It’s incredibly easy to understand all chord names that you will ever encounter, whether you play guitar or a different instrument. I have a simple 5-step process to help you understand how to name any possible chord. To help you understand why chords are named the way they are, I will show you how to deconstruct a complex chord name. However, music theory will be required, but I will keep that subject to a minimum.
The simplest method to understanding chord names
You can understand all chord names by breaking them down to their core elements. The number of elements in a chord depends on the number of notes in a chord. You can have as little as 2 elements for the simplest triad chords up to 4 elements for the most complex chords.
The 5 elements to any music chord
The maximum number of elements for a chord is 4 but there are 5 possible elements or components to a chord.
Here are those 5 components:
- Root note – the actual letter denoting the tonality, e.g. A vs. Bb vs. F#.
- Triad type – Triads are 3-note chords built with the 1st, 3rd and 5th of a 7-note scale or mode. There are only 4 triad types (major, minor, augmented, diminished), but you can also have sus4, sus2 and Maj b5 (base of 7b5 chords).
- Add notes, if present – the “adds” are notes not in a triad and not the 7th which leaves 3 possible notes: 6, 9, and/or 11.
- Quality of the seventh, if present. If you have a 7th in a chord then #3 above involving “adds” does not apply because they are covered below. There are 2 main types of 7ths (major or minor) and 1 special case of a diminished 7th.
- Extended notes, if present. Extended notes are the “add” notes (6, 9, 11) from #3 when they are added to a chord that has a seventh. You may also see those notes altered: b9, #9, #11 and b13.
You either have a 7th or you don’t. So #’s 3 and 4 are mutually exclusive. If you have a 7th then the adds become extensions, and without a 7th the extensions are “add” notes.
Another view of the 5 elements to a chord name
Let’s keep it simple: the letter indicates the key, the rest of the chord name tells you the triad type and what, if any, additional notes are in the chord
Letter + triad + [add(s) or 7th] + extended notes
You’ll see “m” for minor chords, “m” and “b5” for diminished chords, “sus” for suspended chords, and “#5” for augmented chords. Major chords do not have any indicator unless there is a major 7th in the chord.
There are symbols that are used for various chord types like the triangle for major 7 chords, the superscript circle or “dim” for diminished chords, and the “+” symbol or “aug” for augmented chords. If you see “b5” in a chord without the “m” for minor, then that is a 7b5 chord with the Maj b5 chord as it’s the base chord.
Finally, you may see slash chords such as D/F# or G7/B. Those chord names are just chords with a note in the bass other than the chord root.
That’s it – done! The above descriptions are all you need to name chords. Let’s deconstruct some advanced chord names so you have examples to help you visualize the chord naming process.
Examples of “complex” chord names
Take a look at these 3 chord names and let’s deconstruct them together using the 5 step approach. I’m choosing 3 chords from C major – the scale with all-natural notes.
Fmaj9#11 (Lydian/IV chord)
- Tonality: F, the root or 1st of the chord
- Triad type: major
- Add notes: N/A because there is a 7th
- Type of 7th: major 7
- Extensions: major 2nd and augmented 4th or 9 and #11 respectively.
Chord intervals: 1-3-5-7-9-#11
You would verbalize that chord name as “F major thirteen sharp eleven”.
Dm6 add9 or Dm6/9 (Dorian/ii chord in C major)
- Tonality: D is the root of the chord
- Triad type: minor
- Add notes: major 6th and major 2nd also known as the 9th
- Type of 7th: N/A
- Extended notes: N/A
Chord intervals: 1-b3-5-6-9
Call this one “D minor 6 add 9”.
G13 (Mixolydian/V chord)
- Tonality: G, the 1st of the chord
- Triad type: major
- Add notes: N/A
- Type of 7th: minor 7th or b7
- Extensions: major 6th but it is called the 13 because of the 7th (6+7=13)
Chord intervals: 1-3-5-b7-13
Just call this one ” G thirteen”. Try deconstructing chords like B7sus b9, A#7#5b9 and C13b5#9 for yourself.
The theory behind chord names
You need to know the 4 triad types and the other 3-note chords: sus or sus4, sus2, and Maj b5. Major flat 5 is not really a chord but it is the base of all dominant 7th chords that have a diminished 5th.
The next thing to know is all of your intervals. Lastly, know how to build chords from scales. If you know your intervals, triads and how to build chords from scales then you can build and name any chord.
Check out the following articles of mine for insight into those topics:
Keep it simple, just deconstruct the chord name to see what the base chord is. If you are trying to name a chord that you “discovered”, then start stacking the chord tones in thirds to correctly name it yourself. It’s very simple – tonality, base chord type, adds if any, type of 7th if present, and type of extension(s) if present.
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