Chords or Harmony Are To Music
What Color Is To Painting
And Spices Are To Food!

The subject of chords in music contains, as with intervals, a fantastic variety of colors, sounds and shapes.
The choices range from simple 2 note structures to very common 3, 4, 5 and 6 note voicings right through to harmony, where you can say: anything goes.
It must be said that the "anything goes" part is usually not very harmonious to the listeners ear and mainly used for effect in film music, avant-guard jazz and personal composition.

Let us focus on the more common chord sounds, what they are and how to use them.
Be sure to read through my Circle of 5ths, Guide Tones, Major and Melodic Minor Scale pages. Undertanding chords is a completely natural extension of that knowledge.

How To Name Individual Chords

I wish I could say that this was a unified subject and that there was only 1 solution, but if you put 10 song writers-composers-arrangers into 1 room to discuss chord naming, you will probably get 5 different answers.
So, after 40+ years of composing & arrranging and very few complaints, here is the way I do it:


  • If the bass plays the root note (tonic): Chord name starts with that letter.
    Ex: C, Bb, A, F# etc.
  • If the bass does NOT play the root note (tonic): The bass note letter is placed after a slash (/)
    Ex: Bb/C, Fm7/Bb, F7/A, B/F# etc.
  • After the initial letter, chords are named after the notes they contain, starting with the basic 3 or 4 notes followed by the added tension(s).
    Ex: Cm, F7(#5), Bb(b5), G69(#11) D7(b9#5) etc.
  • Keep chord names as short and clear as possible, but keep in mind that keyboard and guitar players like to know what is going on around them.
    Ex: Don't just name it "C" when the horns are playing CMaj7.
  • Added tensions should be named after the place where they appear in the chord structure. I prefer to put them between brackets.
    Ex: The chord C - E - Gb - Bb should be called C7(b5) and not C7(#11).
    The chord C - E - G - B - D - F# should be called CMaj9(#11) and not CMaj9(b5).
  • There is no need (within reason) to give jazz players complicated long-winded chords, as they know (or should know) what liberties they can take.
    Ex: No need to write Bm11(b5b13), Bm7(b5) is enough.
  • Generally speaking long and complicated chord symbols should only be used if absolutely necessary. They make reading more difficult.
    It is much more convenient to give a simple version and add 1 or 2 written notes indicating added tensions.
  • It is quite possible to come up with chords that are near impossible to name. SOLUTION: write them out (make them read!).
  • Harmony & musical style are very closely connected.
    Don't make the mistake I once made as a young arranger showing off by putting 6-9-chords in a Beatles medley and then wasting half an hour of very expensive studio time attempting to make corrections.
  • Melody can often imply harmony that does NOT have to be reflected in the chord symbol. Let passing notes be passing notes.
  • Listing all possible chord name variations is beyond the scope of the following pages. Follow the basic principles and you won't go wrong.

As with intervals, chord names by themselves are not much help,
unless you learn to recognize the SOUND they make as well!

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