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Inside Music:
"Understanding Chord Names & Symbols" (Part 1)
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, February 2000

Chord names are used in two main ways: following directions from someone else (a band-mate, sheet music, a lyric sheet) as to what chord to play, or naming some chord that you're already playing or that you want someone else to play. Let's look at how chord symbols work. If this material is a little over your head, look at my earlier series of articles on harmony (May-August 1999).

The simplest chords we use are the major and minor triads. Major triads have a root, a major third, and a perfect fifth; minor triads have a root, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. The third of a triad is a third up from the root, and the fifth is a fifth up from the root. Major and minor triads differ in only one respect: major triads have a major third, and minor triads have a minor third. (There are two other kinds of triads, diminished and augmented triads, which we will leave for a later time.)

Triads have the simplest names: C Major, A minor, etc. In fact, major triads are often named using a single letter (A, E, D, etc). Other abbreviations for Major are Maj. and M, or a triangle; abbreviations for minor are min, m, or a dash.

The next-most-complex chords are seventh chords. Even if you've not played them much, you've probably seen them in songs, and you've certainly heard them a million times. Just as the names of the third and fifth tell you how far they are from the root, the seventh is a seventh above the root. For now, you can think of a seventh chord as a triad with a fourth note added, a seventh above the root. The most common seventh chords are Major 7th, minor 7th, and dominant 7th. (There are more which, again, we'll leave for another time.)

Sometimes people get "seventh chord" confused with "seventh," which is an interval. That is, there are Major 7th chords, and there are major sevenths (two notes a maj. 7th apart). Be clear which is which. In practice, when saying the name of an actual chord, you just say "seven" instead of "seventh." That is, you'd say "C Major 7" rather than "C Major 7th."

Like thirds, a seventh (the interval) can be major or minor. For example, C to B is a major seventh, but C to B-flat is a minor seventh. The name of a seventh chord will tell you what kind of seventh it has. In major and minor chords, the seventh will be same as the third, i.e. in Major 7 chords, both the 3 and 7 are major, and in minor 7 chords, the 3 and 7 are both minor. For example, C Major 7 is C, E, G, and B. C minor 7 chord is C, E-flat, G, and B-flat. The dominant 7th chord is a sort of hybrid of the other two. It has a major third but a minor seventh; a C dominant 7 is C, E, G, and B-flat.

Major 7 can be written as Maj. 7, M7, or a triangle and a 7; the minor 7 can be written as min7, m7, or a dash and a 7; and the dominant 7 can be written as dom7, or just 7; that is, C7 really means C dom7. Some are some examples you've probably seen before: GM7 = G Major 7. D-7 = D minor 7. A7 = A dom7.

Notice that the seventh is not only a seventh above the root, but also a second below the root. For example, in C7 (C, E, G, and B-flat), notice that the seventh (B-flat) is a whole step below the next C, which is useful if you want to play the chord tones in some other order than 1-3-5-7. A major seventh is a min. second (half-step) below the root, and a minor seventh is a maj. second (whole step) below the root.

Other numbers in a chord tell you to add a tone which is that far above the root. For example, a C6 is a C Major triad with an A added to it, because A is a sixth above the root. Numbers higher than 7 (which are called extensions) mean the same thing. The extensions are 9, 11, and 13. To figure out how relate to the root, just subtract 7. For example, 9 - 7 = 2, so the 9 is really just a second up from the root. 11 - 7 = 4, so an 11 is a 4th up from the root. And the 13 is the same as a 6. So why not call it a 6? We'll get to that next time. For now, just get familiar with finding the right notes for extensions. For example, the 9 in a C chord would be D; the 11 would be F; and the 13 would be A

Try finding these extensions in relation to other chords, and we'll look at these more complex chords in greater depth next time. Enjoy!

© Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.

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