MusicChord Naming

Before you look at chords, you need to understand the concept of modes. If you don't, have a look at the Guide to Modal Harmony. If you understand what a mode is, you really have understood chords already, because actually they are the same thing. Also, you need to understand how to name intervals, which can be found in any elementary music theory book.

Take for example a C major scale starting on the root C (which can also be called C Ionian mode):

Notes C D E F G A B
Intervals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Notice that I express the scale by ordering it in seconds. But when I talk about chords, the convention is to order it in thirds. In that case, it takes me two octaves to get it all in.

Notes C E G B d f a
Intervals 1 3 5 7 9 11 13

If I wanted to, I could order it in fourths as well. But this is not done enough in practice to have generated a vocabulary. Fifths, sixths and sevenths would not be very useful since it would just be the inverse of seconds, thirds and fourths.

I can do the same thing for all seven modes that can be generated from the C major scale.

Mode name Notes Intervals
Ionian C E G B d f a 1 3 5 7 9 11 13
Dorian D F A C e g b 1 -3 5 -7 9 11 13
Phrygian E G B D f a c 1 -3 5 -7 -9 11 -13
Lydian F A C E g b d 1 3 5 7 9 +11 13
Mixolydian G B D F a c e 1 3 5 -7 9 11 13
Aeolian A C E G b d f 1 -3 5 -7 9 11 -13
Locrian B D F A c e g 1 -3 -5 -7 -9 11 -13

Notice since every chord is generated from a seven-note scale, every chord has seven notes. Now this doesn't mean you have to play all of them. You could, but the result would sound rather heavy. Normally you make a selection of some of the notes; this is called a voicing. Also, you can vary the order in which you play the notes of the voicing; this is called an inversion. It's important to distinguish clearly among the three concepts. For example, in a jazz trio, the guitar player might play an accompaniment consisting of different voicings of a chord. The bass player would select notes from the chord to play; since that's the lowest note in the band, it defines the inversion of the chord. Meanwhile the saxophone player is playing a solo based on the scale that's related to the chord. Since they are all using the same chord structure, everything fits together even though all three are improvising. Note that the chords change in a regular pattern, such as once per measure or every two beats (this is called harmonic rhythm), but the voicings and inversions can vary arbitrarily throughout the period of the chord as the performers desire.

In jazz, there are techniques for selecting voicings, but they are a bit too complex to go into here. In relating this concept to classical theory, it should be remembered that classical theory is not a theoretical system. It is simply a compendium of techniques used by people like Mozart and his contemporaries. And because classical theory was not compiled until after those composers had finished all their works, they didn't have it around to rely upon. All they actually had was Renaissance music theory and their ears.

The voicings used in classical music generally follow one of the following rules:

  • Use the lowest three degrees of the chord
  • Use the lowest four degrees of the chord
  • Use the lowest four degrees, but only in certain inversions
  • Use three of the lowest four degrees, but only in certain inversions.

J. S. Bach is an interesting exception, because he is really a transitional figure. Many of his voicings would not be out of place in a jazz group. (You don't believe me? Check out an example of Bach's hip changes!) And in the second half of the 19th century composers started using more and more of the available chord degrees in their voicings, re-arriving at those same voicings Bach used, and many more as well. But we are going to leave the interesting topic of voicings here and move along to the chord naming system.

The first thing I need to do is to order the scale in thirds starting at the root of the chord. I then generate the name as follows:

  • Root of the chord
  • If the third degree is minor, put m, otherwise nothing
  • If the seventh degree is minor, put 7, else if it is major put maj 7 or a 7 with a circle around it. Don't use a 7 with a bar through it because this looks like the way people write 7 in Europe.
  • If the fifth degree is perfect, put nothing. If it is diminished, put -5, if it is augmented put +5. Sometimes a chord may have both ±5. Use superscript if available.
  • Next, the ninth degree. If it is perfect, put nothing. If it is minor, put -9. Sometimes a chord may have both ±9. (That would require a major third to be present as well.) Use superscript if available.
  • Next, the eleventh degree. If it is perfect, put nothing. If it is augmented, put +11. No other possibilities are allowed. Use superscript if available.
  • Next, the thirteenth degree. If it is perfect, put nothing. If it is minor, put -13. No other possibilities are allowed. Use superscript if available.

So now I can do my major-scale table again, and put in the chord names generated from my rules.

Mode name Notes Intervals Chord name
Ionian C E G B d f a 1 3 5 7 9 11 13 C maj 7
Dorian D F A C e g b 1 -3 5 -7 9 11 13 Dm7
Phrygian E G B D f a c 1 -3 5 -7 -9 11 -13 Em7-9-13
Lydian F A C E g b d 1 3 5 7 9 +11 13 F maj 7+11
Mixolydian G B D F a c e 1 3 5 -7 9 11 13 G7
Aeolian A C E G b d f 1 -3 5 -7 9 11 -13 Am7-13
Locrian B D F A c e g 1 -3 -5 -7 -9 11 -13 Bm7-5-9-13

Of course, I could do exactly the same with any major scale. The result would be the same but the root of the chords would be different. But I am not confined to chords generated by the major scale. I could use other seven-note scales in the same way. For example, the "Jazz Minor" scale 1 2 -3 4 5 6 7 on C (C D Eb F G A B) generates such useful chords as Cm maj7 and F7+11. There are a few other seven-note scales used as well.

Now you might ask does a scale have to have seven notes? Could it have more or fewer? In general, this is a very profound question. But in common use there are only two such scales.

One of them is the eight-note scale known as the "Symmetrical", "Whole Tone-Half Tone" or "Diminished Scale". This, as the name implies, consists of alternating whole tones and half tones, C Db D# E F# G A Bb. (Note that it must be D#, not Eb, because a chord may have two ninth degrees, but is not permitted to have two third degrees.) Because of the symmetry of the structure, there are only three such scales, and each generates only two chord types. One is a chord much beloved of Jimi Hendrix, C7±9+11. The other is a true diminished chord, C# dim. (Sometimes a small circle is used for a diminished chord, i.e., .) Both these chords remain the same when transposed a minor third higher, a trick particularly used for diminished chords. Many people confuse a diminished chord with a m7-5 chord such as that generated by the Locrian mode. You can easily tell the difference by playing the scale over the chord voicing and seeing which sounds best in context. You can also look at the harmonic function. A m7-5 chord is often used for a ii chord in a minor ii V i progression, i.e., something like ii m7-5 V7-13 im maj7. (A m7-5 chord is sometimes called a "half-diminished" chord, but the term is barbarous and unnecessary.) A true diminished chord usually functions as a harmonically ambiguous connecting chord between two different key areas, or in such applications as a harmonized chromatic scale, e.g., Cmaj7 D#dim Dm7, etc.

The other scale is the six-note "Whole Tone" scale, made up entirely of whole tones, C D E F# G# Bb. Note that we have to leave out one note name. There can only be two such scales; only one chord type is generated. This is the augmented chord C aug. (The chord repeats at intervals of a whole tone.)

The true augmented chord is a very colourful chord which is not often used. Many people confuse it with a 7-13 chord, which is typically used as a V chord going to a minor i. Suppose you see the voicing C E Ab Bb, or is it C E G# Bb? The test is to play the voicing in context and try playing a scale over it. Only if your ear really wants to hear a whole tone scale should you call it an augmented chord. But usually what you will find is that your ear wants to hear a G in the scale; probably your ear would accept either 9 or -9, the latter having a little extra tendency to want to resolve to the i chord. So the chord you have is really C7-13 or C7-9-13 (your choice) and the correct spelling is C E Ab Bb.

The usual cause of confusion is that people often try to indicate voicings in the chord name. There is no systematic way of doing this. Sometimes you can get away with it if everyone involved is aware of typical usages in a particular musical style, but in general it is hopelessly ambiguous. If you can't trust the person who is playing your music to come up with appropriate voicings, you should write out exactly which notes you want.

On the other hand, it is quite possible to indicate inversions in a chord name. Simply follow the chord name with a slash, and then the desired bass note, e.g., G7 /D. In the field of Scottish country dance music this has been extended to writing complete bass parts without using an extra staff. It doesn't show note lengths, so you assume that if there are two in a measure they are half notes; four in a measure is quarter notes. If there are three in a measure, I guess you're on your own.

(This is an interesting inversion of the figured bass system used in the Baroque era to notate basso continuo. In that system the bass line was written out in notes, and cryptic numbers, more or less functionally equivalent to chord types, were placed above the notes.)

In many forms of music, the only chord types ever used are triads (i.e., the first three degrees of a chord), so it is possible to specify nothing more than major or minor. There are often problems when people who usually function in such areas decide to use more complex chords, since they are usually unaware of how to name them. (They should read this page!) In other forms of music, such as jazz, where playing just a triad would normally get you fired on the spot, a triad is sometimes indicated by a little triangle (not available in HTML); usually then some hip bass note is also specified, such as C major triad over Ab.

Although the subject of chord naming can get extremely complicated if a fully functional generative grammar is required, in practice the rules given above will handle 95% of the performance situations you will run into. If you are asked to join an avant-garde jazz band, however, forget everything I said.

If you are not quite sure what to do with all these chords, take a look at the guide to chord functions.

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