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Harmony - Chords and Their Symbols Pt.1

Disclaimer - Chord symbols and music theory in general is a subject that can bring us mild mannered guitarist to fits of rage. For that exact reason, before we start, I feel I must explain a few certain points.

The notation of chord symbols varies slightly from player to player depending on what circles he runs in and where he studied. My opinions are the direct result of my experiences as a studio and session player in LA and also based on my educational experience.

Music theory is not written in stone and your ear is the final judge of what is right and wrong, there is nothing musically illegal.

Music theory is simply a guideline for what the ear generally accepts in respect to certain genres, and as these genres evolve so will chord symbols and music theory in general.

I personally believe that harmonic theory should be studied and understood so that the very same guidelines can be questioned and manipulated to ones liking. I don't think any two musicians can 100% agree on this subject so it is important to do some more research on your own and keep an open mind.

Chord Symbols

The goal of the chord symbol - The goal of the chord symbol is to simply tell the guy playing the chords exactly what you want him to play, what he is allowed to include in the chord and what he is not.

When dealing with certain genres such as Jazz, a lot of liberties can be taken with the voicings. Not so with other genres such as Pop and Rock, a C chord written in a rock chart generally means play a C chord, while the same C chord written in a Jazz tune can be enhanced with a 9th, #11th, 13th or various other extensions or combinations of extensions without much second thought.

A good working knowledge of music theory plus some experience is essential in making these decisions. The melody line will also give you clues on what to include or exclude in chord voicings.

Writing chord symbols - You don't want to confuse the guy comping either. You'll realize this the first time you have to read a chart in a dark, smoky bar or on some stage where the lighting is less than adequate (which is the majority of the time).

Chord symbols should be direct and to the point. The last chord symbol I want to read is one that I have to think about for more than a millisecond, they should be easy to read.

I'll give you one example of a chord symbol that comes up from time to time and makes me crazy: CM7. The reason I dislike it is because I have to look twice at it to make sure whether it is major or minor. Especially when written by hand, CM7 and Cm7 can look a lot alike.

The other chord symbols that get used a lot are the simple minus mark to denote a minor chord and triangle meaning major. These are widely accepted and they don't bother me but I prefer the simple, easy to read symbols: Cmaj7 and Cmin7 (or C-7).

Sometimes the symbols maj7 and min7, get replaced with the shorter versions: ma7 and mi7. These are okay too but maj7 and min7 seem the best choices to me, It's hard to confuse them on a gig.

The Real Book - The "Real Book" is the Jazz fake book that I and most musicians my age (guys in their 30s) learned Jazz standards from. Being the learning guide for so many musicians, the chord symbols used in the "Real Book" have become the standard in a way.

The one I learned most of the Jazz standards from is the 5th edition. I took a look through the other editions and noticed that they all use slightly different notation standards, for example the 2nd edition notates Cmaj7 as Cmaj7 but notates Cmin7 as Cmi7. The 5th edition of the "Real Book" generally uses the following standards to notate chord symbols:

The"Real Book" is a great source for learning all the standards. I wouldn't be here today without having discovered it 20 years ago. There are new "Real Books" available these days. The "New Real Book" is one example of a great one. It may even be better than the old "Real Book" because while the original one was an underground bootleg which paid no publishing rights to the composers, the "New Real Book" does.

A Brief History of Chord Symbols >>