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Synthesizers, Music & Television © T. Yahaya Abdullah

Chords pt.1

  1. Prologue
  2. Terms & Abbreviations Used
  3. What is a Chord?
  4. Chord Root
  5. Intervals
  6. Basic Chords
  7. System for Chord Names
  8. 3-Note Chord Listing
  9. Shortened Chord Names
  10. 4-Note Chord Listing
  11. Advanced Chord Names
  12. 5-Note Chord Listing
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This article assumes that you are familiar with a musical instrument whether it be keyboard or guitar or whatever. You are (at the very least) expected to know the positions of notes on your instrument and how to play them. If you are unfamiliar with any instrument whatsoever, I would strongly suggest that you start off with the article entitled "Scales".

C# D# F# G# A# C# D# F# G# A#
Db Eb Gb Ab Bb Db Eb Gb Ab Bb

This emphasis of this article is to explain how Chords are structured and, hence, named. In the event that you are new to this, I have provided the keyboard and guitar tables as reference points.

E | F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E
B | C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B
G | G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G
D | D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D
A | Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
E | F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E
0 3 5 7 9 12

I have included not only Chords for keyboards but also for guitar. Since the topic of Chords is very large indeed, this article is split into 2 parts to avoid any loading problems.

Terms & Abbreviations Used

What is a Chord?

A Chord is a "set of notes" usually played simultaneously. A Chord describes a whole "set of notes" and not any individual notes.

Every Chord has a distinct sound and mood. Chords are the harmony of a song. While we identify "melody" by the sequence of notes played, we identify "harmony" by the interaction of the Chords. Chords are the foundations of a song.

We use the word "Chord" to distinguish it from a "Scale" (please see document entitled "Scales"). A "C Major" chord is completely different from the "C Major" scale. Whereas a song may be played in a specific Scale, the Chords to a song will change as the song progresses. This is called a chord progression.

Chord Root

Every Chord has a Root by which we name the chord. The Root is the base of the Chord or you may think of it as the "bass" of the chord (The way in which you hear the basis of a chord and the "bass" is very similar).

For example, for a song in the scale of C Major, the chord progression could be C Major, A minor, F Major and G Major. In this case, the Roots of the chords are "C", "A", "F" and "G" (a likely progression for the bass-line too).


An interval is the "distance" between notes (in a chord). Let's start off with diads (ie two notes played simultaneously -or- 2 note chord). You can describe the "distance" in terms of semitones or by its name.

Let's start off by looking at how the intervals are named (Bear in mind that we are talking about two notes played together). The classical music academics named the intervals by the quality of sound produced. If the sound was smooth and pleasant, it was called consonence: If it was strained and unpleasant, it was called dissonance. From this subjective "quality assessment", the names were derived.

You will notice that each interval is numbered (ie 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th). The numbering comes about by "counting" the "letters" (eg. C to D is 2, C to E is 3, C to F is 4, C to G is 5, C to A is 6, and, C to B is 7). The numbering disregards whether the note is sharp or flat.

Semi- Key C Main Major Minor Extra Note
Tones notes intervals intervals intervals intervals Name
0 C Unison R
1 Db/C# minor 2nd b2
2 D [Maj] 2nd 2
3 Eb/D# minor 3rd b3
4 E [Maj] 3rd 3
5 F [Perfect] 4th 4
6 Gb/F# dim 5 / aug 4 #4 / b5
7 G [Perfect] 5th 5
8 Ab/G# minor 6th b6
9 A [Maj] 6th 6
10 Bb/A# [Dominant] 7th b7
11 B Major 7th 7
12 C Octave / 8th 8

The intervals with the most consonance are Unison (playing the same note twice) and Octave. They only involve the root. Let's look at more!

The main intervals are the Perfect 4th (5 semitones apart), Perfect 5th (7 semitones) and the Dominant 7th (10 semitones). They have special names because they have much consonance.

What's the big deal? Why do they sound pleasant? It's actually because of the relative pitches (frequencies) of the notes. Let's say the Root is "C", and let's play a diad using "C" and "G". The pitch of "G" = "C" x 3 / 2 (ie for every 2 oscillations of "C", there are 3 oscillations of "G"). When played together, there is a smooth "ringing" caused by this mathematical relationship which is pleasant. Hence the name "Perfect" 5th.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the note "F" = "C" x 4 / 3 (appx), hence, called the Perfect 4th. Again, the note "Bb" is approximately "C" x 7 / 4, and called the Dominant 7th.

Having set the 4th, 5th and 7th, the next best consonence happen to coincide with the Major Scale and hence were named Maj 2nd (C to D), Maj 3rd (C to E), and, Maj 6th (C to A). Note that "C" to "B" is actually dissonant but, for completeness, the interval is called the Maj 7th.

Having set the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and Maj 7th, the leftover intervals (which happen to be flat notes) were conveniently named min 2nd (C to Db), min 3rd (C to Eb), and, min 6th (C to Ab). It doesn't help that this has little to do with the minor scale.

The only remaining interval is C to Gb/F# and this is named as the diminished 5th (for C to Gb) or augmented 4th (C to F#). When referring to a Note, the word "diminished" means "flattened" and the word "augmented" means "sharpened".

It is important to note that it the words "Perfect", "Dominant" and "Major" are usually dropped. If you were to only use the Major scale to name the intervals, you would be mostly correct BUT except for the Major 7th. Hence, you never drop the word "Major" for the Major 7th.

The last column introduces another method of "declaring" chords. Here the notes are numbered using the Major scale and all other notes are considered either "flat" or "sharp". This system declares the notes involved separated by commas. So a 5th interval would be "R, 5" and the Dominant 7th interval would be "R, b7". This system is never ambiguous and extremely accurate because every note is declared (and the rules are fixed). However, these are not really chord "names" per se.

SideNote - Guitarists like to play a 5th interval plus an octave root (ie root, 5th, octave) and refer to this as the "power chord". It's actually a 5th chord.

Basic Chords

Having looked at the diad (2 note chord) intervals, let us now look at the triads (3 note chords).

The triad is based on the Root, 3rd and 5th of a scale.

Note - The augmented scale (aka whole tone scale) is a 6 note scale where every note is separated by a whole-tone (ie 2 semitones). The diminished scale is an 8 note scale where the separation alternates between whole-tone and semi-tone.

In addition there are also "replacement" to chord notes. These are the suspended 4ths and 2nds. They are suspended because they cannot be classified as Major or minor chords. In a suspended 4th, basically the 4th "replaces" the 3rd (the same applies to the suspended 2nd).

Key=C C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B
-TRIADS- Abbrev R b2 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7
[Major] triad R 3 5
minor triad min R b3 5
augmented [5th] triad aug5 R 3 #5
diminished 5th triad dim5 R b3 b5
-REPLACEMENTS- Abbrev C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B
suspended 4th sus4 R 4 5
suspended 2nd sus2 R 2 5

The next set of basic chords are the 7ths. These are 4-note chords made up by adding a 7th (whether diminished, dominant or augmented) to the triad.

At this point, to avoid any confusion, it is important to DROP the word "Major" from the chord-name when describing a Major triad. You'll see why below.

Key=C C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B
-SEVENTHS- Abbrev R b2 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7
[dominant] 7th 7 R 3 5 b7
Maj 7th M7 R 3 5 7
minor [dominant] 7th min7 R b3 5 b7
7th augmented 5th 7aug5 R 3 #5 b7
7th diminished 5th 7dim5 R 3 b5 b7
half diminished 7th half-dim7 R b3 b5 b7
diminished [7th] dim7 R b3 b5 bb7

The last four chords are more complicated because of possible misunderstanding.

Consider the 7th augmented 5th chord- Is it the augmented 5th triad with added 7th? Or is it a 7th chord with an augmented 5th (ie sharpened 5th)? Luckily, interpreting it both ways will give the same chord (ie R,3,#5,b7).

Next, consider the 7th diminished 5th chord - Is it the diminished 5th triad with added 7th? Or is it a 7th chord with a diminished 5th (ie flattened 5th)? The chord structure is R,3,b5,b7 which means it is a 7th with diminished 5th. This is often very confusing.

The obvious question is "What then is the diminished 5th triad with added 7th?". This would be R,b3,b5,b7 and it's called the half-diminished 7th. This too is often confusing.

The last one is the diminished 7th! It is a diminished 7th triad with a diminished 7th. Structurally, it is R,b3,b5,bb7. The origin of this chord is different from the rest because it relates back to the diminished scale. It is a special chord because the spacing between each interval is exactly the same (ie 3 semitones). Note - aka "the diminished chord" aka "dim7" aka "dim".

Looking at the last four sevenths, confusion arises because of the ambiguity of the words "diminished" and "augmented". It is hard to tell if they refer to the chord or the note.

As such, I would like to introduce you to a chord-naming system which utilises most of the traditional chord names and methods but is very specific when describing chords or notes.

System for Chord Names

IMPORTANT - The chord-naming system from here on is very specific and will mean that some traditional names like 7dim5 and half-dim7 will not be used. However, be assured that, using this system, any named chord will be easily understood by musicians.

The system used has the following components:-

BASE-CHORD + Alterations + Replacements + Additions1 + Additions2...etc

  • Base-Chord - The basic chord. Allowed names are Major, minor, aug5, dim7 and dim5 in that order of priority. To avoid any confusion, the word "Major" is never used but is taken for granted as the Major chord (the default base-chord).
  • Alterations - Any note alterations to the basic chord. Allowed descriptors are (-) for flattened and (+) for sharpened. The words "aug" and "dim" are NOT allowed for notes and are reserved only for chords. Alterations are always in parentheses (brackets).
  • Replacements - Any replacements to the basic-chord. Basically, these are suspended 4th and suspended 2nd in that order of priority.
  • Additions - Any additions to the basic chord. They are prefixed with the word "added" (or "add"). Examples are 7th, 6th, 9th, 11th, and 13th in that order of priority. Note that additions have to have a number greater than 5 so "added 2nd" is named as "added 9th" (ie it is treated as beyond one octave).
  • more Additions - You can have as many additions as needed but remember that they have to be declared in order of priority.

To use this system, you must become familiar with the base chord structures.
- When there is a [major] 3rd note, it could be a major or an aug5 chord.
- When there is a flat 3rd note, it could be a minor or dim chord.
- When there is a [perfect] 5th note, it could be a major or minor chord.
- When there is a flat 5th note, it could be a dim chord.
- When there is a sharp 5th note, it could be an aug5 chord.
Note - the diminished 7th (R,b3,b5,bb7) is treated as a base-chord.

The system has a specific order of components(ie Base-Chord, Alteration, Replacement, Additions). The point is to declare components only if needed. If a chord qualifys as say an "aug 5 chord", there is no point in calling it a "major chord" with alteration of a "sharp 5th".

"Priority" is mentioned for most of the components. Priority only comes into play when a component can be named in more than one way. How does it all work? Let's see a few examples with root "C":-

  1. R, b3, #5 - Base-chord could be a minor or aug5. By priority, it is a minor and so it has one alteration being the sharpened 5th. Name = Cmin(+5).
  2. R, 3, b5 - Base-chord could be major or dim5. By priority, it is a major and so the alteration is the flat 5th. Name = C(-5).
  3. R, 4, #5 - It has not 3rd (it's a replacement using sus4). With the "#5" it is assumed to be an aug5 chord. Name = Caug5sus4
  4. R, 4, b5 - It has no 3rd (it's a replacement using sus4). With the "b5" it is assumed to be a dim5 chord. Name = Cdim5sus4.
  5. R, 2, 3, 5 - This as a major (R,3,5) with an addition. Since, the additon is the leftover 2nd, this would be called a 9th. Name = Cadd9.
  6. R, 2, 4, 5 - It's definitely a replacement and the leftover will be an addition. The base-chord could be a major or minor so, by priority, it defaults to a major. It has two possible replacements being sus4 or sus2. By priority, it is deemed to be a sus4. Name = Csus4add9.

3-Note Chord Listing

The following table is a chord listings for 3-note chords using the chord-naming system described above. This time, guitar chords are also included in root "E" and "A".

The guitar chords are quoted by fret-position in the order of EADGBE strings (0 = open string, x = not played, o = optional). Example: Edim5 is 0120xo meaning the chord is held as open on top E string, 1st fret of A string, 2nd fret on D string, open on G string, not played on B string, and, optional open on bottom E string (ie not absolutely necessary).

3 NOTE CHORDS key=C C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B key=E key=A
- Abbrev R b2 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7 EADGBE EADGBE
Major R 3 5 0221oo o0222o
Major flat5th (-5) R 3 b5 0121xo x0122x
minor min R b3 5 0220oo o0221o
minor sharp5th min(+5) R b3 #5 0320xo x0321x
augmented 5th aug5 R 3 #5 0321xo x0322x
diminished 5th dim5 R b3 b5 0120xo x0121x
suspended 4th sus4 R 4 5 0222oo o0223o
aug5th sus4th aug5sus4 R 4 #5 0322xo x0323x
dim5th sus4th dim5sus4 R 4 b5 0122xo x0123x
suspended 2nd sus2 R 2 5 024xoo o0220o
aug5th sus2nd aug5sus2 R 2 #5 x7455x x0320x
dim5th sus2nd dim5sus2 R 2 b5 x7897x x0120x

Shortened Chord Names

At this point, I would like to introduce a short-cut for the "added 7th" chords as well as the "added 6th" chords (in that order of priority).

The chord-naming components are:-

BASE-CHORD + Alterations + Replacements + Additions1 + Additions2...etc

By introducing a short-cut for 7ths and 6ths, the components becomes:-

BASE-CHORD (+ 7ths/6ths) + Alterations + Replacements + other Additions

Actually, the same rules still apply except that, for 7ths and 6ths, the word "added" is not needed (ie Cmin add7 is now Cmin7). Furthermore, the alterations and replacements are declared after (eg Csus4add7 is now C7sus4, and, Cmin(+5)add7 is now Cmin7(+5)).

So, what becomes of the traditional 7aug5, 7dim5 and half-dim7?
Using root "C":-
- The 7aug5 or R,3,#5,b7 would be an aug5 base-chord with 7th. Name = Caug5/7.
- The 7dim5 or R,3,b5,b7 would be a major base-chord with 7th, altered with flattened 5th. Name = C7(-5).
- The half-dim7 or R,b3,b5,b7 would be a dim5 base-chord with an added 7th. Name = Cdim5/7
Note - the slash (/) is used as a separator to prevent any misunderstanding. This only applies to the aug and dim base-chords (because the chord-names contain numbers).

4-Note Chords

The following table is a chord listing for 4-note chords. Note that only 7ths and 6ths are using the allowed short-cut names. All other additions have the word "added" declared.

* indicates departure from traditional chord names.
4 NOTE CHORDS key=C C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B key=E key=A
~ MAJOR & MINOR Abbrev R b2 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7 EADGBE EADGBE
6th 6 R 3 5 6 02212o o02222
7th 7 R 3 5 b7 0201oo o0202o
Maj 7th M7 R 3 5 7 0211oo o0212o
added 9th add9 R 9 3 5 022102 o0242o
added 11th add11 R 3 11 5 o764x5 54223o
6th flat5th* 6(-5) R 3 b5 6 01212o x01222
7th flat5th* 7(-5) R 3 b5 b7 0101xo x0102x
Maj 7th flat5th* M7(-5) R 3 b5 7 0111xo x0112x
minor flat6th min(-6) R b3 5 b6 02201o o02211
minor 6th min6 R b3 5 6 02202o o02212
minor 7th min7 R b3 5 b7 0200oo o0201o
minor Maj 7th min M7 R b3 5 7 0210oo o0211o
minor add flat9th min add(-9) R b9 b3 5 022001 o0231o
minor add 9th min add9 R 9 b3 5 022002 o02212
minor add 11th min add11 R b3 11 5 0252oo o0253o
~ AUG. & DIM. Abbrev C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B EADGBE EADGBE
aug 5th / 7th* aug5/7 R 3 #5 b7 0301xo x0302x
aug 5th Maj 7th* aug5M7 R 3 #5 7 0311xo x0312x
aug 5th add 9th aug5 add9 R 9 3 #5 0341xo x03222
diminished [7th] dim7 R b3 b5 bb7 01202o x01212
dim 5th / 7th* dim5/7 R b3 b5 b7 0100xo x0101x
dim 5th add 9th dim5 add9 R 9 b3 b5 0140xo x01212
~ SUSPENDED Abbrev R b2 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7 EADGBE EADGBE
flat6th sus 4th (-6)sus4 R 4 5 b6 02221o o02231
6th sus 4th 6sus4 R 4 5 6 02222o o02232
7th sus 4th 7sus4 R 4 5 b7 0202oo o0203o
Maj7th sus 4th M7sus4 R 4 5 7 0212oo o0213o
sus 4th add flat9th sus4add(-9) R b9 4 5 0232oo o02330
sus 4th add 9th sus4add9 R 9 4 5 0242oo o00200
flat6th sus 2nd (-6)sus2 R 2 5 b6 o79978 o02201
6th sus 2nd 6sus2 R 2 5 6 022422 o02202
7th sus 2nd 7sus2 R 2 5 b7 022432 o02203
Maj7th sus 2nd M7sus2 R 2 5 7 022442 o02204

Note - For keyboards - To play a chord uninverted, notes numbered greater that 8 are assumed to be played one octave beyond the root.
Note - For guitars - The chords shown may differ somewhat from the chord-books. The chords shown are the least inverted forms which can be easily played.
For more on inversions, see Chords pt 2.

Advanced Chord Names

When a chord has many "additions", it is important to be aware of the traditional chord names and how the system (used in this document) can differ from it.

For a base-chord with an added 7th, both traditional names and the system accept the chord-name 7th. Both also accept "added 6ths" as named 6th.

Even for the added 9ths, added 11ths and added 13ths, both traditional names and the system accept that the word "added" or "add" must be declared.

The reasons will be made clearer when you compare the traditional names and this system's names in the table below.
Structure System Traditional Traditional
- Chord Name - keyboards - guitar
R,3,5,b7 7th 7th 7th
R,3,5,9 add9 add9 add9
R,3,5,b7,9 7 add9 9th 9th
R,3,5,b7,11 7 add11 7 add11 11th
R,3,5,b7,9,11 7 add9 add11 11th 9 add11
R,3,5,b7,13 7 add13 7 add13 13th
R,3,5,b7,9,13 7 add9 add13 9 add13 9 add 13
R,3,5,b7,9,11,13 7 add9 add11 add13 13th not playable

As you can see, the system used here can be somewhat "wordy" and long but is not ambiguous.

For traditional guitar chord-names, the names 9th, 11th and 13th are just those notes added to the 7th chord.

For traditional keyboard chord-names, the names 9th, 11th and 13th imply that the notes preceeding the name are accumulated (eg. 11th chord is 7 add9 add11).

5-Note Chord Listing

The following table is a chord listing for 5-note chords.
* indicates departure from traditional chord names.

5 NOTE CHORDS key=C C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B key=E key=A
~ MAJOR Abbrev R b2 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7 EADGBE EADGBE
6th add 9th 6add9 R 9 3 5 6 o76677 o02422
6th add 11th 6add11 R 3 11 5 6 o76605 552222
[7th add] 9th 7add9 R 9 3 5 b7 020102 o02423
7th add 11th 7add11 R 3 11 5 b7 00010o o00020
7th add 13th 7add13 R 3 5 13 b7 02012o o02022
Maj [7th add] 9th M7add9 R 9 3 5 7 021102 o02424
Maj 7th add 11th M7add11 R 3 11 5 7 00110o o00120
Maj 7th add 13th M7add13 R 3 5 13 7 02112o o02122
6th flat5 add 9* 6(-5)add9 R 9 3 b5 6 o76676 544445
M7th flat5 add9* M7(-5)add9 R 9 3 b5 7 o76876 546445
M7th flat5 add13* M7(-5)add13 R 3 b5 13 7 o78899 566675
min 6th add 9th min6add9 R 9 b3 5 6 022022 o02502
min 6th add 11th min6add11 R b3 11 5 6 02522x o02532
min [7th add] 9th min7add9 R 9 b3 5 b7 020002 o02413
min 7th add 11th min7add11 R b3 11 5 b7 020203 o00010
min 7th add 13th min7add13 R b3 5 13 b7 02002o o02012
min M7 add 9th min M7add9 R 9 b3 5 7 021002 576557
min M7 add 11th min M7add11 R b3 11 5 7 001000 o00110
min M7 add 13th min M7add13 R b3 5 13 7 021020 o02112
~ AUG. & DIM. Abbrev C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B EADGBE EADGBE
aug5/ 7th add 9th* aug5/7add9 R 9 3 #5 b7 030112 x05667
aug5/ 7th add 11th* aug5/7add11 R 3 11 #5 b7 030214 555665
aug5/ 7th add13th* aug5/7add13 R 3 #5 13 b7 030120 x03022
dim5/ 7th add 9th* dim5/7add9 R 9 b3 b5 b7 010032 565587
dim5/ 7th add 11th* dim5/7add11 R b3 11 b5 b7 010233 565788
dim5/ 7th add 13th* dim5/7add13 R b3 b5 13 b7 010020 o01012
~ SUSPENDED Abbrev R b2 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7 EADGBE EADGBE
6th sus 4th add 9th 6sus4add9 R 9 4 5 6 022222 o02432
7th sus 4th add 9th 7sus4add9 R 9 4 5 b7 020202 o02433
7th sus4 add 13th 7sus4add13 R 4 5 13 b7 02022o o02032
M7th sus4th add9th M7sus4add9 R 9 4 5 7 001202 o00100
M7th sus4th add13 M7sus4add13 R 4 5 13 7 021220 o02132
7th sus2 add 13th 7sus2add13 R 2 5 13 b7 o79779 o02002
M7th sus2nd add13 M7sus2add13 R 2 5 13 7 o79879 o02102

For more on chords, see Chords pt2

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