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Harmony - Chords and Their Symbols Pt.1

A Brief History of Chord Symbols

How long have they been around? - Chord symbols have a image of being relatively new and are mostly associated with Jazz and other forms of popular music but they have probably been around for as long as chords themselves.

They certainly aren't associated with classical music. Chord symbols leave a lot up to the player playing the chords. A symbol like Cmaj7 means you play a Cmaj7 chord but the voicing is left up to the guy who plays it, a form of harmonic improvisation.

Classical music doesn't have the image of allowing much improvisation so chord symbols wouldn't seem to have a place in the genre but my college theory teacher taught me something very interesting about Bach and his peers. He said that back in those days sometimes composers would sometimes write charts similar to the one below. What chords would you play?

The Roman numerals are simple enough to understand, they just refer to the diatonic chords, "I" being the first chord in the key of C: C major. The next chord, the "IV"chord is referring to the fourth chord in C major, an F major chord. "V" the fifth chord in the key of, a G major chord. The numerals 6 and 4 following the Roman numeral IV refer to the inversion of the chord.

Look at the example below, our second chord in the above progression. If we take the 5th of the F chord, a C note in this example, and place it in the bass, and check the intervals from the bass, we will find that the root F is located a 4th above the bass and the 3rd, the A note, is located a 6th above the bass.

Therefore the chord symbol simply implies a F chord with the 5th, a C, in the bass. The numerals 6 and 4 simply refer to the intervals from the bass note.

We would notate it as a F/C slash chord these days, an F chord in second inversion (5th in the bass):

Let's take a look at the next chord in the progression, the V6 chord. That's right, a G chord in first inversion (3rd in the bass):

I won't go into this system of notation any farther. It's a lost art and you'll never use it unless you enroll yourself in a University that caters to classical music.

I just wanted to demonstrate that there have been plenty of ways to notate chords throughout history. Let's get into modern day harmony and chord symbols, starting with triads.


Three note chords - These chord symbols are the easiest to read and write. Nothing too confusing here. To notate a C major triad, a simple C will work fine. For a C minor chord: min as in Cmin. A diminished chord generally gets written as dim while an augmented triad gets notated as aug. Check the triads and their intervals below:

Learning triad forms - Learning all the triad shapes is important no matter what style of music you play. Don't settle for only the standard voicings, learn every shape. When you get done with the major shapes, figure out the minor, diminished and augmented ones too:

Points to remember about triads:
Triads, especially the major triad, are used often in slash chords. A slash chord is simply a chord over a specific bass note. For example, a C/E slash chord would mean a C triad played over an E bass note. Some common slash chords: C/E, C/G, C/Bb, C/D.

Sometimes the diminished triad gets notated with a small circle as in Co and the augmented triad with a plus mark as in C+.

Sus Chords >>