In this blog, you can learn how chords are built and how to read particular chord symbols and notation. Understanding this will only help you progress whether you’re playing a guitar, keyboard, piano, or in fact, most other musical instruments, or if you simply want to know what lies behind the magic of chords and how they actually work. You’ll also find a useful list of other blogs about chords and music theory, along with our collection of music books.
So, who is this blog actually written for?
- Well, for anyone who wants to understand chords and the symbols used to represent them: You’ll often see that a lot of Jazz and Pop musicians can play a whole song using just one sheet of music. Above the lyrics and melody, corresponding chord symbols like C7, Em, A, B+, and Ddim are often printed, and if you have no idea what they mean, they can often look scary and mysterious. Learning each chord using a chord book is one way to remove the mystery, but sooner or later, you’re going to want to be able to figure it all out yourself.
- For anyone who just wants a better understanding of music: Ok, so to play chords, you don’t necessarily need a deep understanding of them. You can of course get away with simply playing the notes dictated by the sheet music, guitar tablature, or chord diagrams. If this is the case, then why bother learning how chords are structured and why they work together? To be honest, by knowing the ins and outs, you’ll have a better understanding of the structure of a piece of music which will not only help you study and progress as a musician, but (at some point) you’ll have a more intuitive grasp of which notes can be left out and which notes can be added to either simplify or add flourish to a particular song or piece.
With this blog, we’ll continue under the assumption that we all understand the basic theory of root notes and scales already. If you’re not quite up to speed on this, then it might be worth brushing up on your root-note and scale knowledge before taking things a little further.
We’ll start by talking about intervals: prime – third – fifth. These are the basic three ingredients for almost every chord and every chord is made up of at least three different notes that are played together (two-note chords are not referred to as ‘chords’ but ‘harmonic intervals’). The prime, third, and fifth refer to the note intervals – a concept that I think has yet to be covered by our blogs but it builds on the twelve notes found used in Western music, of which there are seven root (or prime) notes and five flats and sharps:
Intervals and Harmonics
The seven letters that make up the middle row in the image above (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) are called the root or prime notes. What might be more fresh information for you is that the step or interval between each note and the next prime note is referred to as a second (so the step from a C to a D, or from an E to an F). Or, put more simply, when you count two letters. But, the interval between a C and an E spans three letters: C – D – E, and as such, is called a third. When the interval spans four letters (like the space between C and F), this is referred as a fourth. I’ve listed all the names of particular intervals that I think are important to know below:
- Prime (root): The note on which we begin (e.g. C)
- Second: The interval between the root and second note (e.g. between C and D)
- Third: The interval between the root and third note (e.g. between C and E)
- Fourth: The interval between the root and fourth note (e.g. between C and F)
- Fifth: The interval between the root and fifth note (e.g. between C and G)
- Sixth: The interval between the root and sixth note (e.g. between C and A)
- Seventh): The interval between the root and seventh note (e.g. between C and B)
- Octave: The interval between the root and eighth note (e.g. between C and the first C following)
- Ninth: The interval of an entire octave plus a second (so the interval between a C and the D in the following octave – skipping the D of the first octave)
Major and Minor Thirds
Just as with between a C and an E, the interval between an E and a G is also called a third. You can count through the three letters, E – F – G – but there’s something a little different happening here since the interval between the E and G is actually smaller than the interval between C and E. This is where the semitones come in, since between C and E sits four semitones, but between E and G, are three semitones. The larger, four semitone, space between C and E is referred to as a major third, and the smaller, three semitone interval between the E and G, is referred to as a minor third. Sevenths also have major and minor variations: the distance between the C and B above is a seventh, since we can count seven letters or root notes, just as you can count seven letters between D and C. But, the interval between C and B is actually a major seventh since eleven semitones actually sit between them, while the interval between the D and C is a minor seventh interval since a lesser of ten semitones sits between them. There are also major and minor seconds, and major and minor sixths. Maybe let this bit of information sink in for a minute before we go a little deeper.
– If you’re starting at C and want to make a minor seventh rather than a major seventh, then you can change the next note, B, into Bb. However, you are not supposed to raise the A to an A# – yes, theoretically speaking, it’s the same distance of ten semitones, but this interval is actually confusing for the musician. The interval between a C and A is actually a sixth (six letters), and not a seventh (seven letters). In short, you count the letters first. Then, if it’s necessary, you take the semitone up or down if you want to make the interval major or minor (without changing the letter).
Below, we’ll set out all the most important intervals, using C and A as our examples of root notes. Remember to count the letters first and then, if needed, step a semitone up or down to make a major or minor interval and without changing the letter. Use the overview above this paragraph to count the number of semitones. Each of the intervals will have their own distinct sound and as you work with them more and more, you’ll start to recognise them more easily.
- Minor Second = two letters, one semitone: C – Db / A – Bb
- Major Second = two letters, two semitones: C – D / A – B
- Minor Third = three letters, three semitones: C – Eb / A – C
- Major Third = three letters, four semitones: C – E / A – C#
- Perfect Fourth = four letters, five semitones: C – F / A – D
- Diminished Fifth = five letters, six semitones: C – Gb / A – Eb
- Perfect Fifth = five letters, seven semitones: C – G / A – E
- Augmented Fifth = five letters, eight semitones: C – G# / A – E#
- Minor Sixth = six letters, eight semitones: C – Ab / A – F
- Major Sixth = six letters, nine semitones: C – A / A – F#
- Diminished Seventh = seven letters, nine semitones: C – Bbb / A – Gb
- Minor Seventh = seven letters, ten semitones: C – Bb / A – G
- Major Seventh = seven letters, eleven semitones: C – B / A – G#
- Perfect Octave = eight letters, twelves semitones: C – following C / A – A
– The difference between a minor, major, diminshed, and augmented interval is not important right now so don’t worry too much about it.
– If you spot a note with two ‘b’ or ‘flat’ symbols after it, then this indicates that the note has been lowered by two semitones. For example, in the case of a Bbb, the Bb has been taken down by another semitone, making it Bbb, so that in practice, an A is actually played.
– As you can see, the augmented fifth and minor sixth are the same size but in practice, they actually have different functions. Again, this isn’t someting we need to worry about right now.
Here, we return to the prime, third, and fifth since these form the base for most chords. So, how do you build something like a standard C chord?
- Prime: C
- Third: E (major) or Eb (minor)
- Fifth (perfect): G
Now we take a look at a chord using D as the root note:
- Prime: D
- Third F (minor) or F# (major)
- Fifth (perfect): A
It doesn’t actually matter how many times a particular note appears in a chord – it still remains the same chord. In the case of the D chord, you could play a D, an F#, and an A, and another D an octave up. And you can even go further by adding another F#, another A, and so on until you run out of fingers. But you could also do something like this: D – A – D – F# – D, or any other combination of lower and higher Ds, F#s, and As that you might care to think of. The fact will remain that any D chord will always sound perfect when played at the same time as any other D chord, no matter how the chords are built. The different way in which the chords are built only has an effect on the timbre of the chord.
Major and Minor Chords
Chords with a minor third are referred to as minor chords. Chords with a major third are referred to as major chords. It’s that simple. Just as there’s a distinctly different feel between a major scale and minor scale, there is the same difference in feeling between a major chord and a minor chord. A major chord may sound more open and cheerful than a minor chord, but it’s not always so clear cut since a major chord can feel just as sad as a minor when used in a specific context.
Diminished, Augmented and Additions
You can get pretty far building major and minor chords in the way described above. And besides those, there are a number of different kinds of chords that you’ll definitely come across as you progress. Each of these kinds of chords offer their very own sound and you’ll soon get to know them all.
- Diminished Chord: prime – minor third – diminished fifth (C – Eb – Gb)
- Augmented Chord: prime – major third – augmented fifth (C – E – G#)
- Seventh Chord: one chord + major or minor seventh note (e.g. C – E – G – Bb)
- Sixth Chord: one chord + a major or minor sixth note (e.g. C – E – G – A)
- Sus Two: prime – major second – fifth (C – D – G)
- Sus Four: prime – fourth – fifth (C – F – G)
Chord symbols can look like a secret coded language, and just like with every language, the language of chord symbols is not always logical, but always practical. Using the following rules, you should almost always be able to decode a set of chords. While it’s not really necessary to learn all of these rules by heart, it’s worth getting familiar with the jargon. So grab your song-book and get practicing!
As before, we’re using C as our example for the root note.
- C: major chord (C – E – G)
- Cm / Cmin: minor chord (C – Eb – G)
- C7: major chord with minor seventh (C – E – G – Bb)
- Cmaj7: major chord with major seventh (C – E – G – B)
- C6: major chord with major sixth (C – E – G – A)
- Cadd9: major chord with major ninth (C – E – G – D)
- C9: major chord with minor seventh and major ninth (C – E – G – Bb – D)
- Cdim / C°: diminished chord (C – Eb – Gb)
- Cdim7 / C°7: diminished chord with diminished seventh (C – Eb – Gb – Bbb)
- C+ / Caug: augmented chord (C – E – G#)
- Csus2: sus two chord (C – D – G)
- Csus4: sus four chord (C – F – G)
– As mentioned a littler earlier when talking about Important Intervals, a Bbb (a prime note that’s lowered by two semitones) is played in practice as an A.
– In a chord, the note with the lowest pitch is referred to as the bass note. So, suppose you play C, E, and G on a piano with your right hand, the C is now the bass note. But if you also add a G with your left hand, then G becomes the bass note, creating an entirely different feeling and timbre. It’s usually standard that the root note is the bass note (so the bass note of a C chord is a C). If a note other than the root note provides the bass note of the chord then this is indicated with a ‘slash’, e.g. C/G, indicating a C chord with a G as the bass note.
– Ok, so why isn’t Cadd9 simply called Cadd2? You add a D to the chord, which is logically the second interval from the C. While this is true, it’s just not the way that chords are built. This is due to stacking. If you have a C – E – G chord (prime – third – fifth), you don’t return to the second, but build further with the following interval, such as the sixth, seventh, or ninth. In Jazz, you might even see additions being used with the eleventh and thirteenth note.
– We won’t go too deeply into more complex chords, like those used in Jazz, but using the rules listed above will still get you pretty far.
This is a lot of theory to chew on, and if you don’t quite get it all yet, don’t worry about it. Just let it all sink in, maybe do a little more studying and at some point, you’ll find that you get it. Maybe start by just going over it all and trying out more simple chords until it makes more sense. The most fun way of learning all of this stuff, of course, is to play along with some songs you love and already know well using a good song book.
For guitarists and keyboard players, here are a couple of side notes.
Guitar and Ukulele Chords
If you play a guitar or a similar instrument, it’s not exactly recommended to figure out all the chords yourself (unless that’s what you’re into, of course). The problem is that you only have four or five fingers to play with and six strings to get to grips with, so it can be a bit of a puzzle. Luckily, there have been many before you who have already figured out every chord and layed them all out neatly in great things like chord books. For ukulele players, there are just as many comprehensive and useful ukulele books out there.
Keyboard and Piano Chords
If you play the piano or a keyboard, then you can use all of your fingers and play a nice number of notes at once so you can play every chord in a wide range of different ways. So, while experimenting with building chords is much easier for the pianist than it is for the guitarist, there’s still a lot of help available, including our blog about basic piano and keyboard chords, and a massive library of helpful piano books.
A Handy Learning Tool
If you don’t have a piano or keyboard and play a different musical instrument, then a (cheap) keyboard is a great little learning tool for helping to build a solid understanding of chords. Now, you might be thinking: “Do I have to learn to play the keyboard?”, but the simple answer is no. You don’t have to suddenly become a pianist. Just learning to play a few simple chords can really help and is really not as difficult as you might think. Because a keyboard gives you a visual overview of all the notes, it’s much easier to actually see the structure of chords and understand how they work. This is much harder when playing an instrument like a guitar.Tip: Start with something easy like common major and minor chords like C, F, G, and Am. Our blog about learning basic piano chords offers an excellent start.
See Also …
» Song Books
» Guitars & Accessories
» Keyboards & Accessories
» Digital Pianos & Accessories
» All Musical Instruments
» How To Play Basic Piano Chords
» Ukulele For Guitarists: The 4 Most Important Chords
» Songwriting Tips for Beginners