This article sets out to shed some light on the world of chords and bewildering array of letters, numbers and symbols that define them. The first thing to understand is that chord names are split into two halves

  1. The pitch of the chord
  2. The type of chord

The Pitch of the Chord

This part of the chord name refers to how high or low the chord is.  There are 12 different possible pitches:

  1. A
  2. A#/Bb
  3. B
  4. C
  5. C#/Db
  6. D
  7. D#/Eb
  8. E
  9. F
  10. F#/Gb
  11. G
  12. G#/Ab

Like on a piano – the sharp(#) and flat (b) notes are the black notes and the others (called naturals) are the white notes. If a chord name begins with A – A will be the root note.  If it begins with Ab – Ab will be the root note.

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The Type of Chord

This is where it can go a bit crazy.  The chord type refers to the other notes that are added to the root note to give the chord it’s characteristic feel.  Here are a selection of very common and not quite so common chord types with explanations:

  • major – major chords are so common that the word major is normally omitted.  So the chord A is actually A major; the chord C# is C# major
  • minor – usually shown with a lower case m.  Am is A minor.  D#m is D sharp minor. Major and minor chords are the most common.  They are made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the relevant scale.  i.e. C major comprises the notes C, E and G from the C major scale.  Em has E, G and B from the E minor scale.
  • 7 – means a note has been added – the 7th note of the relevant scale – see other article just on 7 chords
  • m7 – minor 7
  • maj7 – major 7 – a variation on the 7 chord
  • 6 – like 7, a note is added – the 6th note of the relevant scale
  • sus4 – suspended 4 – the 4th note is added, giving a suspended, unfinished feel to the chord
  • 9 – the 9th note is added on top of the 7th
  • 11 – the 11th is added on top of 7th and 9th
  • 13 – the 13th is added on top of 7th, 9th and 11th
  • add 9 – just the 9th note of the scale is added
  • aug – augmented.  The fifth note is raised a semitone
  • dim – diminished. The fifth note is lowered a semitone.

 

More on chord types

Some chord types sound happy, some sad.  Others are bluesy, wistful or relaxing.

As a general rule, the higher the number that goes with a chord, the more jazzy it will sound.

Every chord will have at least 2 different notes.  They used to say 3, but power chords have two, and you can’t really ignore power chords!

Major and minor chords are the most common.  These are made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the corresponding scale.  That is, the chord C major comprises the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the C major scale.  The Gm chord comprises the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G minor scale.

Other numbers that appear will refer to other degrees of the scale. Another kind of chord you often see: C/E  D/F#  G/B The letter before the stroke is the chord, the letter after is the bass (lowest sounding) note.  Normally, a C chord will have a C note as its bass note, for example.  A G# chord will have the G# note as its bass note.  These chords with the oblique line appear when you want a different bass notes.