How to Read Chord Names and Symbols [Complete Guide]
Chord names may look like an indecipherable jumble of letters and numbers. But once you learn how to read chord names and chord symbols, they'll become an incredibly useful tool.
Chord names and symbols allow you to quickly play or jot down the chords to a song. They are a common language for musicians that makes it much easier to communicate with band mates, jam buddies or musician friends. So in this article, I'll show you how to learn them, explain what chord symbols stand for and explain the logic hidden in chord names.
So what’s the best way to learn chord names and symbols? I’m a big believer in the ‘experience before theory’ principle. It basically means that you should always keep this order in mind when learning theory:
1. You learn to play a bunch of things
2. You learn the labels we use to name those things
3. You learn the logic behind those labels
By sticking to this order, you make sure you’re not learning dry theoretical concepts that have no real meaning to you. For example: I could try to explain how a 'Dbmaj7#11' chord is constructed and why it sounds the way it does. But if you’ve never played that chord in your life, it'll be virtually impossible to truly understand it. It simply won’t make as much sense.
The 'experience before theory' principle applies to learning chord names as well. I highly recommend that you first learn a bunch of chords and become familiar with their names. It doesn't matter that you don't understand the logic behind those names yet. This is what the first two sections of this article are focused on. Section 1 discusses how you can learn to play the most important types chords in all keys. Section 2 will show you how to say out loud all the numbers, symbols and letters.
Next, it's also useful to learn about alternate ways of writing these chords. Section 3 provides an overview of the different ways the exact same chord can be written down, including the various chord symbols we use like circles, triangles and circles with lines through them. Lastly, section 4 discusses the logic behind chord names.
Learn the most important guitar chords
When it comes to guitar chords, I always have roughly three 'levels' in the back of my mind.
1. Open Chords
2. Barre Chords
3. Other moveable chord shapes
If you're reading this article, chances are you've been playing guitar for at least a little while. So you know a whole bunch of open chords and perhaps also a number of barre chord shapes. Of course, you can look up any chord, you want to play on the internet. And while this is great when you’re first learning to play chords, at some point you’ll simply want to be able to play them by heart.
So how do you cement all of those chords in your brain? At first glance, it might seem like a LOT of work. But once you understand the power of moving shapes up and down the fretboard, you'll see that you can learn this much faster than you might've thought. Here’s how.
1. Learn to play barre chords
Barre chords are essential to learn, because they allow you to play chords in any key. It takes a bunch of practice to master them, though it really helps if you get your technique right. Check out my guide to barre chords here.
2. Memorise all the notes on the low E string
In order to be able to play your barre chords in any key you like, you need to know all the notes on the low E string. I know many guitarists put off learning this because it seems tricky to memorise. However, it becomes much easier to learn this if you break things down. Start with just four or five of notes, ideally notes that you need to play a song you like. For example, Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix uses C, G, D, A and E. Next, do the same thing for two or three more notes, and so on...
3. Learn the most important chord shapes with the root on the low E string
When you’ve memorised the notes on the low E string, you can take a barre chord shape and move it around to play that chord in any key you like. The eight most important chord types to learn the shapes are:
- Power Chords
- Major chords
- Minor chords
- Dominant (aka seventh chords)
- Minor seventh chords
- Major seventh chords
- Half-diminished chords
- Diminished chords
Once you’ve taken these steps, you’ll have tackled over 90% of the most common chords! In short: incredibly useful knowledge to store 'in your fingertips', but it can be hard to make it stick. Nerdy teacher as I am, I developed a method to help them retain everything. After much tinkering, I could teach my students everything in a lesson or two. Pretty encouraging results, so I turned it into an online course: Guitar Chord Bootcamp. The course will help you digest, process and retain the information one chunk at a time, after which you'll test drive what you've learned in a song. The idea is that you just go through the lessons and by the end of the course you'll be able to play all the important chords forever. If this sounds like it might be for you, feel free to check out the first three lessons, they’re free.
How to Read Chord Names
This section will to teach you how to say the chord names out loud. So if you come across something like Abmaj7#11, you’ll know to say ‘A flat major seven sharp eleven’. That means that I'm keeping music theory to an absolute minimum here. (If you're interested in the logic behind chord names, scroll down to section 4.)
A chord name can be divided into two sections: a note name (i.e. a letter) and everything else.
This note name indicates the lowest note of the chord, which we call the root. This root note is always our starting point. This can be any letter from A to G, which is sometimes be followed by one of two symbols: a sharp (#) or a flat (b):
So these chords are called ‘F sharp’ and ‘B flat’. You get the idea. Here give it a try:
Major and minor
Of course a chord is more than one note. So once we have our root note, we start stacking other notes on top of this root note to build a chord with a certain mood. By choosing our 'ingredients' carefully, we can make chords that sound sweet or gloomy, tense or relaxed, happy or sad. This collection of ingredients is known as the ‘chord type’. Think of it as a recipe that tells musicians which notes they can add to a chord. The chord type is what I called 'everything else' above. Let's update that:
These chord types fall into two big buckets: major and minor. You could roughly say that major chords sound happy and minor chords sound sad and gloomy.
To tell whether a chord is major or minor, simply check if the root note is immediately followed by an ‘m’, which stands for ‘minor’. If there’s an m, you’re dealing with a minor chord. If there’s not an m, you’ll be dealing with a major chord in most cases. (There are a few exceptions that we'll discuss later in this section.) Here, try it for yourself.
When you want to say the name out loud of a major chord, it’s not necessary to say ‘major’. You can simply say the root note. So ‘Db’ is simply ‘D flat’. C# is ‘C sharp’. However ‘Bm’ is ‘B minor’ and ‘Abm’ is ‘A flat minor’. Give it a shot:
Hope that went well! The next thing you’ll come across, is a bunch of numbers like ‘6’, ‘7’, ‘b9’ or ‘#11’. For example:
Pronouncing these numbers is simple: just read them out loud. So the above chords are ‘D minor seven’, ‘B seven’ and ‘E seven sharp nine’. Try it:
There is just one exception to this rule: 5. A five indicates that we’re not dealing with a major or a minor chord, but with a power chord. So ‘G5’ is a G power chord. D5 is a D power chord.
Number and letter combinations
There are three set combinations of numbers and letters you might come across:
1. Sometimes a 7 will be preceded by the letters ‘maj’. This indicates that we’re dealing with a major seventh. So Cmaj7 is a ‘C major seven’ chord and Fmaj7#11 is an ‘F major seven sharp eleven’ chord.
2. A 9 might be preceded with ‘add’. So you might come across a ‘Cadd9’ chord or a ‘Ebmadd9’ chord. These are pronounced ‘C add nine’ and ‘E flat minor add nine’.
3. When a chord says ‘sus2’ or ‘sus4’ that means it’s not major or minor: it’s a suspended chord. Typically, we just use the shorthand names ‘sus2’ or ‘sus4’ instead of calling them ‘suspended fourth chord’. So Dsus4 is pronounced ‘Dee sus four’.
Give it a shot:
Three more chord types
We’re almost there, so hang on! There are three more chord types that you’ll come across, though they aren’t as common as most of the chords we’ve discussed so far.
Using the knowledge you’ve learned so far, you’d call this is a ‘B minor seven flat five’ chord. And you’d be 100% correct. However, it’s more commonly known as a ‘B half-diminished chord’. It’s also commonly written using the ø-symbol, a circle with a line through it. (For more on symbols, scroll down to the section on chord symbols.)
You might’ve guessed it: if there’s a half-diminished chord, there’s also a diminished chord. They’re easily recognised either through the letters ‘dim’ or a small circle (see chord symbols section). The above example is pronounced ‘C diminished’.
Lastly, there’s augmented chord. You can recognise it by the letters ‘aug’ or a small plus (see next section) right next to the root note. Pronounce it ‘C augmented’.
Alright, let’s put that to the test:
Finally, you might run into are chords like these:
These are so-called ‘slash chords’, simply because the chord names use that large slash. So what does this slash mean? These chords do not mean that you have to play both chords at the same time. The ‘/note name’ tells us that we should make this note the lowest note in the chord, instead of the root note. So in the above examples, we’re dealing with a C with a G in the bass, an A minor with a C in the bass and a G seven with a B in the bass.
Up until now, I’ve written all the chord names using characters that you can easily find on your keyboard. Those are most often used on the internet.
But you can also use symbols such as ∆ (major seven) and Ø (half-diminished). Though you won’t come across them a lot online (probably because they’re a pain to find on a keyboard), I love to use these symbols because they're simpler, shorter and cleaner. They're used all the time in lead sheets, mostly for jazz music. Here's an overview:
There are also some other options you might run into that I wouldn’t recommend because they’re confusing. For example, using ‘M7’ to indicate major seven is a recipe for disaster because it’s so similar to ‘m7’ (minor seven). But, you might run into these options, so it’s good to know about them.
The Logic Behind Chord Names
So you know how to read chord names and you know how to play them. But what do all those letters and numbers mean? What's the logic behind chord names?
In this section, we'll take a look at the 'anatomy' of chord names: what components are they made up of and how do they fit together? Before you dive in, you should know that this section requires some knowledge of music theory:
- You know about sharps and flats
- You understand what an interval is
If you know those two things, this explanation should make sense. (If not, leave comment or email me to let me know!)
Chord Name Anatomy
A chord is a bunch of notes sounding together. If you’d walk over to a piano right now and press a random bunch of keys at the same time, that would be a chord. Of course, most chords we use in music aren't made up of random notes, but are composed of carefully selected notes. We start with the lowest note in the chord: the root note. We then start stacking other notes on top of the root note to construct a chord with a certain mood. I like to think of these stacked notes as ingredients: by choosing them carefully, we can create chords with very specific 'flavours' or moods. We can make chords sound sad, happy, gloomy, sweet, tense, relaxed... In fact, we have set 'recipes' for chords known as 'chord types'.
That's what a chord name really is: it's a recipe that tells us musicians which notes we should add to a chord in order to get a certain sound. This 'recipe' is made up out of five possible components, which we’ll tackle one by one. Here's the anatomy of a chord name:
- The Root
- The Chord Quality
- Sevenths or other added notes
- A specific bass note (‘slash chords’)
1. The Root
The first letter of the chord indicates the root note: that’s the lowest note of the chord (with the exception of slash chords, as we'll see below). So even when you see something like ‘A7b9b13’, you’ll know that the lowest note of your chord will be an A.
Think of the root note as the starting point for every chord. While everything else in a chord name gives us information about the 'chord type', the root name tells us on which note to start. The chord type is a blueprint for a building, and the root note tells us where to construct that building.
Before you move on here are some questions to test yourself and make sure you understand everything so far.
2a. Chord Quality: Major and Minor
Once we have our root note, we'll add two notes to make a chord: a third and a fifth. Now, if you're familiar with intervals, you'll probably know that we have two kinds of thirds (major and minor) and two kinds of fifths (perfect and diminished). To construct our chord, we always choose one of each: one kind of third and one kind of fifth. And which intervals we choose will determine the chord quality, the second component of a chord name.
If we choose a minor third, our chord becomes a minor chord. To indicate this, we add 'm' to chord name. But if we choose a major third, our chord becomes a major chord. However, we don't add anything to a chord name to indicate this. A chord is always major, unless indicated otherwise in the chord name.
A fifth is always perfect, unless our chord name indicates otherwise (which we'll get into in a second). So using these 'rules', you should be able to deduce what kind of thirds and fifths have been used in chords such as Amaj7, Bm7 and C#. Let's give it a shot.
2b. Chord Quality: 5 Exceptions
Nine out of ten chords will consist of a major or minor third and a perfect fifth. But, of course there are exceptions, which we'll take a look at now. If you're first getting into theory like this, feel free to skip these exceptions for now by the way!
Chords with No Third: Power chords and Sus Chords
Power chords are unusual because they consist of only two notes: a root note and a perfect fifth. They don't have a third in them: not a minor third and not a major third. For that reason, power chords aren't major or minor. They're simply a power chord. Because they only consist of a root note and a perfect fifth, we write them by adding a 5 to the note name. For example: 'D5'.
Sus chords also don't have a third in them. Sus stands for 'suspended'. The reason why we use the word 'suspended' is not worth getting into (it's related to counterpoint technique), so just read it as 'the third has been replaced by a ....' So in the case of a sus2 chord, the third has been replaced by a major second. In a sus4 chord, the third has been replaced by a perfect fourth. (Note: The fifth is always perfect in sus chords.)
Chords with a Diminished Fifth: Diminished and Half-Diminished Chords
You might've already wondered what happens when we don't add a perfect fifth but a diminished fifth. Now, the diminished fifth is quite a rough sound, which is why only commonly use it in two chords: diminished chords and half-diminished chords. These chords both consist of four notes, three of which are exactly the same in both chords:
- A root note
- A minor third
- A diminished fifth
The last note we add determines whether we're dealing with a diminished chord or a half-diminished chord. When we add a minor seventh to our chord, we get a 'half-diminished' chord. We write it as 'Bm7b5' or Bø.
To get a diminished chord, we need to add a so called 'diminished seventh'. Don't worry if you've never heard of a 'diminished seventh': it's nothing more than the theoretically correct name for a major sixth interval. (It's not worth going into why this name is theoretically correct here.) We write this chord either as Cdim or with a small circle: Co.
Chords with an augmented fifth: Augmented Chords
You’ll probably run into this chord type the least, but this guide wouldn’t be complete without it. Sometimes a fifth will be 'augmented', i.e. one fret/semi-tone higher than a perfect fifth. (In other words, the theoretically correct name for an interval that's just as large as a minor sixth interval.) An augmented chord always has a major third in it. To indicate a chord has an augmented fifth we either use 'aug' or a plus sign. So Caug or C+
Alright, let’s put all that to the test. This was a lot of information to process and remember, so don't hesitate to scroll back up to find the answers.
3. Added intervals: Sixths, Sevenths and Ninths
When we have a three-note major or minor chord, we can add an extra note to it to give the chord some extra flavour and spice. There are four intervals that are regularly added to a three-note major or minor chord: major sixths, minor sevenths, major sevenths and major ninths.
We often add a major sixth either to a minor or a major chord. We don't often add a minor sixth to a three-note major or minor chord (simply because it doesn't sound all that compelling). To write it, we simply add a 6 to the chord. So, here are our options:
Some quick questions:
Major and Minor Sevenths
The ingredient we most often use to add some character to a chord is the seventh. To give a few examples:
There are two kinds of sevens: the major seven and the minor seven. We can add both of those either to a major chord or to a minor chord. So that gets us four options for when it comes to seventh chords:
So how do we indicate which type of interval we've added?
- When we add ‘7’ to the chord symbol, that means a minor seventh.
- When we add ‘maj7’ to the chord symbol, that means a major seventh.
Knowing this, we can fill in our graph:
Make sense? Let’s put that that knowledge to the test:
The last note that is often added to a three-note major or minor chord is the ninth. Like the sixth, there is only one (common) option: the major ninth. The only difference is that we use a slight different ‘label’ to add this ingredient to a major or minor chord: 'add9'.
Here are two examples:
Updating our chart:
And some rapid-fire test questions:
4. Chord Extensions
Adding sixths, sevenths and ninths makes our chords sound a lot richer. But - of course - we can create even more exotic sounds and chord flavours by adding more notes. These notes are what we call 'extensions'. Extensions have names like:
We usually add extensions to a four-note chord. This fourth note is always a minor seventh, unless indicated otherwise. So for example, a D9, Am9 and Cm11 all have a minor seventh in it.
As you might imagine, we can use these extensions to create dozens of different chord types. So instead of listing all the options here, it makes more sense to understand how chord construction works so you can start making your own combinations to see what they sound like. Here are just a few examples of chords with extensions:
Alright, let's put that to the test!
5. Slash Chords
Alright, then there's the very last component of a chord name. A slash with another note name.
We call these ‘slash chords’, just because of the slash it uses (nope, no relation to Slash the guitarist).
So what does this slash with another note name mean? Remember the root note, that note that constructing a chord all starts with? The root note is the first letter we see in the chord symbols above. The one left of the slash. Usually the root note is the lowest note in the chord, but slash chords are the exception to this rule: the second letter indicates a different note that should be the lowest.
Maybe you're thinking, why would we ever do this? Well, because it sounds cool. Using a different note than the root in the bass creates a different kind of sound. It's also used to make chord progressions sound slightly 'smoother' because it often allows for a bass line that moves up or down in small steps. For example, compare the first and second lines in this chord progression. The only difference is the G# in the bass in the third chord. Give it a listen.
Hear the difference? It's not that there's anything wrong with the first line, but the second line has a clearer direction. Here's another example:
The power of reading chord names and symbols
Chord names with all those letters, numbers and symbols may look intimidating at first glance. But hopefully this article has helped you to make sense of what's going on. Knowing how to read chord names and play them is an incredibly useful tool. It will allow you to play new songs instantly just by looking at a bunch of chords. It'll also make it much easier to communicate with other musician because it gives you a common language. If you have questions, feel free to email me at Just (at) StringKick.com or leave a comment.