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Chord symbols, how to read them

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In this lesson, you will learn how to read chord symbols. In many theory books and online tutorials you will find charts that help you read chord symbols, but if you understand how chord symbols work, you will find it much easier to learn how to play chords. We will therefore see how the different systems of abbreviations work, how to read chord symbols in Italian and English, and also the most common mistakes.

How chord symbols work

Chord abbreviations are symbols used to quickly indicate different types of chords. There is no universally recognised system of chord abbreviation, there are several systems and a trained musician must be able to read them all. You will therefore need to learn to recognise chords marked with different symbols.

Below is an index of the most commonly used marking systems. It may not be easy to memorise them all at once, but with a little patience you will learn how they work. Later on we will see why some symbols are used and others are not.

  • The minor chord is indicated by one of these signs: m, - , mi, Mi. For example: Cm, C-, Cmi, CMi
  • The major seventh is indicated with one of these symbols: maj7, Maj7, Ma7, Δ, 7+, for example: Fmaj7, Fmaj7, FMaj7, FMa7, FΔ, 7+. This last abbreviation is not recommended because the + is sometimes used for the (#5) and therefore the 7+ chord could be misinterpreted as 7(#5).
  • The augmented fifth is indicated by (#5), aug, +, (5+). Example: E(#5), Eaug, E+, E(5+)
  • The major sixth is indicated by 6. Example: A6, Am6 [this last abbreviation indicates the minor triad Am with the addition of the major sixth].
  • The minor sixth is very rare and its use is limited to minor chords (there is no major chord with a minor sixth). It is indicated by (♭6). Example: Cm(♭6)
  • The minor chord with the minor seventh and the diminished fifth (the chord found on the seventh degree of the major scale) is also called a half-diminished chord and is indicated by: m7(♭5), -7(♭5), ø. Example: Gm7(b5), G-7(b5), Gø
  • The diminished chord is indicated by dim, dim7, or o. Example: Bdim, Bdim7, Bo
  • The diminished fifth in other chord types is indicated by (♭5). Example: D7(♭5)

Chord symbols: three different types of markings

Lyrics with chords

In many music editions and online pages, chord symbols can be found alongside the lyrics of a song, as in this example (the song is Imagine by John Lennon).


lyrics with chord symbols
An example of lyrics with chords: the chord symbols are written above the words of the song

Writing lyrics and chords in this way is a very approximate system, as the performer must already know the duration of the chords and the precise moment at which they are to be played. The main limitations of this system are:

  • Any song, even the simplest, has some instrumental passages, e.g. an introduction or a part within the song. In the "lyrics plus chords" system, these passages are either omitted in their entirety, or at best are summarily written down.
  • Basing the accompaniment on the sung part is misleading, in fact normally the opposite happens: it is the singer who relies on the accompaniment (regular and precise) to sing the theme (in a more free and irregular way)

Chord symbols within a chord chart

The chord chart is a chord writing system in which the musical measures and the duration of the individual chords within them are written down. The chord chart provides precise information about the harmony and rhythm of a piece of music, but the melody part is completely missing.

an example of chord chart
The chord chart contains precise information on the duration of single chords

A chord chart can also be written quickly just before a concert, typically to give a written part to someone who does not have one. The chord chart is much clearer than just the lyrics with chords. Even someone who has never heard a particular piece of music can play it with a fair degree of accuracy. The chord chart is therefore a form of fast, emergency writing.

When possible, it is better to adopt an even better solution: a single staff with the main melody of the song, accompanied by the chords and, if necessary, the lyrics.

The lead sheet: melody line, lyrics and chords

The most complete and precise system for writing down chords on a song is the lead sheet, formed by a melody line on a single staff, lyrics and chords. In this case the chords have a rhythmically precise location.

The staff does not contain the main theme only, but anything that may be melodically relevant: a bass line, a riff or repeated pattern. Finally, the lead sheet may contain the lyrics of the song, or at least a part of them (typically the first verse).

The lead sheet is a universal score for all instruments in which each musician reads the part he is interested in but also keeps an eye on what the others are doing.

For example, a bass player will mainly read the chord symbols but may also follow the melody of the song. The pianist will play the chords and maybe a part of the melody. The singer will read the words and the melody, but may also follow the instrumental parts etc. The lead sheet is used in the famous Real Books, the collections of jazz and pop songs.

An example of lead sheet with melody, chords and lyrics
An example of lead sheet with melody, chords and lyrics

Where to write chord symbols: above or below the staff?

It is an established convention to write the chords above the staff and the text below. The Real Books for example use this system. Usually the words of the song are written below the staff, with the syllables corresponding to each note. If the words are below the staff, then obviously the chords have to go on top.

Sometimes beginner pianists tend to write chords below the staff, thinking that the chord symbols should replace the bass clef. Instead, it is more appropriate to maintain the more common arrangement and write the chord symbols above the staff, not below.

Italian notation and English chord symbols

In this lesson on chord symbols, we do not use the Italian notation Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si, but the international notation A B C D E F G to indicate the name of the notes. This system is often called "English notation" or "English chord symbols", but it is actually the medieval alphabetical notation, which was also used in Italy before Guido d'Arezzo gave the notes the syllabic name, used in solfeggio exercises.

Medieval alphabetical notation has remained in use in English-speaking countries and is therefore widespread internationally today. The system is easy to remember: just think that the names of the notes are made up of the letters of the alphabet and that you start counting from the note La instead of Do.

A is the note on which the tempered system is based, its frequency is set at 440 hertz and the other sounds are pitched accordingly. There is therefore a good reason to start with the note A, although it is just as reasonable to start counting and naming notes from the note C (or Do), as C is the first note of the natural major scale.

In any case, no matter which notation you prefer, you must learn to read chord numbers in both 'Italian' and international notation. Here is a guide to help you:

Medieval notation and Italian notation - note names
Medieval notation and Italian notation - note names

How to read chord symbols: understanding the underlying mechanism

In order to learn how to read chord symbols, in addition to using your memory, it can be useful to understand some mechanisms. In fact, all notation systems have two rules in common:

  • no symbol is used to indicate the major triad, the major chord is taken for granted. The minor chord can therefore be recognised because there is some kind of sign indicating it (m, -, E).
  • With regard to the indication of the 7, it is the opposite: the minor seventh is simply indicated by the number 7, and is therefore implied. The major seventh, on the other hand, can be recognised because there is some kind of sign indicating it (maj7, Maj7, Ma7, Δ, 7+).

A typical mistake made by beginners learning to read chord symbols is to split the abbreviation maj7 into two halves maj / 7, for example reading the chord Cmaj7 as:

Cmaj (major chord) / with the addition of 7

This interpretation of the chord symbol is incorrect because no sign is used to indicate the major triad, as it is implied. Cmaj7 should therefore be read as:

C (major triad) / with the addition of maj7 (major seventh)

To avoid making this mistake, it may be useful to remember this simple table:

minor seventh (7)major seventh (maj7, Maj7, Δ)
major third (implied)C7Cmaj7, CMaj7, CΔ
minor triad (- or m)C-7, Cm7C-maj7, C-Maj7, CmMaj7, CmΔ

If these concepts are too advanced for you, you may be interested in the Functional Harmony Video Course, to learn the most common chords, cadences and harmonic progressions.

Add chords and sus chords

While there are different abbreviations, add is generally used when a precise note is to be added to a chord (typically to a triad) e.g. Cadd2 : triad of C with the addition of the second (D).

The sus marking is usually limited to a very specific chord, the 7sus4 chord, in which the fourth is a replacement of the third, and not an addition.

The symbol sus2 is often misleadingly used to indicate an appoggiatura of the second degree on the first, i.e. a chord formed by 2-3-5 with the root played by the bassist (or the pianist's left hand). In this case it is more correct to write add2.

It would be correct to use the abbreviation sus2 to indicate a chord consisting only of 1-2-5, i.e. without a third and therefore "suspended" like the sus4 chord. However, it is worth being careful when you encounter a sus2 chord because it most often indicates an add2 chord or even a 9 chord.

As usual, when reading the chord symbols, you have to be prepared to interpret even those written ambiguously, unclearly or inconsistently.

Tensions and superior harmony

The voices of the chord above an octave, i.e. 9th, 11th and 13th, are called tensions or superior harmony. Sometimes the chord symbols specify the exact pitches to be used on each chord. In other cases, chord symbols leave the choice up to the player.

With regard to the indication of tensions, the chord symbols can have three different approaches:

  1. The chord symbols never indicate any tension. In this case, it is the performer who must know when he can add tensions to the chords, and which ones are allowed.
  2. The chord symbols only indicate the tensions that are played in the theme. For example, if the theme plays D on a C7 chord, the chord symbol will show be C9. This is the most common behaviour in the classic "Real Books".
  3. The chord symbols show exactly all the tensions of the chord. This is indispensable in orchestral scoring, where no is allowed to play tensions at random because they risk creating friction with those played by some other instrument. The complete notation of the tensions in chord symbols is also recommended if there are two harmonic instruments in the group (e.g. piano and guitar).

The handling of tensions in the different marking systems is therefore also variable: we can find them all written, or none at all. There are also several intermediate situations, in which the chord symbols carry only the most important tensions, or those included in the theme.

Implied minor seventh

When the chord symbol indicate tensions 9,11,13 and there is no mention of the seventh, this is normally a minor seventh. For example

C9 : C7 chord with addition of the 9th

Em11 : Em7 chord with addition of the 11th

D9sus4: D7sus4 chord with addition of the 9th

In what order are the alterations written in the chord symbols?

Normally the chord symbols are structured in this order:

  • Indication of the third of the chord. The third is implied major unless otherwise specified.
  • Indication of the seventh of the chord. The minor seventh is indicated by 7, the major by various symbols such as maj7, Maj7, Ma7, 7+, Δ
  • Indication of the fifth of the chord, only if it is altered: #5, +, ♭5. if no such indication is given, the fifth is implied to be perfect (unaltered)
  • Indications on the upper voices of the chord in this order: 9, 11, 13

The order of the indications is therefore: 3, 7, 5, 9, 11, 13

It may seem strange that the fifth is indicated after the seventh and before the ninth, and that a progressive order is not followed 3 5 7 9 etc., yet it is common practice to write the indication of the seventh first and then the indication of the fifth.

However, you may sometimes find the chord m7♭5 written as m(♭5)7, if you ever find such an abbreviation be prepared to interpret it correctly, but do not use it on your own initiative because many would be confused.

As we said at the beginning of this lesson: there is no universally recognised system of abbreviations. We must therefore be prepared to read chord symbols written in the most diverse ways, sometimes very fanciful and unclear.

From time to time, someone thinks they have invented a better system than all the others, so we find books with the chords written in yet another way, resulting in even more confusion.

Final remarks

I hope that this lesson has helped you to understand how to read chord symbols. Knowing how to read chord numbers is very important for playing modern music, songs and all those pieces for which we don't have a complete music sheet. If you found this lesson useful, please share it with your friends. If you have any questions or would like to add something, please leave a comment. And don't forget to download the complete chart with all the chord symbols! Thanks, see you soon.

download the complete chart with all the chord symbols

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