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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Reading Complicated Chord Symbols

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Reading Chord Symbols

A friend of mine was busking on his guitar one day when a Japanese tourist approached him.

“Please, play me…A jazz chord”

My friend thought for a while and played Dm11

“No, No.” said the Japanese man. “A jazz chord”

Hmmm…ok. My friend stretched out his fingers and played A7b9

“No! A jazz chord!” exclaimed the frustrated tourist

My guitarist friend thought much longer and finally tried F#Maj7#11

“No, no, no!” said the Japanese man. “Play me (and he attempted to sing):

“A Jazz Chord, to Say, I Wuv You”

….

So now that I have offended all the Asian readers of this blog, I’ll continue with my weekly dose of advice for advancing musicians. I realise I have no right to rib anyone attempting to speak a different language when my linguistic ability is so poor; I just hope that when I sound hilarious speaking in another country, I can see the funny side too.

The terrible joke above does illustrate a point though. What on earth are musicians talking about when they play these outrageous chords. Well, today Im going to break it down into some easy steps.

Triads

Its always best to start with the foundations and in this case the pillars of musical harmony are triads (or 3 note chords)

There are 4 main types:

Major
Minor
Diminished
Augmented

These are often notated with an upper case M for major (or often just the chord name on its own eg. C or Bb), a lower case m for minor, dim for diminished and aug for augmented. However, for some reason jazz musicians like to use ∆ for major, – for minor, ° for diminished and + for augmented.

Extensions

Music of the past 100 years or so has started to become harmonically sophisticated and one reason for this is the use of extensions. This basically means that a note (or notes) is added to the triad. We tend to build the chord up from its root so the extensions are additions greater than the fifth. The most common addition is the seventh.

Example: C∆7

Upper Extensions

Once the seventh is added then we continue by adding the 9th, 11th & 13th. Usually we just pick one of these and its worth noting that just because the chord symbol nows says:

C∆9

It still contains the 7th note even though it is not notated.

If you experiment with these extensions you will probably notice that some work better than others. For example:

9ths are almost exclusively beautiful and awesome
11ths are more suitable to minor seventh chords (they sound fairly terrible over major!)
13ths are great for dominant chords (I’ll come on to these later)

Alterations

The great thing about music today is that you can break the rules of conventional music theory and not be burned alive as a heretic as discussed in last week’s blog. If you decide you want to add a 9th to a chord but prefer it flat, then go ahead! If you try it sharp instead, believe it or not, it can work! In fact, Jimi Hendrix loved using #9′s in his chords. Altering a note just means choosing to raise it half a step (turning it into a sharp #) or lowering it half a step (turning it into a flat b)

The Problem with Sevenths

I said above that if we add a ninth to a chord that the seventh is still included. There are a few tricky elements when reading chords that often trip people up. If you have followed along up to this point then great, keep going, its about to get confusing.

Lets look at the chord C major. It would be noted like this:

C (or CM in some old books – please don’t notate like this anymore, it sucks!)

If we add the seventh then it becomes:

C∆7 

But what we actually have here is two separate components and knowing how to split the chord symbol up is hugely important. Its split like this:

C    ∆7    

Not:

C∆   7

This is because we have added a major (∆) seventh to an already major triad chord. If we have the chord:

C7

Then the chord is a major triad with a lowered (or minor) seventh added.

Confusing, right? The chord name on its own is presumed major (C) while the 7 on its own is presumed minor.  So the seventh added to the C chord is a Bb not a B. This is whats called a dominant seventh

Reading the chord in stages

As I suggest above, it’s important to read the chord in stages and to know what the individual symbols are referring to.

Lets look at 3 ultra scary jazz chords and break them down into their component parts:

Example 1: F#∆7#11 

This breaks down to:

F# (a major triad – F#, A#, C#)    ∆7 (A major seventh – E#)    #11 (an altered extension – B#)

Example 2: G-11

This breaks down to:

G- (a minor triad – G, Bb, D) 11 (extension added; the eleventh note of the G scale – C)

NB: Remember that the seventh note is still contained even though this is not notated. For this reason, the chord would also contain an F)

Example 3: Bb7b9b13

This breaks down to:

Bb ( a major triad – Bb, D, F) 7 (a dominant seventh – Ab) b9 (a flat 9th – Cb) b13 ( a flat 13th – Gb)

Messing with the fifth

We don’t often change the core elements of the triad notes because it changes the very nature of the chord. For obvious reasons we don’t change the root because then we alter the name of the chord. If we change the third then we effect the chords major or minor tonality and if we play around with the fifth then we start to dabble in the dark arts of diminished and augmented. There is one more chord symbol I want to mention though before I wrap this up. Its called the half diminished chord and is notated as: Ø

The reason we use this symbol and nick name it the half diminished chord is because the full chord name would be something like this:

Eb-7b5

The reason jazz musicians use these shorthand symbols is so they can be read and internalised at speed.

Summary

The 4 main triad chords are:

Major
Minor
Augmented
Diminished

Add extensions to these, then alter them. Occasionally you can change the foundations of the chord.

If you come across a chord symbol you don’t understand or if some (or all) of this post doesn’t make sense to you then please ask a question.

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