Chord names and symbols (popular music)

Musicians use various kinds of chord names and symbols in different contexts to represent musical chords. In most genres of popular music, including jazz, pop, and rock, a chord name and its corresponding symbol typically indicate one or more of the following:

  1. the root note (e.g. C),
  2. the chord quality (e.g. minor or lowercase m, or the symbols o or + for diminished and augmented chords, respectively; chord quality is usually omitted for major chords),
  3. whether the chord is a triad, seventh chord, or an extended chord (e.g. Δ7),
  4. any altered notes (e.g. sharp five, or 5),
  5. any added tones (e.g. add2), and
  6. the bass note if it is not the root (e.g. a slash chord).
Major seventh chord on C, notated as CΔ7

For instance, the name C augmented seventh, and the corresponding symbol Caug7, or C+7, are both composed of parts 1, 2, and 3. This indicates a chord formed by the notes C–E–G–B. The three parts of the symbol (C, aug, and 7) refer to the root C, the augmented (fifth) interval from C to G, and the (minor) seventh interval from C to B.

Although they are used occasionally in classical music, typically in an educational setting for harmonic analysis, these names and symbols are "universally used in jazz and popular music",[1] in lead sheets, fake books, and chord charts, to specify the chords that make up the chord progression of a song or other piece of music. A typical sequence of a jazz or rock song in the key of C major might indicate a chord progression such as

C – Am – Dm – G7.

This chord progression instructs the performer to play, in sequence, a C major triad, an A minor chord, a D minor chord, and a G dominant seventh chord. In a jazz context, players have the freedom to add sevenths, ninths, and higher extensions to the chord. In some pop, rock and folk genres, triads are generally performed unless specified in the chord chart.


These chord symbols are used by musicians for a number of purposes. Chord-playing instrumentalists in the rhythm section, such as pianists, use these symbols to guide their improvised performance of chord voicings and fills. A rock or pop guitarist or keyboardist might literally play the chords as indicated (e.g., the C major chord would be played by playing the notes C, E and G at the same time). In jazz, particularly for music from the 1940s bebop era or later, players typically have latitude to add in the sixth, seventh, and/or ninth of the chord. Jazz chord voicings often omit the root (leaving it to the bass player) and fifth. As such, a jazz guitarist might voice the C major chord with the notes E, A and D—which are the third, sixth, and ninth of the chord. The bassist (electric bass or double bass) uses the chord symbols to help improvise a bass line that outlines the chords, often by emphasizing the root and other key scale tones (third, fifth, and in a jazz context, the seventh).

The lead instruments, such as a saxophonist or lead guitarist, use the chord chart to guide their improvised solos. The instrumentalist improvising a solo may use scales that work well with certain chords or chord progressions, according to the chord-scale system. For example, in rock and blues soloing, the pentatonic scale built on the root note is widely used to solo over straightforward chord progressions that use I, IV and V chords (in the key of C major, these would be the chords C, F and G7).

Other notation systems for chords include:[2]

Advantages and limitations

Any chord can be denoted using staff notation, showing not only its harmonic characteristics but also its exact voicing. However, this notation, frequently used in classical music, may provide too much information, making improvisation difficult. In fact, although voicings can and do have a significant effect on the subjective musical qualities of a composition, generally these interpretations retain the central characteristics of the chord. This provides an opportunity for improvisation within a defined structure and is important to improvised music such as jazz. Other problems are that voicings for one instrument are not necessarily physically playable on another (for example, the thirteenth chord, played on piano with up to seven notes, is usually played on guitar as a 4- or 5-note voicing that is impossible to play on piano with one hand).

As a result of these limitations, popular music and jazz use a shorthand that describes the harmonic characteristics of chords. The first part of a symbol for a chord defines the root of the chord. The root of the chord is always played by one of the instruments in the ensemble (usually by a bass instrument). Failure to include the root means that the indicated chord may be hard to hear for some listeners. By convention, the root alone indicates a simple major triad, i.e., the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth above the root. After this, various additional symbols are added to modify this chord. There is unfortunately no universal standard for these symbols. The most common ones are below.

This notation does not easily provide for ways of describing all chords. Some chords can be very difficult to notate, and others that exist theoretically are rarely encountered. For example, there are six possible combinations of triads (chords with three notes) involving minor or major thirds and perfect, augmented, or diminished fifths. However, conventionally only four are used (major, minor, augmented and diminished). There is nothing to stop a composer using the other two, but the question of what to call them is interesting. A minor third with an augmented fifth might be denoted, for example, by Am+, which would strike most musicians as odd. In fact, this turns out to be the same as F/A bass (see slash chords below). A major third with a diminished fifth might be shown as A5.

Usually, when composers require a chord that is not easily described using this notation, they indicate the required chord in a footnote or in the header of the music. Alternatively, chords can be specified with more detailed numbers. For example, for a C9 chord with no seventh, the composer can write C9 (no 7th), because the normal rule in jazz is that in a ninth chord, the seventh is assumed.

Chord quality

Chord qualities are related to the qualities of the component intervals that define the chord. The main chord qualities are:

Some of the symbols used for chord quality are similar to those used for interval quality:

  • No symbol, or sometimes M or Maj for major
  • m, or min for minor
  • aug for augmented
  • dim for diminished

In addition,

  • Δ is sometimes used for major,[lower-alpha 1] instead of the standard M, or maj
  • is sometimes used for minor, instead of the standard m or min
  • a lowercase root note is sometimes used for minor, e.g. c instead of Cm
  • + is used for augmented (A is not used)
  • o is for diminished (d is not used)
  • ø is used for half-diminished
  • dom may occasionally be used for dominant

Chord qualities are sometimes omitted. When specified, they appear immediately after the root note or, if the root is omitted, at the beginning of the chord name or symbol. For instance, in the symbol Cm7 (C minor seventh chord) C is the root and m is the chord quality. When the terms minor, major, augmented, diminished, or the corresponding symbols do not appear immediately after the root note, or at the beginning of the name or symbol, they should be considered interval qualities, rather than chord qualities. For instance, in CmM7 (minor major seventh chord), m is the chord quality and M refers to the M7 interval.

Major, minor, augmented, and diminished chords

Three-note chords are called triads. There are four basic triads (major, minor, augmented, diminished). They are all tertian—which means defined by the root, a third, and a fifth. Since most other chords are made by adding one or more notes to these triads, the name and symbol of a chord is often built by just adding an interval number to the name and symbol of a triad. For instance, a C augmented seventh chord is a C augmented triad with an extra note defined by a minor seventh interval:


In this case, the quality of the additional interval is omitted. Less often, the full name or symbol of the additional interval (minor, in the example) is provided. For instance, a C augmented major seventh chord is a C augmented triad with an extra note defined by a major seventh interval:


In both cases, the quality of the chord is the same as the quality of the basic triad it contains. This is not true for all chord qualities: the chord qualities half-diminished and dominant refer not only to the quality of the basic triad but also the quality of the additional intervals.

Altered fifths

A more complex approach is sometimes used to name and denote augmented and diminished chords. An augmented triad can be viewed as a major triad in which the perfect fifth interval (spanning 7 semitones) has been substituted with an augmented fifth (8 semitones). A diminished triad can be viewed as a minor triad in which the perfect fifth has been substituted with a diminished fifth (6 semitones). In this case, the augmented triad can be named major triad sharp five, or major triad augmented fifth (M5, M+5, majaug5). Similarly, the diminished triad can be named minor triad flat five, or minor triad diminished fifth (m5, mo5, mindim5).

Again, the terminology and notation used for triads affects the terminology and notation used for larger chords, formed by four or more notes. For instance, the above-mentioned C augmented major seventh chord, is sometimes called C major seventh sharp five, or C major seventh augmented fifth. The corresponding symbol is CM7+5, CM75, or Cmaj7aug5:

(In chord symbols, the symbol A, used for augmented intervals, is typically replaced by + or )

In this case, the chord is viewed as a C major seventh chord (CM7) in which the third note is an augmented fifth from root (G), rather than a perfect fifth from root (G). All chord names and symbols including altered fifths, i.e., augmented (5, +5, aug5) or diminished (5, o5, dim5) fifths can be interpreted in a similar way.

Rules to decode chord names and symbols

The amount of information provided in a chord name or symbol lean toward the minimum, to increase efficiency. However, it is often necessary to deduce from a chord name or symbol the component intervals that define the chord. The missing information is implied and must be deduced according to some conventional rules:

  1. General rule to interpret existing information about chord quality
    For triads, major or minor always refer to the third interval, while augmented and diminished always refer to the fifth (an augmented fifth above the root and a diminished fifth above the root, respectively). The same is true for the corresponding symbols (e.g., Cm means Cm3, and C+ means C+5). Thus, the terms third and fifth and the corresponding symbols 3 and 5 are typically omitted. It is assumed that the chord-playing musician plays the third and fifth above the root, so this is not explicitly stated.
    This rule can be generalized to all kinds of chords,[lower-alpha 2] provided the above-mentioned qualities appear immediately after the root note, or at the beginning of the chord name or symbol. For instance, in the chord symbols Cm and Cm7, m refers to the interval m3, and 3 is omitted. When these qualities do not appear immediately after the root note, or at the beginning of the name or symbol, they should be considered interval qualities, rather than chord qualities. For instance, in Cm/M7 (minor-major seventh chord), m is the chord quality and refers to the m3 interval, while M refers to the M7 interval. When the number of an extra interval is specified immediately after chord quality, the quality of that interval may coincide with chord quality (e.g., CM7 = CMM7). However, this is not always true (e.g., Cm6 = CmM6, C+7 = C+m7, CM11 = CMP11).[lower-alpha 2] See specific rules below for further details.
  2. General rule to deduce missing information about chord quality
    Without contrary information, a major third interval and a perfect fifth interval (major triad) are implied. For instance, a C chord is a C major triad, and the name C minor seventh (Cm7) implies a minor third by rule 1, a perfect fifth by this rule, and a minor seventh by definition (see below). This rule has one exception (see the first specific rule below). The chord built on the fifth scale degree, the dominant chord, is often interpreted as a dominant seventh chord, even if the chord chart does not specifically indicate this. For example, for a song in the key of C Major, if a G chord is indicated, many chord-playing musicians instinctively play a G7 chord. In blues, if a song indicates "C, F, and G" as the chords, many blues guitarists and blues pianists play "C7, F7, and G7", as using dominant seventh chords in place of major chords is an idiomatic part of the blues sound.
  3. Specific rules
    When the fifth interval is diminished, the third must be minor.[lower-alpha 3] This rule overrides rule 2. For instance, Cdim7 implies a diminished fifth by rule 1, a minor third by this rule, and a diminished seventh by definition (see below).
    Names and symbols with only a plain interval number (e.g., "Seventh chord") or the chord root and a number (e.g., "C seventh", or C7) are interpreted as follows:
    • If the number is 2, 4, 6, etc., the chord is a major added tone chord (e.g., C6 = CM6 = Cadd6) and contains, together with the implied major triad, an extra major 2nd, perfect 4th, or major 6th (see below). Note that 2 and 4 are sometimes also used to abbreviate suspended chords (e.g., C2 = Csus2).
    • If the number is 7, 9, 11, 13, etc., the chord is dominant (e.g., C7 = Cdom7) and contains, together with the implied major triad, one or more of the following extra intervals: minor 7th, major 9th, perfect 11th, and major 13th (see Seventh chords and Extended chords below).
    • If the number is 5, the chord (technically not a chord in the traditional sense, but a dyad) is a power chord. Only the root, a perfect fifth and usually an octave are played.
    For sixth chord names or symbols composed only of root, quality and number (such as "C major sixth", or "CM6"):
    • M, maj, or major stands for major-major (e.g., CM6 means CMM6),
    • m, min, or minor stands for minor-major (e.g., Cm6 means CmM6).
    For seventh chord names or symbols composed only of root, quality and number (such as "C major seventh", or "CM7"):
    • dom, or dominant stands for major-minor (e.g., Cdom7 means CMm7),
    • M, maj, or major stands for major-major (e.g., CM7 means CMM7),
    • m, min, or minor stands for minor-minor (e.g., Cm7 means Cmm7),
    • +, aug, or augmented stands for augmented-minor (e.g., C+7 means C+m7),
    • o, dim, or diminished stands for diminished-diminished (e.g., Co7 means Cod7),
    • ø, or half-diminished stands for diminished-minor (e.g., Cø7 means Com7).
    Other specific rules for extended and added tone chords are given below.


The table shows the application of these generic and specific rules to interpret some of the main chord symbols.

Chord name Chord symbol(s)
(on C)
Analysis of symbol parts Component intervals Notes
(on C)
Triads Major triad CCM3P5C–E–G
CM[lower-alpha 4]Cmaj[lower-alpha 4]CMaj
Minor triad CmCminCMinm3P5C–E–G
Augmented triad C+CaugCAugM3A5C–E–G
Diminished triad CoCdimCDimm3d5C–E–G
Major sixth chord C6C6M3P5M6C–E–G–A
CM6[lower-alpha 4]Cmaj6[lower-alpha 4]CMaj6
Minor sixth chord Cm6Cmin6CMin6m3P5M6C–E–G–A
Dominant seventh chord C7C7CDom7M3P5m7C–E–G–B
Major seventh chord CM7Cmaj7CMaj7M3P5M7C–E–G–B
Minor seventh chord Cm7Cmin7CMinDom7m3P5m7C–E–G–B
Augmented seventh chord C+7Caug7CAugDom7M3A5m7C–E–G–B
Diminished seventh chord Co7Cdim7CDimDom7m3d5d7C–E–G–B
Half-diminished seventh chord CøCDimm3d5m7C–E–G–B
Minor-major seventh chord CmM7
Cm/M7 Cm(M7)
Cmin/maj7 Cmin(maj7)

For each symbol, several formatting options are available. Except for the root, all the other parts of the symbols may be either superscripted or subscripted. Sometimes, parts of the symbol may be separated by a slash, or written within parentheses. For instance:

  • CM7 may be written CM7, CM7, CM7, or CM7.
  • CmM7 may be written as CmM7, Cm/M7, Cm(M7), or simply CmM7.

Short and long symbols for chord quality (such as m for minor and maj for major, respectively) are sometimes both used in the same chord symbol. For instance:

  • CmM7 may be also written Cmmaj7.

Common types of chords


The four triads, all built on C: major (C), minor (C–), augmented (C+), and diminished (Co)

As shown in the table below, there are four triads, each made up of the root, the third (either major [M3] or minor [m3]) above the root, and the fifth (perfect [P5], augmented [A5], or diminished [d5]) above the root. The table below shows the names, symbols, and definition for the four triads, using C as the root.

Name Symbol(s) (on C) Definitions
Short Long Altered
Component intervals Notes
(on C)
Third Fifth
Major triadC
CM[lower-alpha 4]
CΔ[lower-alpha 1]
Cmaj[lower-alpha 4]M3P5C–E–G
Minor triadCm
Augmented triad
(major triad sharp five)
Diminished triad
(minor triad flat five)

Seventh chords

Five of the most common seventh chord, all built on C: major (CΔ7), dominant (C7), minor (C–7), half-diminished (Cø7), and diminished (Co7)

A seventh chord is a triad with a seventh. The seventh is either a major seventh [M7] above the root, a minor seventh [m7] above the root (flatted 7th), or a diminished seventh [d7] above the root (double flatted 7th). Note that the diminished seventh note is enharmonically equivalent to the major sixth above the root of the chord.

The table below shows the names, symbols, and definitions for the various kinds of seventh chords, using C as the root.

Name Symbol(s) (on C) Definitions
Short Long Altered
Component intervals Notes (on C)
Third Fifth Seventh
Dominant seventhC7M3P5m7C–E–G–B
Major seventhCM7
CΔ[lower-alpha 1]
Minor-major seventhCmM7
Minor seventhCm7
Augmented-major seventh
(major seventh sharp five)
Augmented seventh
(dominant seventh sharp five)
Half-diminished seventh
(minor seventh flat five)
Diminished seventhCo7Cdim7m3d5d7C–E–G–B
Seventh flat five
(seventh flat five)

Extended chords

Extended chords add further notes to seventh chords. Of the seven notes in the major scale, a seventh chord uses only four (the root, third, fifth, and seventh). The other three notes (the second, fourth, and sixth) can be added in any combination; however, just as with the triads and seventh chords, notes are most commonly stacked – a seventh implies that there is a fifth and a third and a root. In practice, especially in jazz, certain notes can be omitted without changing the quality of the chord. In a jazz ensemble with a bass player, the chord-playing instrumentalists (guitar, organ, piano, etc.) can omit the root, as the bass player typically plays it.

Ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords are known as extended tertian chords. These notes are enharmonically equivalent to the second, fourtth, and sixth, respectively, except they are more than an octave above the root. However, this does not mean that they must be played in the higher octave. Although changing the octave of certain notes in a chord (within reason) does change the way the chord sounds, it does not change the essential characteristics or tendency of it. Accordingly, using the ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth in chord notation implies that the chord is an extended tertian chord rather than an added chord.

The convention is that using an odd number (7, 9, 11, or 13) implies that all the other lower odd numbers are also included. Thus C13 implies that 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 are also there. Using an even number such as 6, implies that only that one extra note has been added to the base triad e.g. 1, 3, 5, 6. Remember that this is theory, so in practice they do not have to be played in that ascending order e.g. 5, 1, 6, 3. Also, to resolve the clash between the third and eleventh, one of them may be deleted or separated by an octave. Another way to resolve might be to convert the chord to minor by lowering the third, which generates a clash between the 3 and the 9.

Ninth chords

Four of the most common ninth chord, all built on C: major (CΔ9), dominant (C9), dominant minor ninth (C79), and minor (C–9)

Ninth chords are built by adding a ninth to a seventh chord, either a major ninth [M9] or a minor ninth [m9]. A ninth chord includes the seventh; without the seventh, the chord is not an extended chord but an added tone chord—in this case, an add 9. Ninths can be added to any chord but are most commonly seen with major, minor, and dominant seventh chords. The most commonly omitted note for a voicing is the perfect fifth.

The table below shows the names, symbols, and definitions for the various kinds of ninth chords, using C as the root.

Name Symbol(s) (on C) Quality of
added 9th
Notes (on C)
Short Long
Major ninthCM9
Dominant ninthC9M9C–E–G–B–D
Dominant minor ninth C79 m9 C–E–G–B–D
Minor-major ninthCmM9
Minor ninthCm9
Augmented major ninthC+M9Caugmaj9M9C–E–G–B–D
Augmented dominant ninthC+9
Half-diminished ninthCø9M9C–E–G–B–D
Half-diminished minor ninthCø9m9C–E–G–B–D
Diminished ninthCo9Cdim9M9C–E–G–B–D
Diminished minor ninthCo9Cdim9m9C–E–G–B–D

Eleventh chords

Three eleventh chords, all built on C: an eleventh chord (C11), a major eleventh chord (CM11), and a minor eleventh chord (C–11)

Eleventh chords are theoretically ninth chords with the 11th (or fourth) added. However, it is common to leave certain notes out. The major third is often omitted because of a strong dissonance with the 11th, making the third an avoid note. Omission of the third reduces an 11th chord to the corresponding 9sus4 chord (suspended 9th chord[4]). Similarly, omission of the third as well as fifth in C11 results in a major chord with alternate base B/C, which is characteristic in soul and gospel music. For instance:

C11 without 3rd = C–(E)–G–B–D–F ➡ C–F–G–B–D = C9sus4
C11 without 3rd and 5th = C–(E)–(G)–B–D–F ➡ C–F–B–D = B/C

If the ninth is omitted, the chord is no longer an extended chord but an added tone chord. Without the third, this added tone chord becomes a 7sus4 (suspended 7th chord). For instance:

C11 without 9th = C7add11 = C–E–G–B–(D)–F
C7add11 without 3rd = C–(E)–G–B–(D)–F ➡ C–F–G–B = C7sus4

(NB: to properly use the term "sus4", the 4 (in this example the "F"), must have been played in the previous chord so that it can be suspended as a dissonant note into the new chord.)

The table below shows the names, symbols, and definitions for the various kinds of eleventh chords, using C as the root.

Name Symbol(s) (on C) Quality of
added 11th
Notes (on C)
Short Long
Major eleventhCM11Cmaj11P11C–E–G–B–D–F
Minor major eleventhCmM11
Minor eleventhCm11
Augmented major eleventhC+M11Caugmaj11P11C–E–G–B–D–F
Augmented eleventhC+11
Half-diminished eleventhCø11P11C–E–G–B–D–F
Diminished eleventhCo11Cdim11P11C–E–G–B–D–F

Alterations from the natural diatonic chords can be specified as C911 ... etc. Omission of the fifth in a raised 11th chord reduces its sound to a 5 chord.[5]

C911 = C–E–(G)–B–D–F ➡ C–E–G–B–D = C95.

Thirteenth chords

Three thirteenth chords, all built on C: an thirteenth chord (C13), a major thirteenth chord (CM13), and a minor thirteenth chord (C–13)

Thirteenth chords are theoretically eleventh chords with the 13th (or sixth) added. In other words, theoretically they are formed by all the seven notes of a diatonic scale at once. Again, it is common to leave certain notes out. After the fifth, the most commonly omitted note is the 11th (fourth). The ninth (second) may also be omitted. A very common voicing on guitar for a 13th chord is just the root, third, seventh and 13th (or sixth). For example: C–E–(G)–B–(D)–(F)–A, or C–E–(G)–A–B–(D)–(F). On the piano, this is usually voiced C–B–E–A.

The table below shows the names, symbols, and definitions for some thirteenth chords, using C as the root.

Name Symbol(s) (on C) Quality of
added 13th
Notes (on C)
Short Long
Major thirteenthCM13
Minor major thirteenthCmM13
Minor thirteenthCm13
Augmented major thirteenthC+M13Caugmaj13M13C–E–G–B–D–F–A
Augmented thirteenthC+13
Half-diminished thirteenthCø13M13C–E–G–B–D–F–A

Alterations from the natural diatonic chords can be specified as C1113 ... etc.

Added tone chords

Added ninth chord built on C, written as Cadd9

There are two ways to show that a chord is an added tone chord, and it is very common to see both methods on the same score. One way is to simply use the word 'add', for example, Cadd9. The second way is to use 2 instead of 9, implying that it is not a seventh chord, for instance, C2. Note that this provides other ways of showing a ninth chord, for instance, C7add9, C7add2, or C7/9. Generally however, this is shown as simply C9, which implies a seventh in the chord. Added tone chord notation is useful with seventh chords to indicate partial extended chords, for example, C7add13, which indicates that the 13th is added to the 7th, but without the 9th and 11th.

The use of 2, 4 and 6 rather than 9, 11 and 13 indicates that the chord does not include a seventh unless specifically specified. However, this does not mean that these notes must be played within an octave of the root, nor the extended notes in seventh chords should be played outside of the octave, although it is commonly the case. 6 is particularly common in a minor sixth chord (also known as minor/major sixth chord, as the 6 refers to a major sixth interval).

6/9 chord built on C, written as C6/9

It is possible to have added tone chords with more than one added note. The most commonly encountered of these are 6/9 chords, which are basic triads with the sixth and second notes of the scale added. These can be confusing because of the use of 9, yet the chord does not include the seventh. A good rule of thumb is that if any added note is less than 7, then no seventh is implied, even if there are some notes shown as greater than 7.

Suspended chords

sus2 and sus4 chords built on C, written as Csus2 and Csus4, respectively

Suspended chords are notated with the symbols "sus4" or "sus2". When "sus" is alone, the suspended fourth chord is implied. This "sus" indication can be combined with any other notation. For example, the notation C9sus4 refers to a ninth chord with the third replaced by the fourth: C–F–G–B–D. However, the major third can also be added as a tension above the fourth to "colorize" the chord: C–F–G–B–D–E. A sus4 chord with the added major third (sometimes called a major 10th) can also be voiced quartally as C–F–B–E.

Power chords

Though power chords are not true chords per se, as the term "chord" is generally defined as three or more different pitch classes sounded simultaneously, and a power chord contains only two (the root, the fifth, and often a doubling of the root at the octave), power chords are still expressed using a version of chord notation. Most commonly, power chords (e.g., C–G–C) are expressed using a "5" (e.g., C5). Power chords are also referred to as fifth chords, indeterminate chords, or neutral chords (not to be confused with the quarter tone neutral chord, a stacking of two neutral thirds, e.g. C–E–G) since they are inherently neither major nor minor; generally, a power chord refers to a specific doubled-root, three-note voicing of a fifth chord.

To represent an extended neutral chord, e.g., a seventh (C–G–B), the chord is expressed as its corresponding extended chord notation with the addition of the words "no3rd," "no3" or the like. The aforementioned chord, for instance, could be indicated with C7no3.

Slash chords

First- and second-inversion C major triads, written as C/E and C/G

An inverted chord is a chord with a bass note that is a chord tone but not the root of the chord. Inverted chords are noted as slash chords with the note after the slash being the bass note. For instance, the notation C/E bass indicates a C major triad in first inversion i.e. a C major triad with an E in the bass. Likewise the notation C/G bass indicates that a C major chord with a G in the bass (second inversion).

See figured bass for alternate method of notating specific notes in the bass.

Upper structures are notated in a similar manner to inversions, except that the bass note is not necessarily a chord tone. For example:

  • C/A bass (A–C–E–G), which is equivalent to AM75,
  • C/E bass (E–G–C–E), and
  • Am/D bass (D–A–C–E).

Chord notation in jazz usually gives a certain amount of freedom to the player for how the chord is voiced, also adding tensions (e.g., 9th, 11th, 13th, etc.) at the player's discretion. Therefore, upper structures are most useful when the composer wants musicians to play a specific tension array.

These are also commonly referred as "slash chords". A slash chord is simply a chord placed on top of a different bass note. For example:

  • D/F is a D chord with F in the bass, and
  • A/C is an A chord with C in the bass.

Slash chords generally do not indicate a simple inversion (which is usually left to the chord player's discretion anyway), especially considering that the specified bass note may not be part of the chord to play on top. The bass note may be played instead of or in addition to the chord's usual root note, though the root note, when played, is likely to be played only in a higher octave to avoid "colliding" with the new bass note.


Polychords, as the name suggests, are combinations of two or more chords. The most commonly found form of a polychord is a bichord (two chords played simultaneously) and is written as follows: upper chord/lower chord, for example: B/C (C–E–G—B–D–F).

Other symbols

The right slash / or diagonal line written above the staff where chord symbols occur is used to indicate a beat during which the most recent chord symbol is understood to continue. It is used to help make uneven harmonic rhythms more readable. For example, if written above a measure of standard time, "C / F G" would mean that the C chord symbol lasts two beats while F and G last one beat each. The slash is separated from the surrounding chord symbols so as not to be confused with the chord-over-a-bass-note notation that also uses a slash. Some fake books extend this slash rhythm notation further by indicating chords that are held as a whole note with a diamond, and indicating unison rhythm section rhythmic figures with the appropriate note heads and stems.

A simile mark in the middle of an otherwise empty measure tells the musician to repeat the chord or chords of the preceding measure. When seen with two slashes instead of one it indicates that the previous measure's chords should be repeated for two further measures, called a double simile, and is placed on the measure line between the two empty bars. It simplifies the job of both the music reader (who can quickly scan ahead to the next chord change) and the copyist (who doesn't need to repeat every chord symbol).

The chord notation N.C. indicates the musician should play no chord. The duration of this symbol follows the same rules as a regular chord symbol. This is used by composers and songwriters to indicate that the chord-playing musicians (guitar, keyboard, etc.) and the bass player should stop accompanying for the length covered by the "No Chord" symbol. Often the "No Chord" symbol is used to enable a solo singer or solo instrumentalist to play a pickup to a new section or an interlude without accompaniment.

An even more stringent indication for the band to tacet (stop playing) is the marking solo break. In jazz and popular music, this indicates that the entire band, including the drummer and percussionist, should stop playing to allow a solo instrumentalist to play a short cadenza, often one or two bars long. This rhythm section tacet creates a change of texture and gives the soloist great rhythmic freedom to speed up, slow down, or play with a varied tempo.

See also


  1. The symbol Δ is ambiguous, as it is used by some as a synonym for M (e.g., CΔ = CM and CΔ7 = CM7), and by others as a synonym of M7 (e.g., CΔ = CM7).
  2. General rule 1 achieves consistency in the interpretation of symbols such as CM7, Cm6, and C+7. Some musicians legitimately prefer to think that, in CM7, M refers to the seventh, rather than to the third. This alternative approach is legitimate, as both the third and seventh are major, yet it is inconsistent, as a similar interpretation is impossible for Cm6 and C+7 (in Cm6, m cannot possibly refer to the sixth, which is major by definition, and in C+7, + cannot refer to the seventh, which is minor). Both approaches reveal only one of the intervals (M3 or M7), and require other rules to complete the task. Whatever is the decoding method, the result is the same (e.g., CM7 is always conventionally decoded as C–E–G–B, implying M3, P5, M7). The advantage of rule 1 is that it has no exceptions, which makes it the simplest possible approach to decode chord quality.
    According to the two approaches, some may format the minor seventh as CM7 (general rule 1: M refers to M3), and others as CM7 (alternative approach: M refers to M7). Fortunately, even CM7 becomes compatible with rule 1 if it is considered an abbreviation of CMM7, in which the first M is omitted. The omitted M is the quality of the third, and is deduced according to rule 2 (see above), consistently with the interpretation of the plain symbol C, which by the same rule stands for CM and also in other variants.
  3. All triads are tertian chords (chords defined by sequences of thirds), and a major third would produce in this case a non-tertian chord. Namely, the diminished fifth spans 6 semitones from root, thus it may be decomposed into a sequence of two minor thirds, each spanning 3 semitones (m3 + m3), compatible with the definition of tertian chord. If a major third were used (4 semitones), this would entail a sequence containing a major second (M3 + M2 = 4 + 2 semitones = 6 semitones), which would not meet the definition of tertian chord.
  4. Rarely used symbol. A shorter symbol exists, and is used more frequently.


  1. Benward, Bruce; Saker, Marilyn Nadine (2003). Music in Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill. p. 78. ISBN 0072942622. OCLC 61691613.
  2. Benward & Saker, p. 77.
  3. Schoenberg, Arnold (1983). Structural Functions of Harmony, p.1–2. Faber and Faber. 0393004783
  4. Aikin, Jim (2004). A Player's Guide to Chords and Harmony: Music Theory for Real-World Musicians (1st ed.). San Francisco: Backbeat Books. p. 104. ISBN 0879307986. OCLC 54372433.
  5. Aikin, p. 94.

Further reading

  • Carl Brandt and Clinton Roemer (1976). Standardized Chord Symbol Notation. Roevick Music Co. ISBN 978-0961268428. Cited in Benward & Saker (2003), p. 76.
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