Chord Symbols In Music: A Complete Guide

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Chords are one of the most foundational aspects of music theory, and basically the tools with which harmony is thought of and created. They are so important that almost every piece of music you see or write will have chords, and a way to identify those chords quickly.

This is why this post will help you learn all about the different chord symbols in music. There are a lot of different chords, and learning their symbols and markings will help you read them more efficiently and understand them better. First, however, let’s recap what a chord is. 

What is a Chord? 

A chord in music is basically just two or more notes played at the same time.

Most of the time, the combination of these notes will create what we call harmony, and we can put different chords back to back in order to create a song. 

Here are a few different chords: 

Chords

As you can see in the example, the way we label a chord is with two parts.

First there is a letter, and this followed by either a small abbreviated word, letter, shape, number or a combination of two of them.

Let’s dive in to see exactly what both of these parts means.

Letters in Chord Symbols

Every chord symbol or marking first starts with a letter.

This letter represents what we call the root note of the chord.

The root of a chord is the note that the chord is built upon and is how people refer to the chord as a whole. 

Here are the notes of a C Major chord, with the root of the chord in red, because that is the note of C:

The Root of a C major Chord

If you’ve ever heard someone say “C chord” or “Play G followed by D and then A”, these are the roots of the chords they represent, and are used as shorthand so we don’t always have to name the whole chord every time. 

If we refer to a chord by only its root, then we’re mostly likely referring to type of chord called a Major triad.

These are the most common and most “normal” type of chord, which is why we can shorten it to just the root note.

So, the phrase “Play G followed by D and then A” can be heard as “Play a G Major triad followed by a D Major triad and then an A Major triad”, as shown here:

Major triads

The Second Part of Chord Symbols: Quality

The root of the chord is only one half of how we think about and notate chords.

There is always a second part of chord symbols, which we use to define the quality of the chord. 

A chord’s quality is basically a fancy way of saying what “kind” of chord it is. 

There are six main chord qualities:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Augmented
  • Diminished
  • Half-diminished
  • Dominant

For each of these six chord qualities we have a symbol or abbreviation (and sometimes multiple options) that indicates to play that chord quality.

This saves us from having to write out “C Half-Diminished” on sheet music, because we often don’t have the space to write it. 

Here’s a table of each type of chord quality along with the various shorthand symbols that can be used.

Chord QualitySymbol/ShorthandExample
MajorNo symbol, Maj, M, ΔC, CMaj, CM, CΔ
Minormin, m, – Cmin, Cm, C-
AugmentedAug, +Caug, C+
DiminishedO, dimCO, Cdim
Half-DiminishedØCø
Dominantdom, 7Cdom, C7

Seventh Chord Symbols

Most of the chord qualities listed above are used when referring to triads (chords with three notes).

Triads use the root, third, and fifth of a scale to create a chord. 

However, you can add another note, or multiple, to a triad.

Adding the seventh of a scale gives you a four-note chord called a seventh chord

Because triads are the most common type of chord, we don’t have to write anything to specify a triad, but if we want to specify that a chord we’re playing or writing is a seventh chord, we need to add another symbol.

Mainly this is the number “7”, but not always. 

Chord QualitySymbol/ShorthandExample
Major SeventhMaj7, M7, Δ7CMaj7, CM7, CΔ7
Minor Seventhmin, m, – Cmin7, Cm7, C-7
Augmented SeventhAug7, +7, 7#5 Caug7, C+7, C7#5 
Diminished SeventhO7, dim7CO7, Cdim7
Half-Diminished SeventhØ, Ø7, m7b5Cø, Cø7, Cm7b5
Dominant Seventhdom, 7Cdom, C7

As you can see in the table, the qualities of “half-diminished” and “dominant” can use the same symbols to refer to a triad or a seventh chord. 

This is because one of the necessary requirements for these two qualities is to have a seventh added into the chord.

So, if you see a half-dim or dominant symbol (Cø or C7), you should always play a seventh chord.

Extended Chords

In addition to triads and seventh chords, you can write and play chords with more than four notes.

The most common of these extended chords are ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths. 

Just like seventh chords, you can notate these chords by adding a 9, 11, or 13 to the symbols above (in the place the 7 would go). 

For example, a C13 chord (C dominant 13th), Gm9 (G minor 9th), DΔ11 (D Major 11th), or F+13 (F augmented 13th): 

Examples of Extended Chord Symbols

Other Chord Symbols

So far we have looked at how to read and write the chord symbols for regular triads, seventh chords, and extended chords.

While these are the most common types of chords you will see, there are a lot of other types of chords that you might come across. 

You should know how to recognize these chord symbols so you know what they mean.

Added Tone Chords

Another type of chord symbol you might see is added tone chords.

This is when you want to add an extra note. 

For example, say you had a C major chord (C – E – G) and wanted to “add” the 9th (C – E – G – D) onto the chord.

If you write a C9 chord, that adds both the 7th and the 9th (C – E – G – Bb – D), and you might not want the dominant chord sound.

Instead, you simply write “add9” at the end of the chord symbol – Cadd9, for example.

This says to the player “Play a C major chord, but also add the 9th”. 

You can do the same with any note, but you almost always see it as either “add9”, “add11”, or “add13”. 

Added tone chords

Altered Chords

Another type of chord symbol you might see is for altered chords.

Chords with altered tones in them work the same way as added tones chords – you simply add the note and the alteration to the end of the chord symbol. 

If you have a C7 chord (C – E – G – Bb), and you want to lower the 5th (G) to an Gb, you would just write a “b5” at the end of the symbol – C7b5. 

Or, if you have a C7 chord (C – E – G – Bb), and you want to raise the 5th (G) to an G#, you would just write a “#5” at the end of the symbol – C7#5. 

Altered chords

Suspended Chords

All of the chords we have been talking about so far have had the same three notes – the root, the 3rd, and the 5th – as the three main notes of the chord.

However, Suspended Chords are different. 

We write Suspended chord symbols with the abbreviation “sus”.

There are two types of suspended chords – we label these as sus2 and sus4 chords: 

  • Csus2: G – C – D
  • Csus4: G – A – D
Suspended chords

Because sus4 chords are the more common of the two, we can take off the 4 at the end and just write “sus”.

So, if you see Gsus, you can just read it as “Gsus4”.

We can add extended chord tones, added tones, or altered tones on top of sus chords as well. 

Slash Chords and Polychords

A Slash Chord is a chord in which the lowest note is not the root note.

These can be notes that are already within the chord (in which case they’re also called inverted chords), or outside of the chord. 

Take an DMaj 7 chord as an example, D – F# – A – C#.

The “D” is the root of the chord, but any of these notes can be the lowest note when played.

For example, if we wanted the 5th to be the lowest note we’d write it as DMaj7/A: 

The “slash” part simply means that we take a slash (/) and put it between the chord symbol and the note that is at the bottom.

So, if an C chord was played with a E at the bottom, the chord would be – C/E or a G chord was played with a B at the bottom it would be G/B: 

The note after the slash can also be a non-chord tone.

Like in the case of DMaj7, you can have DMaj7/E, or DMaj7/G for example. 

Summary

As you can see, there are many different types of chords and many different ways to write them.

The best practice you can do is to just read and play lots of music, and especially jazz music and standards because they have a lot of chord symbols throughout. 

We hope this was able to help you read and write music better!

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Written by Samuel Chase
Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.