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Behind the Notation: Chord Symbols


Robin McClellan | December 1, 2014

Our Behind the Notation series returns with a topic close to the hearts of anyone
who likes chords (and thats everyone, right?). Usually placed above the staff or a
set of lyrics, chord symbols are an entire musical language unto themselves.
Independent from staff notation but also an important extension of it, chord
symbols are a precise shorthand and guide to performance and improvisation.

Anatomy of a Chord Symbol


Lets start with a quick anatomy lesson: what are the basic parts of a chord
symbol?

Chord Symbols: Basic Anatomy


C

C = root
of chord

Cm

First inversion:
C still the root,
same symbol

"m" = minor:
E replaces E

C7

= added 7th

Study the example and notice the following:


The foundation of the symbol is a letter of the musical alphabet, A-G: this is the root of the chord: the defining
note that gives the chord its name.
A capital letter by itself means the chord is major: the majorness is implied.
To make it minor, use a lowercase m.
The superscript provides additional info in this case that cute little 7 means that its a seventh chord.
The chord symbol does not automatically specify the chords inversion, as figured bass numerals do. The
examples in this article are written in the basic stacked thirds voicing with the root on the bottom, but you can
voice the same chord many different ways without needing to reflect that in the chord symbol. That said, you can
use the chord symbol to specify whats happening in the bass read on below.

The Art of Implication


But going back to the previous example, says the alert student of music theory, how did you know the 7
indicates a minor-seventh B-flat, and not a major-seventh B-natural? Good point. The 7 by itself
implies/assumes a minor seventh only because the minor seventh is so common. Some chords are played so
often that putting every little detail into the chord symbol isnt necessary: for the sake of efficiency and avoiding
clutter on the page, music notation often omits certain commonly understood info. Instead, it relies on the
background knowledge of the reader to fill in the gaps.
For chord symbols, this also means that a given element of the chord symbol often doesnt only describe that
one aspect it stands in for aspects of the whole chord such as major or minor. For example, that little 7
doesnt just imply the added minor seventh above the root (B-flat above C as opposed to B-natural) it also
implies that the triad underneath is major. Why? Because the resulting dominant seventh chord, C-E-G-Bb, is so
common that its easier just to put C7 and be done with it. On the less frequent occasions when you need a
different type of seventh chord, then you can use the extra ink (or pixels) to be more specific. For example
here are some of the most common types of seventh chords and their symbols:

Chord Symbols: 7th Chord Basics


C7

Cm 7

minor 7th with


= implied minor
minor triad
7th over major
triad...
= dominant 7th chord

Cmaj 7

C 7

"maj" implies 3rd &


7th are BOTH major

o = whole chord is
diminished

*If youre wondering about why a B-double-flat is necessary here, check out our article on musical spelling.

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Fun with Superscripts


This article isnt a complete catalog of chord symbols. We just want to point out that you can do a lot with
superscripts. Its not an exact science, but there are certain conventions and common practices musicians use to
show deeper levels of detail in a chord. Here are a few examples:

Chord Symbols: Superscript Fun


Cm 7(

5)

( 5 ) = lower the fifth


of the chord,
in this case G

Cm 7(

5)

Again, same
chord symbol for
the inversion

C 2(no3)

C 7sus

Add D, a 2nd above The F a 4th above


the root, leave out
the root is "suspended"
E, the 3rd
(references a 4-3 suspension with F resolving
down to E)

C (4)

C (add4)

C 7(

The parentheses show


that in this case the 3rd
isn't omitted as in C7sus;
the 4th is added to the 3rd.

...but if you want to be sure


it's clear, add "add"

5)

-OR- C+ 7

Sometimes there are two


ways to describe the same
chord. Here, the + shows the
triad is augmented due to the G#,
which is also the sharp 5th.

N.C.

...the beauty of silence: N.C. = no chord

There is some room for creativity, as long as its clear what you mean. And be aware of the conventions
consult your favorite chord resource for more options.
The example also brings up a small but important detail: the flat in flat 5 doesnt mean use a flat sign. It
means lower the note by one chromatic semitone. Or in non-music theory jargon: if the note was already a
sharp, use a natural to lower it, not a flat:

Chord Symbols: Flat 5 for a Natural?


Cm 7(

5)

Bm 7(

5)

TRANSPOSED:

( 5 ) = lower the fifth


of the chord

( 5) = F ,
because the fifth would normally
be F in a B dominant 7th chord.

9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, Oh My!


In jazz charts you will often see superscript 9, 11, and 13. These are intervals between the root and a note higher
than the octave above the root. Again, some of the information is left to the reader to fill in: a simple 9 or 11
usually implies both that the 7th is present, and that the underlying chord is a dominant seventh chord:

Chord Symbols: Beyond the Octave


C9

Added 9th;
dominant 7th
chord below is
implied

Cm 9

With a minor
seventh chord
below

Cm 11

Count 'em...
11 steps from C
up to F.
(often the 9th
is optional)

C 13

The higher you go,


the more notes
become optional...
(often the 5th, 9th,
and 11th are optional)

But our alert theory student again pipes up: wait! isnt a 9th really the same as a 2nd, through the principle of
octave equivalence (a D is a D is a D)? So isnt an 11th much like a fourth? And we answer, Yes it is! But its
still clearer to use 9, 11, etc:

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Chord Symbols: 2 vs 9 and other mysteries


C9

Bring that 9th down


an octave and...

Cm 11

Similarly:

(the 9th is often


omitted in 11th chords)

C 7( 11)

C2?

C2

...does it become a C2?

Yes, but C2 might


imply no seventh.

Cm 4 ?

C (add4)

...does it become a Cm4?

Clearer like this

C 7(

11
5 )

C 7(

11
5 )

An interesting case:
Here is a sharp 11th chord.
But...

...add a flat 5th and we have


F and G in the same chord...

...bring that 11th down


an octave and...
"clashing" G and F#!!

These examples underline the question of chord voicing: which note is in which octave when its actually played
on a piano, guitar, or marimba? In general, chord symbols dont specify: add a D to a C chord, and it gives a
certain sound, whether you call it a 2nd or a 9th. At the same time, when you move notes up or down an octave it
can change the sound of the chord, perhaps in a subtle way but perhaps more noticeably. Just be sensitive to
the meanings in your chord symbol and try to make it as clear as possible.

Bass Notes
Although chord symbols dont tell you a great deal about chord voicing, you can specify the bass note: a slash /
followed by a note name means that this note is played in the bass.
For example:
C/E = E in the bass = C chord in first inversion; C/G = G in the bass = second inversion.
You can also indicate changing chords over a pedal (a held, unchanging note like a drone). This example shows
a held C under changing chords:
C B/C Bb/C
And you can show bass line progressions such as a descending bassline under chord here, a held C chord
with the bass line moving down by half step:
C C/B C/Bb

Working with Chord Symbols in Noteflight


So thats a basic primer on chord symbol anatomy. There are great resources out there if you want to explore
further, and we encourage you to do so. But if you are reading this, it means you probably use Noteflight, or you
have come dangerously close to doing so. And so youd probably like to know how to work with all these fancy
chord symbols in Noteflight.

Creating Chord Symbols


In a nutshell, to make a chord symbol, select a note, click the A7 symbol on the toolbar (or type K as a keyboard
shortcut). Then type the chord letter plus any symbols you need, and Noteflight will auto-format it with all the
proper things superscripted (is that a word?) and so on. To stack up superscript numbers, separate them with a
space. It must be Noteflights official chord symbol text option the other kinds of text in Noteflight will not do
the job, although some of them, for example Performance text, do auto-format symbols like sharps and flats. In
general, the choice of letters or symbols is intuitive: a lowercase b creates a flat sign, the number sign # creates
a sharp, = creates a natural, and so on. Use spaces, slashes, and parentheses as needed. To see the string of
keyboard characters we used to create each chord symbol in this article, open the Noteflight scores in a separate
window (click the white box), make a copy in your account (File menu > Save a Copy), and double click on each
symbol. Exact formatting is important, and our User Guide gives a good summary here (note the section on
special formatting).

Transposing Chord Symbols


Another handy Noteflight feature is that when you transpose a passage of music (select passage, then Edit
menu, then Transpose, using Up/Down interval, not Scale step more info here), the chord symbols
transpose along with the staff notation, so you dont have to re-enter them all. For the most part, Noteflight takes
care of this for you. But you should be aware of it and double check that the symbols are correct in the new key.
In this example the first line repeats a few of the examples above, which are then transposed to other keys:

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Chord Symbols: Transposition


All chords transposed using Edit menu, then Transpose, then "Up/Down interval" (not by "Scale step")
*in this example key signatures are not used, so all sharps and flats appear next to each chord.
Key = C:

C/E 9

C 7

C 7sus

C 7(

11)

C 13

D 7(

11)

D 13

Key = D (menu option = up major second):

D/F

D 7

D 7sus

Key = A (menu option = down major third):

A /C 9

A 7

7sus

7( 11)

13

7( 11)

13

7( 11)

13

Key = G (menu option = up diminished 5th):

G /B

G 7

7sus

Key = F (menu option = up augmented 4th):

F /A

F 7

7sus

Notice that the chord spellings may need to use double sharps or flats, but the chord names dont include those.
If you needed to transpose an F-flat chord down a whole step, for example, the chord name should be respelled
as D, not Ebb. This is not quite correct music-theory-wise, but Noteflight draws the line there for general ease of
reading.

In Conclusion
This has been a very brief introduction to chord symbols. If you dont have them in your scores, try adding some!
Figure out what the chord is, add the symbol, and maybe solicit some advice on our forums. And study fake
books, and song charts in general, to learn deeply the subtle art of chord symbol creation. Remember: usually a
lot is implied: your goal should be to get the most information down, in the clearest way you can, with the fewest
marks on the page.
Category: Behind the Notation, Composition, Educators, Higher Ed, K12

Some additional articles in this category:


Behind the Notation: Playing Techniques and How to Write Them
Video Game Music Composition Contest!
User Profile: Vladimir Zakharov
K-12 Exercise from MusicFirst
Using Noteflight: Tips, Best Practices, and Cool Features You Might Not Know About
K-12 Exercise from MusicFirst
Using Noteflight: Tips, Best Practices, and Cool Features You Might Not Know About
Noteflight in K-12 Classrooms: A Sample Assignment (2)
User Profile: Meet Mark, Student Composer and Conductor
Using Noteflight: Tips, Best Practices, and Cool Features You Might Not Know About
K-12 Exercise from MusicFirst
Using Noteflight: Tips, Best Practices, and Cool Features You Might Not Know About
Noteflight in K-12 Classrooms: A Sample Assignment (2)
User Profile: Meet Mark, Student Composer and Conductor

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