Chord Symbols - What They Mean

Published: 11th August 2009
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Frequently used as a form of notation, chord symbols are used primarily utilized in many forms of modern music and even some jazz styles. The main difference between these types of notation is that the chord symbols do not display the function of the chord. If you look at classical music, the Roman numerals can often be difficult to read, especially if the piece contains a lot of changes.

The Root
Under some circumstances the chord will have a root that is NOT the base note. As an example, in the E6 chord, the root will be E. If, however, there is a diagonal slash below the original symbol, then the chord's symbol note will differ from the root note. The root is what points the musician in the direction, of, obviously, the root of the chord. You must also bear in mind that chord symbols also take into account inverted chords.

This will tell you whether the chord you are looking at is major, minor, diminished or augmented. As an example: in the symbol Cmaj7 - the maj is telling us that the C chord is a major chord. As you might expect, the abbreviations relate directly to the type of chord: maj, min, dim and aug.

This is the part which informs the musician if the chord differs from a triad (a third chord). In the example above, Cmaj7, the chord is therefore a seventh. Quite often, you will find that there is no number in the extension position. In this case, the musician is to assume that the chord is a triad.

Below is a brief explanation of some of the most common alterations:
(no fifth) - the chord must be played with the fifth tone removed.
(sus) - signifies that the musician is to play the fourth scale note over the third. Sus is simply an abbreviation for suspension.

(-) - usually followed by a number, the minus sign refers to the lowering of a chord tone.
(+) - the opposite of the minus sign, and therefore refers to the rise of a particular chord tone

Just like the appendix in a book, the alterations in any chord symbols are there to give any specific (and often seemingly irregular) instructions to the player as they play the chord. You will see the alteration written in parenthesis immediately after the extension.

Being able to read these chord tones will serve the musician in much the same way as a legends list on a map serves a lost navigator. When you look at a piece of sheet music, instead of seeing the music note for note, you will be able to understand more of the direction in which the music is going. Even better is the accompanying ability to improvise and make your own sounds - the beginning of a wonderful relationship between you and your music.

Lauren Paltrow of, specializes in helping aspiring pianists get the info that they need to make the right choices. Lauren leads her team of piano experts in constantly reviewing new courses and products in the market to make sure you get the best value products that work for you. Check out actual user reviews of the best piano courses and products at

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