Chord Notation Discussion

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When we say Chord notation, it
refers to the written notation for musical chords using chord symbols. Although these symbols are used occasionally in classical music, they are "universally used in jazz and popular music" to specify the harmony of compositions, usually inside lead sheets (cheat sheets) and fake books.


1 Chord symbols and staff notation
2 Intervals
3 Chord Notation
4 Triads
4.1 Major Triads
4.2 Minor Triads
4.3 Augmented Triads
4.4 Diminished Triads
5 Sevenths
6 Extended tertian chords
6.1 9ths
6.2 11ths
6.3 13ths
7 Added Chords
8 Suspended Chords
9 Inversions
10 Hybrid chords
10.1 Upper structures
10.2 Polychords
11 Notes
12 References
13 See also

Chord symbols and staff notation

 Although it is possible to notate any chord using staff notation, showing not only the harmonic characteristics but also the exact voicing, staff notation is more difficult to read, requiring years of training. It may also provide too much information, making improvisation difficult. In fact, although voicings can and do have a significant effect on the subjective musical qualities of a composition, generally these interpretations retain the central characteristics of the chord. This provides an opportunity for improvisation within a defined structure and is important to improvised music such as jazz. Other problems are that voicings for one instrument are not necessarily physically playable on another (for example, the thirteenth chord, played on piano with up to seven notes, is usually played on guitar as a 4- or 5-note voicing that is impossible to play on piano with one hand).

As a result of these limitations, a shorthand describing the harmonic characteristics of chords is used. For more information on chords themselves, see Chord (music). This article concerns systems of notation for chords, rather than the chords themselves.


A chord consists of two or more notes played simultaneously that are certain intervals apart. The following table shows the labels given to these intervals and the respective notes for each of the twelve keys. Chord notation provides a shorthand for intervals, not actual notes. This table provides a mapping of intervals to actual notes to play.

Chord Notation

The first part of a symbol for a chord defines the root of the chord. The root of the chord will always be played by one of the instruments in the ensemble (usually by a bass instrument) failure to include the root means that the indicated chord is not being played. By convention, the root alone indicates a simple major triad, i.e., the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth above the root. After this, various additional symbols are added to modify this chord. There is unfortunately no universal standard for these symbols. The most common ones are presented here. Chord notation does not easily provide for ways of describing all chords. Some chords can be very difficult to notate, and others that exist theoretically are rarely encountered. For example, there are 6 possible permutations of triads (chords with three notes) involving minor and major thirds and augmented/diminished and perfect fifths. However, conventionally only four are used (major, minor, augmented and diminished). There is nothing to stop a composer using the other two, but the question of what to call them is interesting. A minor third with an augmented fifth might be, for example, Am+, which will strike most musicians as odd; in fact, this turns out to be the same as F/A (see slash chords below). A major third with a diminished fifth might be shown as A(?5). Usually, when a composer requires a chord that is not easily described using this notation, he/she will indicate the required chord in a footnote or in the header of the music.


Major Triads

A major triad can be built on each note:

Referring to the interval table, we can see that the notes to play for C are the root C, the major third E and the perfect fifth G. For Bb the notes are Bb, D, F:

For the rest of this article, we will build our examples using C as the root of our chords.

Minor Triads

Minor triads are the same as major triads, but with the third lowered by a half step. The most common notations are as follows:

Augmented Triads

These are the same as a major triad, but with an augmented fifth instead of a perfect fifth. The most common ways to notate this are as follows:


Diminished Triads

Diminished triads are similar to minor triads, but with a diminished fifth instead of a perfect fifth (the minor third is retained). The most common ways this is notated are as follows:

Please note that while the above symbols are commonly seen, the technically correct way to write a C diminished triad is C.

A seventh chord is a triad with an added note, which is either a major 7th above the root, a minor 7th above the root (flatted 7th), or a diminished 7th above the root (double flatted 7th). Note that the diminished 7th note is enharmonically the same note as the major 6th above the root of the chord.

There are several different kinds of seventh chords, including major, dominant, minor, and diminished. For example, if you add the major 7th interval to your triad the resulting chord is called a major 7th, because the note you are adding to your triad is a major 7th interval above the root and the base chord is a major chord. A major chord built with the flatted 7th note above the root is known as a major-minor 7th chord, or a dominant 7th chord, or simply just a 7th chord. However, a dominant 7th chord usually refers to a chord built on the 5th note of the scale (in C major, this would be G). The G chord is the dominant (V) chord in the key of C major, therefore a G7 chord in C major is the dominant 7th, and all the notes used in this chord are diatonic to the key of C Major.

The table below shows the various kinds of 7th chords:

 Note: A chord written with a minus sign to the right without any other symbol is a straight minor chord.

Extended tertian chords

Extended tertian chords add further notes onto 7th chords. Of the 7 notes in the major scale, a seventh chord uses only 4. The other 3 notes can be added in any combination; however, just as with the triads and seventh chords, notes are most commonly stacked a seventh implies that there is a fifth and a third and a root. In practice, especially in jazz, certain notes can be omitted without changing the quality of the chord.

The 9th, 11th and 13th chords are known as Extended Tertian Chords. As the scale repeats for every seven notes in the scale, these notes are enharmonic to the 2nd, 4th, and 6th except they are more than an octave above the root. However, this does not mean that they must be played in the higher octave. Although changing the octave of certain notes in a chord (within reason) does change the way the chord sounds, it does not change the essential characteristics or tendency of it. Accordingly, using 9th, 11th and 13th in chord notation implies that the chord is an extended tertian chord rather than an added chord (see Added Chords below).


These are chords with the note that is an interval of a ninth added to the chord. The 9th notation implies that the 7th is also included in the chord, though in some cases it may be omitted. 9ths may be theoretically added to any type of chord, however they are most commonly seen with Major, Dominant and Minor sevenths. The most commonly omitted note for voicings is the perfect 5th.


These are theoretically 9th chords with the 4th note in the scale added. However, it is common to leave certain notes out. As well as the 5th, the 9th (2nd) can be omitted. The major 3rd is omitted because of a strong dissonance with the 11th (4th), therefore called an "avoid note". Omission of the 3rd reduces an 11th chord to the corresponding suspended 7th or 9th chord and it is properly no longer an 11th chord (see Added Chords below). Similarly, omission of the 5th in a sharped 11th chord reduces its sound to a flat-five chord.

Alterations from the natural diatonic chords can be specified as C
9#11 etc.


These are theoretically 11th chords with the 6th note in the scale added. Again it is common to leave certain notes out. After the 5th, the most commonly omitted note is the troublesome 11th (4th). The 9th (2nd) can also be omitted. A very common voicing on guitar for a 13th chord, for example, is just the root, 7th, 3rd and 13th (6th).

Added Chords

An important characteristic of jazz is the extensive use of sevenths. The combination of 9th (2nd), 11th (4th) and 13th (6th) notes with 7ths in a chord give jazz chord voicing their distinctive sound.

However the use of these notes is not exclusive to the jazz genre; in fact they are very commonly used in folk, classical and popular music generally. Without the 7th, these chords lose their jazzy feel, but can still be very complex. These chords are called added chords because they are basic triads with notes added. Added chords can be described as having a more open sound than extended chords. Notation must provide some way of showing that a chord is an added chord as opposed to extended. There are two ways this is shown generally, and it is very common to see both methods on the same score. One way is to simply use the word 'add':

This would indicate that the 13th is added to the 7th, but without the 9th and 11th. The use of 2, 4 and 6 as opposed to 9, 11 and 13 pretty safely indicates that the chord does not include a 7th unless specifically specified. However, it does not mean that these notes must be played within an octave of the root, nor the extended notes in 7th chords should be played outside of the octave, although it is commonly the case. It is possible to have added chords with more than one added note. The most commonly encountered of these are 6/9 chords, which are basic triads with the 6th and 2nd notes of the scale added. These can be confusing because of the use of 9, yet the chord does not include the 7th. A good rule of thumb is that if any added note is less than 7, then no 7th is implied, even if there are some notes shown as greater than 7.

Suspended Chords

Finally, mention should be made of a special kind of commonly encountered chord, the suspended chord. A suspended chord is a triad where the 3rd is replaced by another note. In practice the 3rd is replaced either by the 4th or the 2nd. These are called suspended chords because they create an impression of suspense. These chords "desire" to resolve into a normal triad. Suspended chords are notated with the symbols "sus4" or "sus2". Sometimes you will see "sus" on its own, in which case the 4 is implied. This can be combined with any other notation. So for example: Csus9

This chord is an extended 9th chord with the 3rd replaced by the 4th (C-F-G-Bb-D). However, the major third can be added as a tension above the 4th to "colorize" the chord (C-F-G-Bb-D-E). A sus4 chord with the added major third (sometimes called a major 10th) can also be quartally voiced as C-F-Bb-E.



In addition to all of the ways of building chords (listed above), a chord may be inverted. Inverting a chord refers to playing a chord, but with a note other than the root as the lowest note of the chord. Take, for example, the C Major Chord. Refer to the table below for a list of inversions.

 C Major Chord

 The notation C/E indicates that you are playing a C major chord, but with an E in the bass, likewise the notation C/G indicates that a C major chord is played with a G in the bass.

Hybrid chords

 Upper structures

 Those are notated in a similar manner to inversions, except that the bass note is not necessarily a chord tone.

 Examples: C/Ab (Ab C E G), equivalent to AΔ75;

C/E (E G C F); Am/D (D A C E) etc.

 Chord notation in jazz usually leaves a certain amount of freedom to the player as for voicing chords, also adding tensions at the player's discretion. Therefore, upper structures are most useful when the composer wishes for a specific tension array to be played.


produces a certain coloration of the following chord progression:


Polychords, as the name suggests, are combinations of two or more chords. The most commonly found form of a polychord is a bi-chord (two chords played simultaneously) and is written as follows:

In case a very specific voicing is needed, the individual chords can be written in their desired inversions,for example: