Chords: Structure vs. Function
In the previous lesson we introduced the nomenclature used to identify different chords. We met terms such as major, minor, augmented, diminished, dominant, dominant seventh, and so forth. These names are part of a system that defines the quality of chords by how various intervals of a third are built one upon another.
There is one aspect of chord naming that causes many people considerable problems. Music theory sometimes names chords according to how they are constructed - one might call this the structural approach. However, it can also name chords according to the role they play in a particular harmonic progression - one might call that the functional approach. A student of music theory should be familiar with both approaches so that you can appreciate the benefits of understanding what chords are as well as what they do.
This point is particularly important because different publishers work within different naming traditions and can use different naming styles: East Coast, West Coast, Nashville and so on.
In this lesson we are going to introduce more 'exotic' chords, show how they may be notated and how they might be used.
We discussed earlier the chord numbering of each degree of the C major scale harmonised in sevenths. Let us look at these chords again in greater detail. To hear these chords press the play button in the bar below.
|C major scale harmonised in sevenths|
The first and fourth are major seventh chords (also called 'Delta chords' or Δ chords'), the second, third and sixth are minor seventh chords, the fifth is a dominant seventh chord while the last, the seventh, is called a minor seventh flat five chord.
The harmonised natural minor scale in sevenths is shown below. To hear these chords press the play button in the bar below.
|C natural minor scale harmonised in sevenths|
The four chord types we met with the harmonisation of the major scale in sevenths occur again but in a different order.
We summarise below the seventh chords that arise from harmonising major, natural, melodic and harmonic minor scales.
|chord name||triad||seventh||abbreviation||other comments|
|dominant seventh||major||minor||Mm7||the most common type of 7th chord having the simplest name, just the number 7 added to the root letter.|
For example: C7, F7, E7 all indicate dominant 7th chords.
'major major' chord
Delta chord or Δ chord
|major||major||MM7||named with the abbreviation Ma7 or Δ|
For example: CMa7, CΔ, F#Ma7 indicate major 7th chords.
The abbreviation M7 may also be used. For example: CM7
|minor seventh||minor||minor||mm7||named with the addition of mi7 or -7 to the letter name.|
For example: Cmi7, Gmi7, Dmi7 all indicate minor 7th chords.
C-7, D-7, A-7 may also be used.
(also called 'fully diminished seventh')
|diminished||diminished||dd7||named with the small raised circle and a 7. |
For example: C°7, B°7, and D°7 all indicate a fully diminished 7th chord.
|half diminished seventh|
(also called 'minor seventh flat five' or 'Tristan chord')
|diminished||minor||dm7||the name relates them to the minor 7th, but with a lowered or flattened 5th.|
For example: Cmi7(b5), Ami7(b5) indicate half diminished chords.
Note: Sometimes half diminished is indicated by a small circle with a slash through it (ø). This symbol is more common in Roman numeral analysis than chord names.
|augmented triad, major seventh|
(also called 'augmented major seventh')
|augmented triad, minor seventh|
(also called 'augmented seventh' or 'augmented minor 7th')
|minor triad, major seventh|
minor Delta chord or -Δ chord
(also called 'minor major seventh')
|minor||major||mM7||'Delta' notation is often used for chords like this.|
C-Δ is a seventh chord with a minor third, in this case the notes C, E flat, G, B
We also summarise the degree of the scale where each type of seventh chord occurs.
| ||major scale||natural minor scale||harmonic minor scale ||melodic minor scale|
|dominant 7th.||V||VII||V||IV, V|
|I, IV||III, VI||VI|| |
|minor 7th.||II, III, VI||I, IV, V||IV||II|
|diminished 7th.|| || ||VII|| |
|half diminished 7th.|
minor 7th flat 5
|augmented major 7th|
augmented triad, major seventh
| || ||III||III|
|minor triad, major seventh|
minor Delta chord
| || ||I||I|
Dominant Seventh Chord
One area of confusion when naming or identifying seventh chords is the use of the term dominant seventh chord.
If you look at the table above summarising the degree of the scale where each type of seventh chord occurs, you will see that the dominant seventh need not lie only on the Vth degree of the scale, the degree we call the dominant. Indeed, in the natural minor scale, the dominant seventh chord lies on the VIIth degree not on the Vth degree.
The point to remember is that the dominant seventh chord is any chord formed by adding a minor seventh to a major triad. Remember too that the chord's note name is determined by its root note. So the chord G B D F is written G7 because the root note is G. G B D is a major triad and F is the minor seventh above G. This chord, therefore, is a dominant seventh chord.
In the key of C major, the notes G B D F form a seventh chord on the Vth degree, i.e. a dominant seventh on the dominant of the scale. This is also true for the C minor natural and C minor melodic scales. However, the same notes, G B D F, are a G7 chord and a dominant seventh on the fourth (IV) degree of the D melodic minor scale.
For completeness, we note finally that the notes G B D F are also a G7 chord and a dominant seventh on the seventh (VII) degree of the A natural minor scale.
Naming Seventh Chords
One useful convention for naming any seventh chord is:
root pitch letter, then chord tokens representing triad quality and seventh quality
For example, an Ab major minor 7 chord: the first term (Ab) tells us the root of the chord; the second term (major) identifies the quality of the triad that forms the lower three notes of the seventh chord; and, the third term (minor) identifies the quality of the interval of the seventh formed between the root and the seventh.
|long name examples||short or abbreviated name(s)||chord notes (root to seventh)|
|F major major 7||FM7, FMaj7, F Major 7||F A C E|
|F major minor 7||F7, also called 'dominant 7'||F A C Eb|
|F minor major 7||FmM7||F Ab C E|
|F minor minor 7||Fm7, Fmin7, F minor 7||F Ab C Eb|
|F diminished major 7||FdM7||F Ab Cb E|
|F diminished minor 7||Fø7, Fm7b5||F Ab Cb Eb|
|F augmented major 7||F+M7, FM7#5||F A C# E|
|F augmented minor 7||F+7, F7#5||F A C# Eb|
|F diminished 7||F°7, Fdim7||F Ab Cb Ebb|
While it is easier to number chords assuming that they are in root position and that the notes above the root complete a close triad or chord, in practice, musicians arrange their chords in a wide variety of ways and we must consider how these might be described. Even if the chord is in root position, whether the third or the fifth lie lower and which notes are repeated are both important to the chord's sound. The vertical order of the notes in a chord is called its 'voicing'.
We looked at this point earlier but now we want to consider how inverted chords are notated in popular music. We give some examples below which you can hear using the play bar below the score.
Note that in each line the chord is the same but progresses through a series of inversions.
On the first line the chord is C major, in root, first and second inversion.
On the second line the chord is a major seventh chord on C in root, first, second and third inversion.
It is actually not good practice to place 'ma' after a major chord. A C major chord should be written C with the ma understood; a C minor chord would be written Cmi or Cmin. This allows you to add further major intervals to a major chord as, for example, Cma7 or Cmaj7, which means a C major chord with a major 7th - the 'ma' used as a qualifier for the '7' and not for the 'C' where it is understood. Remember too that C7 is a dominant 7th chord on C.
The Roman notation we used for inverted triads may also be used to denote inverted chords. Thus, a small a after the chord name denotes a chord in root position (although this is usually omitted), a small b indicates that the chord is in first position, a small c that the chord is a second inversion, and so on.
Chord inversions can be notated also using slash notation.
From the example above you will see that inverted chords can be shown using the notation chord type, (named or numbered), then a slash /, then the name (or number) of the bass note, i.e. the note at the bottom of the played chord. This is called slash notation.
C/E indicates a C major triad with E in the bass, a first inversion triad - in Roman notation, b indicates first inversion.
Dm/A indicates a D minor triad with A in the bass, a second inversion triad - in Roman notation, c indicates second inversion.
E7/D indicates E dominant 7th chord with D in the bass, a third inversion seventh chord - in Roman notation, d indicates third inversion seventh chord.
Sometimes you might see numerals used to indicate inversion, D6 for example. This usage is borrowed from Roman numeral analysis symbols. In chord names, numbers are usually used to indicate "added tone" chords; i.e. D6 might mean D major triad with the added pitch B.
|slash chords||notation: first: named or numbered chord; second: a slash /; third: numbered or named bass note|
for example: Cmaj7/E = C major 7th with an E in the bass, in other words first inversion C major 7th chord
The whole subject of chord notation is covered more fully in lesson 30
References:Dansm's Guitar Chord Theory - Slash ChordsSlash Chords for the GuitarExploring Slash Chords for PianistsInteresting Chords for Pianists
Extended Chords (9th, 11th, 13th)
Extended Chords (9th, 11th, 13th)
We discussed extended intervals, or extensions, in an earlier lesson. How might we notate the addition of extensions to a chord?
The first point to make is that extensions of the tenth and twelve are just thirds and fifths plus an octave. The extensions of real interest are the ninth, eleventh and thirteenth. The chords are named for the extension; so, ninth chords, eleventh chords and thirteenth chords. The extensions are added to seventh chords, the quality and function of which is preserved. Thus, a dominant chord with an added ninth remains a dominant chord.
For those who find the naming of extended chords rather baffling, remember that it is assumed that ninths are added to seventh chords to produce ninth chords, that eleventh and ninths are both added to seventh chords to produce eleventh chords and that thirteenths, elevenths and ninths are all added to seventh chords to give thirteenth chords. So if one calls a chord an eleventh it is assumed that the ninth and eleventh are present and that there is a seventh chord present too.
The quality of the chord is determined by the seventh and the greatest extension names the chord. Thus, a major thirteenth chord will be a major seventh chord plus a ninth, an eleventh and a thirteenth, while a dominant ninth is a dominant seventh chord plus a ninth. However, as you will see mentioned below, thirteenth chords may have an unvoiced eleventh in order to relieve the otherwise dense harmonic texture.
There are a few practical rules about building extended chords. We list these below.
|ninth chords||major ninth is added to all possible seventh chords.|
|augmented ninth chords||Chopin used the addition of an augmented ninth to a dominant seventh in his piano music.|
We illustrate the four ninth chords on C all in root position; in order they are
major ninth (9)
minor ninth (9)
dominant ninth (9) and
minor ninth flat five (9).
Use the play bar below to listen to them.
|eleventh chords||add sharpened eleventh to major ninth and dominant ninth chords: sharp 11|
|eleventh chords||add perfect eleventh to minor ninth and minor ninth flat five chords: natural 11|
We illustrate the four eleventh chords on C all in root position; in order they are
major eleventh (11)
minor eleventh (11)
dominant eleventh (11) and
minor eleventh flat five (11).
Use the play bar below to listen to them.
|eleventh chords||if the third is missing then adding a perfect eleventh produces a 'suspended fourth' chord: sus4 or sus|
|eleventh chords||do not confuse the dominant 11th chord (which has a #11th) with the dominant 9th sus4 chord (which has a perfect 4th that can be 'voiced' one octave higher as a perfect 11th) - see graphic below|
|thirteenth chords||major thirteenth is added to the eleventh chords given above|
|thirteenth chords||if, to relieve the texture, the eleventh is missing the chord remains a 13th;|
if, however, the eleventh is present but altered, this must be shown in the name of the chord
We have collected below a number of other chords that feature in modern popular music.
|power chords||where one wants neutrality as to whether a chord is major or minor, you can leave out the third. A chord made up only of the key-note and its fifth (maybe plus octaves up or down) is called a power chord. It is written as the (letter name of the chord) together with the number 5: e.g. G5.|
|sus2 chords||if the third in a chord is changed to a second the chord feels as though it is waiting for the second to resolve back to the third. Note that there is no third. This feeling of suspension gives the chord its name, a suspended second or sus2 chord.|
[information corrected by Mark Shelton]
|sus4 chords||also called a sus chord, where the 4 is understood. If the third in a chord is changed to a fourth the chord feels as though it is waiting for the fourth to resolve back to the third. Note that there is no third. This feeling of suspension gives the chord its name, a suspended fourth or sus4 chord.|
|We have already pointed out in the table above that sometimes suspended fourth chords are mistakenly called eleventh chords.|
|Summary: a sus chord consists only of root, fifth, and the 'sus' note or notes (2 or 4) - no third or sixth.|
Notation: sus2, sus4 or just plain 'sus' if you want to give the player the choice of whether to employ 2, 4 or both.
You can think of a sus chord as a triad (major or minor) whose 3rd has been replaced by 2 or 4, or just 'no 3rd'.
Examples: Dsus2 = D E A; Dsus4 = D G A; Dsus4+2 = D E G A (these are the notes of the chord, not actual voicings).
[information taken from Classical Guitar Forum]
|if a second is added to a major or minor triad, or to a power chord, the chord is called an add2 chord. A figure 2 is added to the end of the chord name, with a slash in the case of a power chord. This chord may also be called an add9 chord - for example D+9 = D E F# A or D minor+9 = D E F A|
& diminished fifth
|the fifth is often raised (augmented) or lowered (diminished) in major triads and dominant seventh chords.|
|sixth chords||if a major sixth is added to a major or minor triad the chord is called a sixth chord. The chord name is followed by a figure 6.|
|augmented sixth chords||the German augmented 6th chord is derived from the raised subdominant chord, whereas the Swiss augmented 6th chord is derived from the raised supertonic chord. Both chords resolve to the key's dominant chord by way of the I 6-4 chord (to avoid parallel 5ths). The progression is: German aug. 6th (or Swiss aug. 6th)-»I 6-4 chord-»V chord.|
|the English augmented 6th differs from the German augmented 6th in its 'spelling'. This is why the English augmented 6th is sometimes known as the misspelled German, Swiss, Alsatian or doubly augmented fourth|
|the German augmented 6th chord is 'spelled' (1-3-5-#6), whereas the English augmented 6th chord is 'spelled' (1-3-x4-#6). The two chords are actually enharmonic because double sharp 4 (x4) and 5 are enharmonically equivalent|
|in a major key, the perfect fifth of the English augmented 6th chord is preferred when going to the I 6-4 because the approach to the 3rd of the tonic appears as an ascending minor second (for example, English aug. 6th: Ab C D# F# to I 6-4 chord, G C E G) and not an ascending augmented unison (for example, German aug. 6th: Ab C Eb F# to I 6-4 chord, G C E G). In a minor key, the equivalent note would remain unchanged (in this example: Eb of the German aug. 6th to Eb, minor third, of the i 6-4 chord)|
[thanks to Robert Winslow for his comments]
|In the Italian augmented 6th, there is no fifth (for example: F A D#); in the German 6th, the fifth is perfect (for example: F A C D#); in the French 6th, fifth is flattened (for example, F A B D#). Despite these differences the chords are functionally identical|
|Italian 'augmented' sixth chord||formed on the fourth degree of the scale and generally used in first inversion. Its root is raised creating an augmented sixth interval with the bass. Augmented sixth chords function by resolving the dissonance of the augmented sixth outward to the octave.|
|French 'augmented' sixth chord||formed on the second degree of the scale, it is a seventh chord, generally in its second inversion. Its third is raised in order to build an augmented sixth interval with the bass. (see also above)|
|German 'augmented' sixth chord||built on the fourth degree of the scale, it is a seventh chord generally used in its first inversion. Its root is raised in order to create an augmented sixth interval with the bass. (see also two above)|
|six/nine chords||when both a major sixth and a major ninth are added to a major or minor triad the chord is called a 6/9 chord. A six/nine chord is shown as the chord name followed by 6/9.|
|polychords||a polychord is one triad placed above another, often used by keyboard players where each hand plays a different triad. The standard notation is to place one chord name above a horizontal line with the second chord name below the line.|
|legend for chord names in the key of C|
|tonic or root||flattened supertonic||supertonic||minor 3||major 3||4||5||5||+||6||V7||major 7|
|octave||9||major 9|| || ||11||11|| || ||13|| || |
|chord as written|
root name plus chord tokens
|chord as named|
root name plus long description
in ascending order
|two note chord (or dyad)|
|C5, C(no3), C(omit3)||C power chord||C G|
|three note chord (or triad)|
|Cm5, Cmi5, Cmin5, Co, C dim||C minor flat 5 or C diminished||C E G|
|Cm, Cmi, Cmin||C minor triad||C E G |
|C5||C major flat 5 triad||C E G|
|C||C or C major triad||C E G|
|C+||C augmented triad||C E G|
|Csus2||C suspended 2nd chord where the third of the major triad is lowered by a tone (step). Because the third is absent, the chord is neither major nor minor.||C D G|
|Csus4, Csus||C suspended 4th chord where the third of the major triad is raised by a semi-tone (half-step). Because the third is absent, the chord is neither major nor minor.||C F G|
|four note chord|
|Cmi2, Cmin2, Cm(add2), Cmi(add2), Cmin(add2)||C minor add 2||C D E G|
|Cmi4, Cmin4, Cm(add4), Cmin(add4)||C minor add 4||C E F G|
|C2, C(add2)||C major add 2||C D E G|
|C4, C(add4)||C major add 4||C E F G|
|Cdim, Co, Co7||C diminished seventh||C E G B|
|Cm75, Cmi75, Cmin75, Cø||C half diminished seventh||C E G B|
|Cm6, Cmi6, Cmin6||C minor sixth||C E G A|
|Cm7, Cmi7, Cmin7||C minor seventh||C E G B|
|C6||C sixth||C E G A|
|C7, V7||C seventh or dominant seventh||C E G B|
|Cmaj7, CΔ||C major 7th||C E G B|
|C-maj7, C-Δ||C minor major 7th||C E G B|
|C7+, C+7||C augmented (minor) 7th||C E G B|
|Cmaj7+, C+maj7, C+Δ||C augmented major 7th||C E G B|
|five note chord|
|Cm6/9, Cmi6/9, Cmin6/9, Cm69, Cm6(add9), Cm9/6||C minor six ninth||C E G A D|
|Cm9, Cmi9, Cmin9||C minor ninth||C E G BD|
|C79||C seven flat ninth||C E G B D|
|C9||C ninth||C E G B D|
|C95||C ninth flat fifth||C E G B D|
|C79||C seven sharp ninth||C E G B D|
|Cmaj9||C major ninth||C E G B D|
|C6/7, C67, C6(add7), C7/6||C six seventh||C E G A B|
|C6/9, C69, C6(add9), C9/6||C six ninth||C E G A D|
|C79+, C+79||C seven flat nine augmented||C E G B D|
|C9+, C+9||C ninth augmented||C E G B D|
|C79+, C+79||C seven sharp ninth augmented||C E G B D|
|C9sus4, C9sus||C ninth suspended 4th||C F G B D|
|six note chord|
|Cm11, Cmi11, Cmin11||C minor eleventh||C E G B D F|
|C799||C seven flat ninth sharp ninth||C E G B D D|
|C7911||C seven flat ninth sharp eleventh||C E G B D F|
|C911||C ninth sharp eleventh||C E G B D F|
|Cmaj911||C major ninth sharp eleventh||C E G B D F|
|C799+, C+799||C seven flat ninth sharp ninth augmented||C E G B D D|
|C7911+, C+7911||C seven flat ninth sharp eleventh augmented||C E G B D F|
|seven note chord|
|Cm13, Cmi13, Cmin13||C minor thirteenth||C E G B D F A|
|C1311 9||C thirteenth sharp eleventh flat nine or C dominant thirteenth||C E G B D F A|
|C1311, C13||C thirteenth sharp eleventh or C thirteenth or C dominant thirteenth||C E G B D F A|
|Cmaj13, Cma1311||C major thirteenth sharp eleventh or C major thirteenth||C E G B D F A|
|C13sus4, C13sus||C thirteenth suspended fourth||C F G B D F A|
Added or missing notes can also by identified by writing (add, then the note, then ), writing (no, then the note, then ) or writing (omit, then the note, then ).
The bracket convention is discussed further in lesson 30 where we also introduce a number of other special chords.
Chord notation is not well standardised and you will need to recognise all notational forms, even those that we would not necessarily favour ourselves.
Reference:Chords Types for GuitaristsChords described and transposed
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