Jazz chord symbols: a primer for the classically-trained

January 16, 2012

Printed jazz music often uses chord symbols to indicate the music’s underlying harmony. As with the Roman numeral system used in classical music theory, jazz chord symbols may be used as a tool for analysis. But they are also used for performance, like Baroque figured bass notation, with the musicians using the symbols as a framework for improvising melodies and/or accompaniments. In jazz, the symbols are  generally non-specific with respect to inversion, and players of chord-capable instruments (such as piano or guitar) in jazz are accustomed to making independent choices about inversion and voicing. Depending on the situation, printed jazz music may include written notes only, or notes plus chord symbols, or even chord symbols alone.

Simple major triads aren’t common in most “modern” (post-1940) jazz. But in the rare cases that they do appear, they are indicated with a single note name:

C major

The letter “C” above the staff is the chord symbol. The notes shown on the staff here are the corresponding pitch classes, stacked in root position in the thirds familiar to students of classical theory, though a jazz musician, composer, or arranger would rarely voice a chord in this way.

Almost always, there should some variety of seventh specified, using the numeral 7 (and when it isn’t specified, it is often implied). By convention, using the 7 alone with a note name indicates the lowered seventh:

C seventh

When a major seventh is intended, it must be specified. Most of the time, when a jazz musician thinks of a “major” chord, this is the chord he or she means, since it is more colorful and stylistically characteristic than the plain triad. A triangle symbol has become common, and is preferable because it is unambiguous and easy to read. Several other symbols are common, however, such as a capital M or some abbreviation of the word “major.” (These persist likely in part because they can be typed using symbols available on a standard computer keyboard.)

C major seventh

The major sixth chord is encountered on occasion, which contains a major sixth scale degree rather than a seventh; jazz musicians will often treat this as interchangeable with the major seventh chord when improvising melodies or accompaniments.

Minor chords are best indicated with a minus sign, and almost always include a lowered or minor seventh. Lowercase m or an abbreviation of “minor” are also fairly common, but, especially in handwritten scores, can be easily confused for major chords.

C minor seventh

Half-diminished chords are expressed in two common ways. The slashed-circle is preferable due to its concision, but the minor-seventh-flat-fifth notation is perhaps equally ubiquitous.

C half-diminished

Diminished (or “fully diminished”) chords also have two common symbols, one using a circle (preferable), and one using an abbreviation of “diminished.”

C diminished

It is worth noting that jazz composers and arrangers tend to prefer legibility over pedantry, and in many cases will use enharmonics to avoid double-flats and the like.

So-called suspended chords, which use the fourth scale degree rather than the third, are commonly referred to as “sus” chords, due to the abbreviation commonly used in their chord symbols:

C suspended

Note that the term “suspended” is used here to describe the quality of the chord, but in jazz music the term does not necessarily indicate the chord’s function—that is to say, the “suspension” may not resolve as expected. Similarly, seventh chords (with the seventh lowered, remember) are sometimes referred to as “dominant” chords, even if they do not serve a dominant (nor secondary dominant) function.

In addition to the basic chord types listed so far, chords can also be extended and/or altered. Chord extensions include the 9th, 11th, and 13th scale degrees (any other scale degrees would be repetitions of notes already present in the chord). These scale degrees can be added individually to a chord symbol with the word “add,” but this happens only rarely. More often, the extensions are assumed to include all those of a lower number: for example, a C13 chord implies the presence of the 11th and 9th. The 11th scale degree is a special case in major chords, since it is the same pitch class as the 4th scale degree and is unacceptably dissonant in typical situations. It is almost always altered by raising by a half-step, and in the case of a major-quality 13th chord, the implied 11th scale degree is always assumed to be raised unless indicated otherwise.

Extended chords

Accidentals are used to create alterations, with sharps and flats loosely interpreted to mean altering the indicated note by a half-step, even if that involves (for example) adding a natural rather than a flat or sharp. In some cases, parentheses around the alterations are helpful for clarifying whether the accidental belongs to the root note (for example, a C-sharp chord with a natural ninth versus a C chord with a sharp ninth). Notes that can be altered include the fifth (flat or sharp), ninth (flat or sharp), eleventh (sharp), and thirteenth (flat); any other alteration would cause a change in the chord’s basic type. Some copyists prefer a plus sign over a sharp for alterations, particularly in the case of the raised fifth—this eliminates some of the confusion about using the sharp-fifth notation in a key where the fifth scale degree ordinarily has a flat, but also introduces a number of other ambiguities.

Altered chords

Slash chords may be made up of any chord combined with any single specified “bass” note. The bass note may be played by the bass instrument(s) of an ensemble, or in the lowest position in a chord-playing instrument’s voicing (particularly if that instrument is being played unaccompanied). The bass note may or may not exist in the “upper” chord.

C-slash-D

Comments

  1. Robin Tropper

    Bret, this one is super-cool!
    DON’T STOP POSTING THESE, PLEASE!

    Understanding chords also requires grasping resolution and voice-leading, but the explanation of the notation and exposing the fact that these structures even exist (i.e. are used in systematic manners) are a real eye-opener.

    The telephone area-code when I was a kid was 514….. or maybe IV-V-I??? That’s still how I see harmony, even though I do venture into 11th chords and all kinds of foreign-accidental resolutions. Funny how some dissonances sound great on a piano or in a choir, but orchestrate the notes and and it seems to just fester…..

    As musical styles appear to be fusing more and more, this kind of understanding of jazz harmony (in my opinion the coolest!) becomes GOLD! You might know the French composer Claude Bolling and his attempt (with flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal) to bridge the gap too with his “little suite for flute and jazz trio” …. also known as “Suite Inspiration”?

    This is not only the future, but also the present of music. There is no turning back…. and baroque purist as I might be, I have no problem with that!

    Thanks again, Bret!

    Reply

  2. Charles

    This is great!!!! I’ve been through years of undergraduate and graduate theory & never learned this kind of thing. More please!!!

    Reply

  3. Julian Catford

    Thanks, very nice, clear and concise. There are a lot of explanations out there with TMI (too much information) for the beginning player.

    Reply

  4. Lance

    Hi Bret.

    I saw the chord symbol C7maj5 in a song book. I learned that this is “C E G# Bb” via a Google search.

    Why the G#?

    I cannot find anything that explaining why the use of maj indicates an augmented 5th.

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      That seems like poor notation to me. A chord spelled that way would be better notated as C7♯5. In most flavors of music theory, there’s no such thing as a “major” fifth—just perfect, diminished, and augmented.

      Reply

      • Tonton Macoute

        As a guitarist, who learned club-date-style jazz guitar as a child in the 60s, I can tell you that the C-E-G#-Bb chord would be notated C7+5 or C7#5. Also, as a person who went on to get a pretty good education in Western Art Music and music theory, I can tell you that you can’t have a “major 5th.” This is because, in the earlier Middle Ages the 8va, 5th, and 4th were considered perfect (consonances), with the 6th and 3rd as secondary, imperfect consonances considered later. By the 15th century, the 4th measured up from the bass began to be considered (heard as) dissonant and needed to resolve stepwise down to a 3rd.

        Hence, 1a, 8va, 5th, and 4th are either perfect or augmented (raised a half step) or diminished (lowered a half step). All others, i.e., 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, etc. are major (the greater interval, e.g., C-D, C-E, C-A, C-B) or minor (the lesser, C-Db, C-Eb, C-Ab, C-Bb). You can raise the major by another half step (augmented 2nd C-D#, e.g.) or lower the minor by another half step (diminished 3rd C-Bbb). So a diminished 7th chord is C-Eb-Gb-Bbb, and the half-diminished 7th chord is C-Eb-Gb-Bb with a minor 7th (the Tristan chord: F-Ab-Cb-Eb).

        The reason I found this blog is because the little triangle and minus symbols are strange to me, and I had to find out what they actually meant. Sometimes, analogous to the C7+5 above, the C7 with the diminished (flatted) 5th would be notated C7-5 or otherwise C7b5 back in the day. That’s how I know the minus (-).

        Thanks for your clear exposition of the notation. Very well done graphically, verbally, and cognitively!

  5. Riley Dunnaway

    You have no idea how much I needed to find this. I’m a fairly skilled classical pianist who is about to audition for a jazz ensemble with absolutely 0 jazz knowledge. This article basically told me everything I needed to know for the audition piece and now im the soloist. Thank you so much.

    Reply

    • Riley Dunnaway

      *who was about

      Reply

  6. Chris Erskine

    Thanks for a very useful summary. I was looking for information on the practice of using a plus sign for the sharp sign in notating such alterations. So, a dominant seventh sharp ninth chord could be symbolized as “C7+9” and the chord tones would be C E G Bb D#, right?

    Reply

  7. Henry Lowe

    Much appreciated. Jazz language has always been a bit daunting for me – this helped a lot! :)

    Reply

  8. Paul Elliott

    This has answered some profound understanding I’ve needed, thanks for the work.

    Reply

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