Chord Symbols
and What to Make of Them by Christiaan 'Niliov' van Hemert


This page is written for those who can't seem to figure out what those "little Letter/figure-combinations on leadsheets" mean. After reading and studying the contents of this page one should be able to understand chord-symbols. Now, there's a big difference between understanding and playing chord-symbols. If you are already familiar with chord-symbols and you want to know how to voice(play) them on the piano, study: "A Systematic Approach to Jazzpiano Voicings".

Every chord consists of at least three notes. In jazz however chords usually consist of four notes or more. On this page I divide chords into two groups:

Chords consisting of three notes (triads)
Chords consisting of four notes




Chords consisting of three notes (triads)

Triads consist of a root, a third and a fifth. This means that if you play the first(root), third and fifth note of any scale
at the same time, a triad will sound. Since on this page I don't want to go into scales I use the distance between notes and an "example-triad" with a "C"-root (i.e.: chord-symbols that start with "C").


MAJOR TRIAD (Chord-symbol: C)

A major triad is made up of:
the root: C
the major third, two whole tones up: E
the perfect fifth, three-and-half tones above the root: G

Some other examples would be:
A C# E, Eb G Bb or F# A# C#.

Obviously the major triad is called a major triad because of the major third.



MINOR TRIAD (Chord-symbol: Cm)

A minor triad is made up of:
the root: C
the minor third, one-and-a-half tones up: Eb
the perfect fifth, three-and-half tones above the root: G

Some other examples would be:
A C E, Eb Gb Bb or F# A C#.

Again the minor triad finds its name in the minor third!


DIMINISHED TRIAD (Chord-symbol: C)

A diminished triad is made up of:
the root: C
the minor third, one-and-a-half tones up: Eb
the diminished fifth, three whole tones above the root: Gb

Some other examples would be:
A C Eb, Eb Gb A or F# A C.

The dimished triad finds its name in the diminished fifth!


AUGMENTED TRIAD (Chord-symbol: C+)

A diminished triad is made up of:
the root: C
the major third, two whole tones up: E
the augmented fifth, four whole tones above the root: G#

Some other examples would be:
A C# F, Eb G B or F# A# D.

The augmented triad finds its name in the augmented fifth!

That's all there is to it. As you can see, understanding triads is an easy matter. I have chosen to use simple notenames; for example I used the F in stead of the E# in the A-augmented example. I strongly believe this makes things a lot easier to follow. If you do not have problem with it: fine. If you do, please: don't send me E-mail about it!




Chords consisting of four notes

I will explain these chords from small to large, i.e.: from the chord consisting of the smallest intervals to the chord consisting of the largest intervals.


DIMINISHED CHORD(7) (Chord symbol: C(7))

The diminished chord or dim-chord consists of minor thirds:
the root: C
the minor third: Eb
the diminishedfifth: Gb
the diminishedseventh: A

Note that an Eb-dim chord essentially has the same notes as the C-dim, only the root is an Eb, the third a Gb, the fifth an A and the seventh a C. Naturally a Gb-dim and the A-dim chord also consist of the same notes. This because minor thirds on top of each other always leads back to the same notes (try it at the piano). A D-dim consisting of D F Ab B is also a F, Ab and B-dim.


HALF-DIMINISHED CHORD (Chord symbol: Cm7b5)

The half-diminished chord consists of a dim-triad with a minor seventh, i.e.: only the fifth is diminished
the root: C
the minor third: Eb
the diminished fifth: Gb
the minor seventh, five whole tones above the root: Bb

Some other examples would be:
A C Eb G, Eb Gb A Db or F# A C E.



MINOR SIXTH CHORD (Chord symbol: Cm6)

The minor sixth chord consists of a minor triad with a major sixth.
the root: C
the minor third: Eb
the perfect fifth: G
the major sixth, four-and-a-half tones above the root: A

Some other examples would be:
A C E F#, Eb Gb Bb C or F# A C# D#.



MINOR SEVENTH CHORD (Chord symbol: Cm7)

The minor seventh chord consists of a minor triad with a minor seventh.
the root: C
the minor third: Eb
the perfect fifth: G
the minor seventh: Bb

Some other examples would be:
A C E G, Eb Gb Bb Db or F# A C# E.



MINOR MAJOR SEVENTH CHORD (Chord symbol: CmMaj7)

The minor major seventh chord consists of a minor triad with a major seventh.
the root: C
the minor third: Eb
the perfect fifth: G
the major seventh: B

Some other examples would be:
A C E G#, Eb Gb Bb D or F# A C# E#.



SIXTH CHORD (Chord symbol: C6)

The sixth chord consists of a major triad with a major sixth.
the root: C
the major third: E
the perfect fifth: G
the major sixth: A

Some people refer to this chord as "Cmajorsix". This also correct, but it can create some confusion (see
"major seventh").

Some other examples would be:
A C# E F#, Eb G Bb C or F# A# C# D#.



SEVENTH CHORD (Chord symbol: C7)

The seventh chord consists of a major triad with a minor seventh.
the root: C
the major third: E
the perfect fifth: G
the minor seventh: Bb

Never refer to this chord as "Cmajorseven". This is the confusion I mentioned before.

Some other examples would be:
A C# E G, Eb G Bb Db or F# A# C# E.



MAJOR SEVENTH CHORD (Chord symbol: CMaj.7)

The major seventh chord consists of a major triad with a major seventh.
the root: C
the major third: E
the perfect fifth: G
the major seventh: B

There is obviously a big difference between a seventh and a major seventh chord. Therefore try to avoid using the word "major" when referring to the triad of the chord. When in a chord symbol "major" or "minor" is not specified it is always a major triad. The word "major" in "Cmajorseven" is to specify a major seven instead of a minor seven.

Some other examples would be:
A C# E G#, Eb G Bb D or F# A# C# E#.





This is in my opinion some basic harmony every musician (classical or jazz/pop) should know. Of course understanding how chords are built is not the same as knowing each note in every chord. One should learn every chord in every key at the piano. This way a mental image can be created for all chords.


©1998 Christiaan 'Niliov' van Hemert. JRC.  JAZZ RESOURCE CENTER