Chord symbol

From Academic Kids

In music a chord symbol is an abbreviated notation for chord names and qualities, using letters, numbers, and other symbols. It is usually written above the given lyrics or staff, if any.

Several different systems are used with varying degrees of consistency. All of the systems described below are intended to describe triad-based chords, and convey the following:


Pop chord symbols

Although these symbols are used occasionally in classical music as well, they are most common for lead sheets and fake books in jazz and other popular music.


The principal element of the pop chord symbol is the letter name of the root, such as F, C# or Eb. Each chord is always described in isolation; the key signature and previous chords in the measure do not affect the meaning of these symbols. Occasionally in music printed in Germany a root name of H is used for B, while B stands for Bb; a sharp is indicated by a suffux "is" and a flat by "es" (or "s" after E and A), giving roots like Fis, Bes, Es. For details see Note (music).

Simple triads

Additional symbols indicate the quality of the chord and its extensions, if any. For simple triads,

  • major triad, consisting of root, major third, perfect fifth: the letter name alone (e.g. C, Bes) (very occasionally a notation such as DM is used to differentiate from a minor triad)
  • minor triad, consisting of root, minor third, perfect fifth: a small m after the letter name (Dm, C#m)
  • diminished triad, consisting of root, minor third, diminished fifth: a small circle o or the letters dim (Ao, Gdim)
  • augmented triad, consisting of root, major third, augmented fifth: a plus sign (occasionally the letters aug) (C+ or C+). If the chord also includes a minor seventh, the indication #5 is often used instead; see below.

Seventh chords

Five common types of seventh chords have standard symbols. The chord quality indications are sometimes superscripted and sometimes not (e.g. Dm7, Dm7, and Dm7 are all identical).

  • dominant seventh chord, consisting of a major triad and a minor seventh, indicated by a 7 after the letter name, of (C7)
  • minor seventh chords, consisting of a minor triad and a minor seventh are indicated by m7. A few books use a minus sign (C-7) for this.
  • major seventh chords, a major triad with a major seventh are indicated by Maj7 or M7 The latter indication is never superscripted.
  • diminished seventh chords, a diminished triad with a diminished seventh are indicated with o7 or dim7.
  • half-dimininished seventh chords, a diminished triad with a minor seventh, can be indicated with ø7, but equally often these are called minor seven(th) flat five chords are indicated as chromatically altered chords; see below.

Two other seventh chords are in occasional use in jazz: C+7, a augmented triad with a major seventh; and Cm(Maj7), a minor triad with a major seventh.

Extended chords

The numerals 9, 11, and 13 indicate an extended chord with a major ninth, perfect eleventh, or major thirteenth; other qualities can be indicated with chromatic alterations as described below. Each of these implies the presence of a dominant seventh chord as well, although indications such as CMaj9, C+9, Cm9 can be used to indicate other qualities. To add one of these notes to a simple triad, the equivalent simple intervals are used: C2 is a major triad with no seventh but an added ninth, for example. The thirteenth, or sixth, is very commonly added to triads, either major or minor (Cm6 indicated a major sixth added to a minor triad). If both the thirteenth and ninth are added to a major triad, the notation C6/9 is often used, or a triangle ().

Chromatic alterations

Although the third and seventh of the chord are always determined by the symbols shown above, the fifth, as well as the extended intervals 9, 11, and 13, may be altered through the use of accidentals along with the corresponding number of the element to be altered. These are most often used in conjunction with dominant seventh chords. For example:

  • C7#5, a dominant seventh chord with an augmented fifth
  • Cm7b5, a minor seventh chord with a diminished fifth, the same as a half-diminished seventh chord
  • C7b9, a dominant seventh chord with a minor ninth (or flat nine chord)
  • C7#11, a dominant seventh chord with an augmented eleventh (or sharp eleven chord)
  • C7b13, a dominant seventh chord with a flat thirteenth. This is enharmonic with the first example and these symbols are sometimes used interchangeably.

When superscripted numerals are used, the different numbers may be listed horizontally (as shown), or vertically.

One chord which does not fit into the categories above is the suspended chord or sus chord, typically indicated with Csus4. This is a triad whose third is replaced with a perfect fourth. In common-practice harmony this usage is called a suspension and is always followed by the equivalent major or minor triad, but in popular music sometimes the chord is used without such a context.

Bass note indicated separately

All pop-music chords are assumed to be in root position, with the root of the chord in the bass. To indicate a different bass note, a slash is used, such as C/E, indicating a C major chord with an E in the bass. If the bass note is a chord member, the result is an inverted chord; otherwise, it is known as a slash chord. This is not to be confused with the similar-looking secondary dominants below.

Roman numerals

Roman numerals are used in a more restrictive context, and indicate the root of the chord as a scale degree within a particular key as follows:

Roman numeral I II III IV V VI VII
Scale degree tonic supertonic mediant subdominant dominant submediant leading tone/subtonic

Many analysts use lower-case Roman numerals to indicate minor triads and upper-case for major ones, with degree and plus signs (o and +) to indicate diminished and augmented triads, respectively. When they are not used, all the numerals are capital, and the qualities of the chords are inferred from the other scale degrees that chord contains; for example, a chord built on VI in C major would contain the notes A, C, and E, and would therefore be a minor triad.

The scale to whose scale degrees the Roman numerals refer may be indicated to the left (e.g. F#:), but may also be understood from the key signature or other contextual clues.

Figured Roman

The Roman numerals may also be followed by figured bass notation, either a 7 indicating a seventh chord or the indications 6 or 6/4 to indicate inversions - the resulting system is sometimes called figured Roman. For instance, a first inversion chord would have the designation 6/3 since there is a note a sixth (the root) and a third (the fifth) above the bass note (the third). Common practice shortens this to just the 6 since it is the characteristic interval of the inversion and always implies 6/3. Inversions of seventh chords (6/5, 4/3, and 4/2) may also be used. The numbers may be written with slashes as shown, or (more often) vertically. The qualities of seventh chords may inferred from the diatonic scale; for example, I7 would be a major seventh chord (if in a major key) since the seventh of the chord, the seventh scale degree, is a major seventh above the root. However, o7 and ø7 are also used. Extended chords are occasionally indicated with 9 or 13.

If a chord is borrowed from the parallel key, this is usually indicated directly (e.g. IV (minor)) or explained in a footnote or accompanying text. A chord whose root is chromatically altered is sometimes written with an accidental before the Roman numeral, e.g. bII6, indicating that the flattened supertonic, a note a half step above the tonic, is the root of this chord (this particular chord, called the Neapolitan sixth, is sometimes also written N6).

Unlike pop chord symbols, which are used as a guide to players, Roman numerals are used primarily as analytical tools, and so indications of inversions or added tones are sometimes omitted if they are not relevant to the analysis being performed.

Secondary dominants

When a dominant seventh chord is borrowed from another key, the Roman numeral corresponding with that key is shown after a slash. For example, V/V indicates the dominant of the dominant. In the key of C major, where the dominant (V) chord is G major, this secondary dominant is the chord on the fifth degree of the G major scale, i.e. D major. Note that while the chord built on D (ii) in the key of C major would normally be a minor chord, the V/V chord, also built on D, is major.


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