference a specific key. Instead, symbols are always assumed to be a certain quality unless otherwise indicated:
    • Triads are assumed to be major.
    • 7ths added to the triad are assumed to be minor.
    • All other extensions and added tones are assumed to be major/perfect.
  • Alterations are shown through sharp and flat symbols, or through plus and minus symbols. Both systems are prevalent in the real world; when writing your own charts, pick one system and stick with it consistently. This textbook will use the sharp/flat system of showing alterations.
annotations on a chord symbol Cm(add#11)/E♭
Example 1. There are four components to a chord symbol: 1) the root of the triad, 2) the quality of the triad, 3) the presence of extensions beyond the triad, and 4) the bass note.

There are two systems of shorthand for discussing harmony used in this textbook: and Roman numerals. Chord symbols are also sometimes called “lead sheet symbols,” which comes from the fact that you will find these on , which are jazz scores that typically notate only a melody and these chord symbols.

Chord symbols can pack a lot of information into a few letters. A complex symbol is given in Example 1, with annotations to show the various possible components of a chord symbol.

Basics of chord symbols

Triads

Chord symbols are based on the as the norm. If you see nothing but a note name as a chord symbol, this means to play a major triad. Other symbols are added to indicate other . This is summarized in the table below.

triad quality chord symbol (for a chord with a root of C)
major C
minor Cm, Cmi, C-
diminished Co, Cdim, Cm(♭5), Cm(-5)
augmented C+, Caug

Example 2. Chord symbols for triads.

Notice that there are several ways to represent each non-major triad quality. This is because chord symbols were created along the way, and were never completely standardized. The examples in these tables are not comprehensive, but you can likely decode other variations based on the ones here. It’s good to be aware of all the possible ways of representing these different triad qualities, but stick to one method for yourself. The symbols used in this textbook are given first.

Seventh chords

The most common addition to a triad is the interval of a 7th. An added 7th is indicated with the Arabic number 7, written after the root, .

As with the triad, there is a default understanding of the 7, and alterations to the 7 indicate other possibilities. The default quality for the 7 is minor. This results in the seventh-chord symbols summarized below.

Note: because triads are major by default and 7s are minor by default, the symbol C7 indicates a dominant-quality seventh chord (major triad + minor 7th).

seventh-chord quality chord symbol (for a chord with a root of C)
dominant seventh chord C7
major seventh chord Cmaj7, C∆7, Cma7
minor seventh chord Cm7, C-7, Cmi7
half-diminished seventh chord Cø7, Cm7♭5, C-7♭5
diminished seventh chord Co7

Example 3. Chord symbols for seventh chords.

This table only shows the five traditional seventh , but others are possible, such as a m(maj7), aug7, and more. Again, these tables are not comprehensive, but when you encounter an unfamiliar symbol, you should be able to use your knowledge of basic symbols to figure out what an unusual symbol means.

Bass notes

In much of jazz and pop, the note is the of the chord. (Bassists may improvise around other notes, rather than strictly staying on the root of the chord, but this wouldn’t affect how the harmony is written down.) For this reason, chord symbols are assumed to indicate chords, unless otherwise indicated.

If the bass note should be something other than the root, this is shown with a slash followed by the letter name of the bass note. For example, C/E means to play a C-major triad with an E in the bass.

Significantly, the bass note does not need to be a member of the chord! C/F♯ would indicate to play a C-major triad over an F♯.

Extensions

notation
Example 4. Adding more thirds beyond the 7th produces 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.

Jazz harmony often involves playing not only the notes explicitly indicated by the chord symbol, but also adding upper extensions. The term comes from the idea of extending the stack of thirds that creates harmonies. The 7th is the most common triadic extension, but jazz often makes use of higher extensions—stacking more and more thirds onto the basic triad results in the 9th, 11th, and 13th (Example 4).

Interval size

You may notice that 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths are just versions of 2nds, 4ths, and 6ths, respectively, so why use the more difficult-to-conceptualize compound intervals, instead of just calling these intervals 2nds/4ths/6ths? There are two reasons:

  1. The presence of an extension in a chord symbol implies the presence of all other extensions below it as well. So an 11th chord is not just a triad plus the 11th—it’s a triad plus an 11th, 9th, and 7th.[1]
  2. Extensions are usually voiced (played) above the other chord members. In other words, in actual performed music, the extension really sounds a 13th above the root, not a 6th (for example).

Interval quality

Like the 7th, extensions have an assumed interval Unlike the 7th, extensions and additions are assumed to be major or perfect unless otherwise indicated. The chord in Example 4, then, is simply a C13 chord: all the extensions are major/perfect intervals above C, except the seventh (B♭), which is minor.

Other interval qualities are shown with sharp and flat symbols. So a C7(♯11) chord would include an F♯ above the root—an augmented 11th—instead of the typical F♮.

Example 5. Accidentals in chord symbols and in the corresponding notation—note that in chord symbols, sharp/flat signs indicated a bigger/smaller interval, and not necessarily an actual sharp/flat note.

Note that in this context, these symbols are to be interpreted . So, ♯11 really means “raise the 11th” and ♭9 really means “lower the 9th“—as Example 5 shows, you may or may not actually see a sharp or flat sign in the notation (and of course, these chords are often not notated at all). This is discussed more below under “Lead Sheet Symbols vs. Roman Numerals.”

For clarity, altered extensions are often placed in parentheses, so that a performer can easily see that the accidental is to be applied to the extension, not to the root of the chord. If multiple altered extensions are used, slashes might also be used to clearly delineate the alterations, as shown in Example 5.

Added notes (add) and suspensions (sus)

add

Example 6. Examples of chords with added notes.

To indicate that a note is added to a chord without implying additional extensions, the word “add” is written into the symbol. Cadd9, for example, is a C-major triad with a D voiced above the triad, but without any seventh: C–E–G–D. (Recall that C9 otherwise implies a minor seventh added to the C triad: C–E–G–B♭–D.)

You can also add notes within a triad: Cadd2 indicates a C-major triad with an additional D that may be voiced inside the triad, C–D–E–G.

“6” is a special case: it’s shorthand for “add6.” It’s okay (and normal) not to write “add” in this case for two reasons: one, the added sixth is especially common, and two, there is no other possible interpretation that one might confuse it with. So, triads that add a major 6th will simply say, for example, C6. Another common addition to triads is the sixth and ninth together, which is also indicated without the word “add”: for example, C6/9.

sus

Example 7. Chords with suspensions (sus chords).

Another alteration is the suspended chord, abbreviated “sus,” which indicates that the third of the chord should be replaced with another interval above the root (Example 6).

The default assumption is that the chord third is replaced with a perfect 4th above the root. Csus, then, would yield the notes C–F–G—the E of the C triad is replaced with F.

Occasionally, you may see a sus2 chord, which replaces the third with the major 2nd above the root (Csus2 = C–D–G). The term comes from a common type of suspension, in which the fourth above the bass resolves to the third above the bass. Indeed, a sus chord will often be followed by a non-sus chord with the same root (though this is not required by any means).

If you are asking for a 7th/extended chord with a suspension, the “sus” abbreviation comes after extension, as in C7sus. This is for clarity’s sake, since Csus7 might look too much like Csus2.

 

Try it!

Check and see if you understand chord symbols by taking out a sheet of scrap paper and notating the harmonies indicated by the chord symbols below. As you complete each chord, you can pull the slider to the right to reveal the correct answer.

You can also view and listen to the answer on Musescore.com.

Chord symbols vs. Roman numerals

It’s important to understand that chord symbols are  labels, while Roman numerals are  labels. Roman numerals are more theoretical and abstract, because they tell you the location of a chord relative to the key of the piece. Chord symbols, on the other hand, tell you exactly (absolutely) which notes are being played in this given chord, without reference to any key. It’s important to leave the relative thinking behind temporarily when you interpret chord symbols. Chord symbols do not reference keys.

notation
Example 7. In many contexts, the simpler symbol C/A♭ may be preferred to something more analytically descriptive, like A♭7(#5).

Chord symbols are not analytical—they’re a shorthand way of writing a score. In other words, the purpose of chord symbols is to get performers’ fingers to the right notes at the right time. Chord symbols may represent things in a less functional sense if it means the symbol is easier to interpret. Example 7 is one case: although the second chord really functions as an A♭7(#5) chord, neighboring to the regular A♭ triad, the symbol C/A♭ is probably easier to process, and thus preferred. (However, neither symbol is inherently right or wrong all the time—both will result in the right notes being played, and the better choice depends on context.)

Keeping these issues in mind helps to understand the logic present in the system of chord symbols. Even though there is a lot of variation in chord symbols, learning a few rules will help you decipher any symbol.

Assignments
  1. Chord symbols basics worksheet (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify and write triads and seventh chords with chord symbols.
  2. Chord symbols with extensions (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify and write extended chords with chord symbols.

Media Attributions


  1. Although all the extensions below the highest extension are implied, they are not necessarily played. In fact, usually all the possible notes are not played, and some of the extensions between the highest and the 7th are omitted. The differences between what is notated, what is understood, and what is actually played is discussed more in the chapter on Jazz Voicings.

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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