VII. Jazz

Lead sheet symbols

Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • Lead sheet symbols tell you the root of the triad, the quality of the triad, any extensions to the triad, and any non-  note.
  • Lead sheet 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 lead sheet symbol Cm(add#11)/Eb
Example 1. There are four components to a lead sheet symbol:
• the root of the triad
• the quality of the triad
• the presence of extensions to the triad
• the bass note of the chord

There are two systems of shorthand for discussing harmony used in this textbook: lead sheet symbols and Roman numerals. The term “lead sheet symbols” comes from the fact that you will find these on , which are jazz scores that typically notate only a melody and these chord symbols; Roman numerals are broadly applied to many different types of music.

Lead sheet 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 lead sheet symbol.

Lead sheet symbols basics

Triads

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

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

Example 2. Lead sheet symbols for triads.

Notice that there are several ways to represent each non-major triad quality. This is because lead sheet 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 its seventh. Sevenths are indicated with the Arabic number 7, written after the root, superscript (higher than the other letters).

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

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

Example 3. Lead sheet 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 they will prepare you to extrapolate from this information when you encounter an unfamiliar symbol.

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, lead sheet 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 C major 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 lead sheet 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.
  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 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♮. These altered extensions are often placed in parentheses to clarify that the accidental is to be applied to the extension, not to the root of the chord.

Alterations

add

To indicate that a note is added to a chord without implying additional extensions, the word “add” is written into the symbol. For example, Cadd2 indicates to play a C major triad with an additional D note, C D E G. (Because the added interval is 2, not 9, the D may be voiced within the triad. Cadd9 would imply that the D is voiced above the triad, C E G D.)

sus

Another alteration is the suspended chord, abbreviated “sus,” which indicates that the third of the chord should be replaced with the fourth 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 second 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.

Exercise

Check and see if you understand lead sheet notation 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.

Lead sheet symbols vs. Roman numerals

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

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

Lead sheet symbols are not analytical—they’re a shorthand way of writing a score. In other words, the purpose of lead sheet symbols is to get performers’ fingers to the right notes at the right time. Lead sheet symbols may represent things in a less functional sense if it means the symbol is easier to interpret. Example 5 is one example: 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—both will result in the right notes being played.)

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

Assignments
  • Lead sheet symbols basics worksheet (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify and write triads and seventh chords with lead sheet symbols.
  • Lead sheet symbols with extensions (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify and write extended chords with lead sheet symbols.

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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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