I always believed that what was built with on logic, we don’t need to remember, because we already understand.
understanding is the ultimate learning breakthrough almost in every subject in the world.

I hope I will answer here most of the questions on reading chords names and understanding them, and with that, clearing this subject for a lot of us so we will be able to advance together to more complex subjects in our Music Journey.

most of the chords names require you to have some basic understanding in music theory, I will try to cover some basic elements here so everybody can understand this article in the best way possible even if they didn’t learn music theory.

for our subject we are going to use the classic 12 notes system that we are all familiar with: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B.
in reality there were more systems than the one we all know (the 12 note system), but system of 30 notes or 8 notes didn’t survive through time and the 12 notes system suited most of the cultures and traditions and proved effetive, today it is almost the only system most of us know.
if you are curious about them, read about it a little to expand your knowledge.

and of course we have to understand the basic Symbols that describe chords, before I show the symbols, know that: for each meaning there are more than one symbol that describe it, I will right some of them, the most used ones, and you are more than welcome to explore the subject yourselves.

Major = M / Maj / sometimes the name of the chords will be written in upper case like C Major = C
minor = m / min / – (minus) / sometimes the name of the chords will be written in lower case like C Minor = c
Diminished = dim / (sometimes you will see alittle circle for dimished chords, and a circle with a line for half dimished chords.
Augmented = aug / + (plus)
Half tone Up = #
Half tone Down = b

In order for everybody to easily follow and understand I will choose C Major Scale as the starting point, the instrument I will use to explain the examples is the PIANO, the C Major scale is built upon the notes : C D E F G A B.  (those are only the white keys, and no black keys involved)
play it, listen to the feeling it creates, it is a great opportunity to synchronize our ears to work together with understanding (the brain).

we will number the notes in a natural way: C (the first/root note of the scale) will be 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7.

of course if we choose other scale, we will start counting from the new root.

now lets involve some symbols, shall we?
remember the symbol # ? the # symbol means half tone above (on the piano “above” or “up” means moving to the right).
so when we see “C#” that means the note C and half tone above, on the piano it would be the black key to the right of the C key.
if we see “Gb” that means the note G and half tone under it, on the piano : the black key to the left of the G key.

there are so many words until now and not even one explanation about : what is a chord ?

if you don’t want to be confused by the various philosophies which defines what is a chord, you can think of a chord as : 3 notes that plays simultaneously. (sometimes more than 3 notes)
those 3 notes of course should be meaningful and contribute our creation somehow, so if you just hold 3 notes, and the they sound awful and not contributing to the creation, musician will not read it as a chord, these notes for a skillful musician will just be 3 notes that don’t contribute to the piece.

the most basic form of chord consist from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of the scale.

why exactly the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees ? couple of theories for that too…. basically they intensify and compliment each other,  one explanation is that they derived from the overtone series, and that the 3rd and 5th degrees of the scale are the closest overtones to the 1st degree (or you can call the 1st degree also the root).
the overtone series theory makes a lot of sense even in the most complicated chords and harmonies, I would recommended reading more about this subject for those who want to know more and understand music better, the overtone series is a great subject that every professional musician should get to know.

back to our subject, the 1st (root), 3rd, and 5th degrees.
so if we will try to build a chord from our C Major scale: C D E F G A B,
the 1st (root) note will be C, the 3rd note will be E, and the 5th note will be G.
the chord will contain C E G and will be a C Major chord (like the name of the scale that we build it from).

so if the scale was C Minor for example: C D Eb F G Ab Bb (notice the “b” symbols mean one half tone under, on the piano there are 3 black keys on this scale)
the 1st (root) note will be C, the 3rd note will be Eb, and the 5th note will be G.
here the chord will contain C Eb G and will be a C Minor chord (like the name of the scale that we build it from).

those are only two chords, that’s right, but from those two chords we are going to learn shortcuts, expand our knowledge, and build strong fundamentals for our future music discoveries.

if we will try to look only at the notes we will see the differences clearly:
Major = C   E   G
Minor = C   Eb G
both of them where built on the same degrees, but there is one clear difference, the 3rd degree is different between the two,
in major it is E, and in minor it is Eb, and we can already learn something very important here: the 3rd degree of the chord is very important in determining what is the quality of the chord, in other words, if its sound is Major or Minor.

if you don’t know why it is important if a chord is major or minor, or what is the effect on our creation, you probably missed this short article: https://musicdm.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/emotional-connection-chords/

examining the intervals between the notes of each chord will give us a goldmine worth of knowledge.
and with that knowledge we can make a shortcut in finding the notes of a specific chord without having to know the scale before, of course the scale is very important to know, because our melodies and our chords movements will be directly connected to them, always try to guess which scale you are in.
where were we ?…. right, intervals!
the intervals are pretty obvious but I will write them down so it will be easier for everyone to follow,
lets take the major chord: C E G,  from C to E we have 4 half tones, and from E to G we have 3 half tones, we now know that major chords are built from two intervals, the first is 4 half tones, the second is 3 half tones, now we can find any major chord on our instrument.

lets say we want to find the chord: A Major, so we start from the Root/1st degree, which in this case is A, and start using the intervals we found before, 4 half tones from A is C#, and 3 half tones from C# is E, we now have an A major chord, A C# E.

lets take the Minor chord: C Eb G,  from C to Eb we have 3 half tones, and from Eb to G we have 4 half tones, we now know that minor chords are built from two intervals, the first is 3 half tones, the second is 4 half tones, now we can find any minor chord on our instrument.
lets say we want to find the chord: G Minor, so we start from the Root/1st degree, which in this case is G, and start using the intervals we found before, 3 half tones from A is Bb, and 4 half tones from Bb is B, we now have a G minor chord, G Bb D.

you did a lot of work until now, understanding all these differences, and it is a good time to try what you learned, and making your mind and ears work faster and more accuarate with the new knowledge you have just acquired.

the best thing in all this, is that you only have to do that couple of times, until you will get used to it, and then everything will become natural so you will never need to do that again, this is the power of understanding.

until now we saw the basic form of chords, but becuase we understand in a clear way, we don’t need to learn the fundamentals again, they are strong enough to go with us to our next subject which will enrich our chords with new and fresh colors – Chords Extensions.
some call them chord tensions, some call them chord extensions, but we don’t care for their name, for us the most important parts are: what are their effect ? and how to use them ?
basically chords-tensions/extensions are colors we add to the basic chord structure/form.
for this to be easier we will use almost 2 octaves of a C Major scale and number it like we did before:

C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7, C=8, D=9, E=10, F=11, G=12, A=13.

thus C D E F G A B C D E F G A are numbered 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13.

there are couple of things that you will need to know before we continue,
tensions/extensions usually shows up as a number after the chord symbol and the chord quality (Major or Minor) like this : CM7.
scales have intervals too, and remembering those intervals of the major scale between each note will be extremely useful.
and last thing, when the quality of the chord “minor” or “Major” is presented, the chord letter, and the 7th degree gets that quality,

for example : lets take CM7, we have a basic C chord, the “M” tells us it is a Major chord, and an added tension, which in this case is the natural 7th degree of the scale, we already know that the 7th degree is the note B, thus CM7 chord is built from the notes: C E G B.

minor 7th means 7b (for those who are more curious, it is 7b because 7b is the 7th degree of the minor scale).

and now lets say we have a “Cm7” chord, we have a basic C chord, Minor quality (the 3rd degree is Eb), and an added 7, the seven here is minor, because there is “m” before the 7, it means it is 7b.
as you may notice, the minor makes the 3rd degree and the 7th degree go half tone down, in minor they will be 3b and 7b.

ok, so what happens when we don’t have the “minor” or “Major” presented?!
first we have to know what is “C“… that’s right, C is a simple basic C Major chord.
if we had a “C7” chord, that means, C major chord, but the seven will be 7b (because there is no “Major” before the “7“), in this case the Bb note, this chord will have the notes : C E G Bb.

if you don’t remember the symbols, try reading the symbols section again at the begining of this article.

now this is getting interesting, what if we wanted a Major chord with a minor 7th ?!?
if we want a C minor chord with a major 7th degree we will have to write it like that : “C Major Minor 7” or “CMm7” or “CM-7“. (some musicians use different symbols, like in jazz)

next are 9th 11th and 13th degrees,chords using those degrees usually include the 7th in them, to have this extended sound and color, and the 9th 11th and 13th will always be the natural (Major) scale, unless we have signs that tells us otherwise, like b or #.

CM9 – C Major chord plus major 7th and major 9th, C E G B D.
Cm9 – C minor chord with minor 7th and major 9th, C Eb G Bb D.
C9 – C Major chord with minor 7th and major 9th, C E G Bb D.
Cm11 – C minor chord with minor 7th and major 11th degree, C Eb G Bb F.
CM13 – C Major chord with major 7th and major 9th degree, C E G B A.

when you have an 11th chord you can include the 9th degree too, like CM11 – C Major chord with major 7th, major 9th, and major 11th, C E G B D F.
and when you see 13th chord you can include the 9th and 11th degrees too, like Cm13 – C minor chord with minor 7th, major 9th, major 11th and mjor 13th, C Eb G Bb D F A.
this will give you more density to the sound, and more tension, but sometimes more mud, which in some cases is exactly what we want.
if you prefer a cleaner and clearer sound, you can play it the way I showed in the examples before.

more examples ? sure….

Cmb9 –  C minor chord with minor 7th, and b9 degree – C Eb G Bb Db.
CM#11 – C major chord with major 7th and #11 degree – C E G B F#.
Cb#9 – C major chord with minor 7th and 9b and 9# degrees – C E G Bb Db D#. ( Jazzy sound)
Cmaj13#11 – C E G B F# A.
keep practicing, open a chord book, play the chords, listen to them, internalize the sounds, you will use them all the way up to the producer/musician you want to be.

have you noticed to the structure of the chords until now ? 1 3 5   or   1 3 5 7   or   1 3 5 7 9…. we just hold the root of the chord and just skip every second note – easy shortcut isn’t it ?… easy and extremely useful if you understand everything I wrote before.
but you will have to know that there are a lot of chords structures that don’t use this structure, like “4ths chords“, and “so what chords” and even simple inversions can change the structure of most chords. (I will not cover “4ths chords“, and “so what chords” here because it is different in nature then the basic chords and this article is long enough.)

inversions simply means moving the chord up or down or change the space between the notes by moving one/some notes of the chord up/down an octave.
try it, this also change the colors of the chord and sometime can make a muddy chord into a clear sounding one, can you take a chord progression and use different inversions until you find a spot where the music and the sound are clearer ?

two more subjects and you will have the freedom to understand almost any chord you meet.

Diminished and Augmented chords (symetric chords).

diminished chord sometimes uses 3 notes and sometimes uses 4 notes.
diminished chords are symetric so they sound a little different from most chords, using them in a creative way can add color to your chord progressions.

the 3 note diminished chord : a minor chord with a 5b degree, for example Cdim means C Eb Gb.

the 4 note diminished chord : a minor chord with a 5b degree and 7bb degree, as you remember, a minor 7th is 7b, in dimished 4 notes, it is 7bb, for example Cdim means, C Eb Gb A.

you can look at diminished chords in other way which may be easier for you, hold the root, and every note in skips of 3 half tones, C Eb Gb A, the next note is C again so there is no need to repeat it,  just 4 notes, this is why they called symetric chords, because they devide the octave to four equal parts.

augmented chord is built from 3 notes, and is a symetric chord too.
the augmented chord : a major chord with 5# degree, for example Caug means C E G#.

another way to look at augmented chords is skips of 4 half tones from the root, C E G#, next note is C again so there is no need to repeat it.

last subject : SUS and ADD chords.

SUS stands for suspended chords, and the are called like that because of their basic function, they suspend the arrival of the basic chord, and usually create a tension before moving to the basic chord structure.

there are basically two kinds of SUS chords, SUS4 and SUS2.
SUS4 means the 3rd degree of the chord is beeing replaced with the 4th degree,
SUS2 means the 3rd degree of the chord is beeing replaced with the 2nd degree.

CSUS4 = C F G.
CSUS2 = C D G.

when you see SUS with no number it is usually the 4th but not always.
try them, they are beautiful and gentle, if you want only small tension that don’t make your chord pregressions muddy but still creat movement.
play a CSUS4 then a CMaj chord, and listen to the simplicity and cleanliness.

ADD means “additional notes”, but this time without holding the 7th degree like in extended chords.
that means you hold the basic chord and add notes to it.

example: CADD9 means a C Major chord with an added 9, C E G D.

Summary :

the short way of looking at chords is: the first letter is root of the chord, the second letter is the quality of the chord and after that comes extensions, and other modifications.

I hope this article will clear most of the questions regarding chords understanding, and what surrounds chords, in a logical way.
it took me a great time to write this article and review it, to try and make it as clear as possible for you.

you can subscribe to the Blog to show appreciation and give me motivation to keep writing about more advanced and more interesting subjects.

good luck with your musical journey.

  1. codehead says:

    “SUS stands for sustained chords”…

    I think you mean “suspended chords”. In fact, I did a search to see if “sustained” was in common use—from wikipedia:

    ‘A suspended chord, or “sus chord” (sometimes wrongly thought to mean sustained chord)…’

  2. cyphersuit says:

    much appreciated! will read this carefully when i get home

  3. Bhaskar says:

    Very nicely written..I think i somewhat got how chords are made 🙂
    I will read this again later.

    I understood how the C Major chord was arrived at.

    Beyond that you mentioned ”
    the scale for C Minor as: C D Eb F G Ab Bb”

    Sorry might sound stupid..How is this scale arrived at ?

    Will read this later… bookmarked it for now
    Also why not do a similar writeup on chord progression ?

    • warrior545 says:

      Hello Bhaskar,
      thanks for the compliments,
      I see you are a curious person, “scales”, “chord progressions”… curiousity will lead you to great knowledge.

      but these subjects are beyond the goal of this article, which is giving tools to read chords,
      so I believe scales and chord progressions will be covered in other articles.

  4. Zed says:

    I came to this page from the link at homerecording and I have to admit that thanks to you I finally understand how the chords are made. Very good article. Hope other articles are in the same rank.
    Thanks again.

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